COUNTRY footy is a resilient beast.
The more remote the location, the more important it is to keep the wolves from the door and protect those who play, watch and administer football-netball clubs a world away from the latest player trade beat-up, rule change meltdown or goal-line technology hissy fit.
But, the grassroots game is on life support as it becomes increasingly harder to find bodies to pull on jumpers each weekend.
A state of the region report prepared by AFL North-East Border has confirmed the same challenges exist from Urana to Tumbarumba.
Even the biggest league supported by the biggest population bases _ the Ovens and Murray _ is not immune.
Beyond dispute is the numbers playing the game simply aren’t there as desperate clubs resort to needing younger players to double up for matches on a more frequent basis and push permit conditions to the limit to dodge forfeits.
According to the AFLNEB report, the Upper Murray, founded 125 years ago, and the Corowa Cluster are the areas feeling the pinch most.
The Upper Murray under-16s competition has disbanded with 12 players from the age group this year playing for a club in Wagga each weekend.
The under-13s are headed down the same path with an average of nine to 10 boys and girls taking the field most weekends.
At the other end of the age scale, reserves have teams have players aged 50-plus still pulling on the boots.
Bullioh wants out to join the Tallangatta and District league where one of its most successful clubs, Mitta United, doesn’t have under-14s and two weeks ago was forced to forfeit its reserves.
Bullioh president Scott Curphey confirmed the club was reading the play.
“Over the last two years reserves footballers have become very hard to come by,” he said.
“We are just making sure we’ve got all our options covered if things were to fall over.
“Things are only just being spoken about and in the very early stages.
“But we’re trying to be pro-active.”
Dederang-Mount Beauty is fighting back from a near-death experience and Wodonga Saints can’t field an under-17 team even though they are in the biggest population base.
The Corowa Cluster is also a huge worry.
Corowa-Rutherglen, Wahgunyah, CDHBU and Billabong Crows are all out of finals contention at senior level with only Rutherglen a mathematical chance of sneaking into the TDFL finals with two rounds to play this season.
But the underlying issue is player numbers and a lack of them.
Former Roos board member and Federation councillor Fred Longmire said the situation had reached a tipping point and urged immediate intervention.
“Things are in a worse state than they were only 12 months ago,” he said.
“In past years at least one club would be up and about at this time, but from what I’m seeing the wheels are falling off everywhere.
“There is nothing to be gained from pointing the finger and dwelling on things that happened 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago.
“It doesn’t achieve anything, but there is still an opportunity to salvage something with the right mindset.
“The elite end of the game will be fine so the priority must be ensuring juniors have a place to play locally at both major and district league level.”
After being central to merger talks 12 months ago, CDHBU hasn’t fielded an under-14 team this season and its under-17 team hasn’t won a match.
Junior players doubling up in matches to avoid forfeits is prevalent in all leagues, but more commonplace in low population areas.
In the Corowa Cluster alone more than 20 double ups are happening some weekends.
Merger talks are being encouraged, but are breaking down at critical stages for reasons only those involved truly know.
Terry Burgess also has first-hand experience of the problems gripping the game.
He is into his fourth decade as a player and coach and is deeply concerned.
Recent stints coaching TDFL perennial battler Wodonga Saints and Corowa-Rutherglen, which didn’t win a match in his two seasons at the helm, have given him a front row seat to the issues.
He said unless an appetite for major change emerged there would be carnage.
“There can only be two things that can fix things, participation numbers go up or clubs go down,” he said.
“Unless clubs have got adequate numbers and adequate juniors coming on they are simply not going to be sustainable into the future.
“Also, if you haven’t got a town that is vibrant, growing and got some sort of industry you are up against it.”
Burgess is co-coaching his original club Myrtleford which hasn’t been able to field an under-18 team this season.
Last weekend the Saints had to rely on four Yarrawonga players agreeing to play for them just so the reserves match could go ahead.
He said committee people were close to breaking point.
“It’s nearly to a level where it burns people out in a two-year period,” he said.
Burgess said in many instances football had slipped in a person’s list of priorities behind work, family and lifestyle.
“It is why people aren’t going to watch the game let alone playing it,” he said.
“Unless you’ve got an attractive game or a player you want to watch, you are going to go and do something else.”
Someone familiar with the issues gripping community football is Terry Dillon.
He runs a company which re-boots community clubs and competitions which have stumbled on hard times.
He was hired by the Ovens and Murray league two years ago to carry out a review and is back doing some follow-up work with clubs including the Saints.
“Without question there is pressure on a lot of community sports and AFL is no different,” he said.
“I always talk about a road map to running a successful club.
“Whether you are at the highest level or lowest level they are the same fundamentals.
“It all comes down to getting the right people in the right spots and that is the key point I focus on.
“There is definitely light at the end of the tunnel if clubs get that clear direction they need.”
- Receive our daily newsletter straight to your inbox each morning from The Border Mail. Sign up here