Bengalla Hunter Valley Group 21 Rugby League clubs Merriwa and Murrurundi turn their attention to 2021 season

Murrurundi president Marty Wilson
Murrurundi president Marty Wilson

RUGBY league isn't exactly a "religion" in small country towns these days but it's as close as it gets.

Every weekend, instead of converging on church, a dedicated throng of supporters - and volunteers - put their faith into their "local" teams to lift their spirits, no matter what division or grade they represent.

Unfortunately, that resolve is expected to be tested somewhat, especially in the townships of Merriwa and Murrurundi, after Bengalla Hunter Valley Group 21 aborted plans recently to host its competitions in 2020.

Clubs voted to sit out this season, due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic; as well as the strict guidelines placed upon the code's resumption to the playing paddock.

And, while the cheers and applause for the Magpies and Mavericks/Mavettes respectively will subside this year, it's not all doom and gloom for two of the region's smaller organisations.

"We'd love to be out there," Merriwa president Ben Robins said.

"However, everyone's in the same boat.

"It's just unfortunate for us, especially after winning the reserve grade crown in 2019.

"That triumph coincided with the Magpies' premiership success two decades earlier.

"Back then, Merriwa won three consecutive titles (1999, 2000 and 2001).

"We wore a replica of the 1999 jumper last season; and were planning to do it again (with the 2000 strip) this year.

"Everyone was pretty keen."

Robins admitted COVID-19 had not affected the Magpies too much.

"As a club, we're in a good situation," he said.

"Our sponsors are great, and very understanding, so there's no pressure on us [to get back on the field].

"But, at the moment, it's just not viable to play in 2020.

"This season's sponsorships will roll over into next year.

"That's one of the advantages of being a 'community club'.

"We are there for each other.

"In the meantime, because we're allowed extra privileges as a sport, we're hoping to at least train within the next couple of weeks.

"It will be a terrific opportunity to all get together.

"Everyone's missed the social aspect, which is what club footy's all about."

Merriwa Magpies president Ben Robins.

Merriwa Magpies president Ben Robins.

Robins is confident the Magpies will return "bigger and better" in 2021.

"We are in a fantastic position and, thanks to the support of our players, sponsors, committee and local community, we're not at any risk of failing to bounce back," he explained.

"Our sheds have been refurbished and the canteen is being fully-remodelled, too.

"We worked closely with the junior league [members] to design the plans.

"So, it's a major boost for us - and the town, especially during COVID-19.

"All of that work was brought forward.

"It will look really nice when it's finished."

Robins' Murrurundi counterpart Marty Wilson said his club would concentrate on the positives, instead of the negatives.

"Of course, we were disappointed with the decision [not to play] because league means a lot to this town," he stated.

"People love coming down to the ground to watch the footy.

"We had about 40 sponsors behind us; and a pretty strong playing roster.

"However, under the current circumstances, we can understand why some clubs chose to veto 2020.

"Without crowds and canteen takings, it makes life hard.

"Luckily, we'll retain the same coaching staff and focus on 2021.

"Our head coach Nathanael Slater is eager to stay on.

"Next season will come around quickly."