Newcastle Rugby League CEO Matt Harris has his fingers crossed 2021 goes a lot smoother than the past 12 months.
Like most sports throughout the world, the code was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
However, through a mix of good luck and hard work, the competition known as the Real NRL still managed to make its way onto the field, although in slightly unusual circumstances.
And, in a late-season showdown, the Cessnock Goannas upstaged the South Newcastle Lions to claim premiership glory in one of the toughest years on record.
“It was very challenging,” Harris said.
“But, it was for everyone, whether it was in sport or life in general.
“The shining light for us, I guess, is that we got a comp out – and a pretty competitive one at that.
“When it was all over, relief was the word which definitely sprang to mind.”
Not even Harris could have envisaged what was to come before a ball was kicked in anger.
“Leading into the season, there was a real unknown about everything, due to COVID-19,” he said.
“Firstly, whether we’d have the chance to play; and, secondly, what the standard would be like.
“When we realised we’d get a comp off the ground, we knew it’d be amateur.
“Then there was a lot of unknowns about the player depth and talent available.
“Luckily, pretty early on, we saw that it was significantly higher than we expected.
“And, I agree with what Todd Edwards (Cessnock coach) said in a previous story, the top four sides – the Goannas, South Newcastle, Wyong and Wests – would have challenged for the title any year.
“We looked at the under-19s as well.
“That ended up being really strong because quite a few young players came back from the [Newcastle] Knights and other NRL systems due to Jersey Flegg and SG Ball not going ahead.
“I think, in hindsight, the failure of some of the major comps to come to fruition benefitted our competition.”
Even with all the uncertainty, at various times of the season, Harris admitted there were many positives to emerge from 2020.
“It had a different feel to it,” he said.
“I believe it was more about just playing and representing your club – everyone seemed to enjoy the game again.
“The year was also void of a few of the other issues we have from season-to-season, such as player transfers, who gets what money, the breaking of contracts etc.
“It was an opportunity for people to play with their mates; or with a club they might not normally get a chance to play for, too.
“These were definitely some of the good things from 2020.
“But, look, it was still a challenge.
“Every week we didn’t know what we’d have to change to get the matches underway.
“We learnt quickly we needed to have a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and Plan D, depending on what way COVID-19 sent us.
“For example, Wyong came in after our first round – that caused an upheaval.
“A Muswellbrook side entered the under-19s; we redid the draw however it altered again.
“Then there was the coronavirus outbreak, which created the regional boundaries you couldn’t cross.
“Even up to the last week, we received permission to have bigger crowds at major venues, but there were hurdles the day before.
“Everything evolved by the minute.
“However, I think everyone was pretty chuffed we all worked together to make it happen.”
Harris appears somewhat thankful it could be “business as usual” for the Real NRL in 2021.
Ten clubs – Central Newcastle, Cessnock, Kurri Kurri, Lakes United, Macquarie, Maitland, South Newcastle, Western Suburbs, Wyong and The Entrance – will vie for the crown.
“Obviously, there’s still a few unknowns about COVID-19,” he said.
“But, all indicators are we’ll be pretty close to a regular season.
“Any restrictions that are there will be minimal; your QR code entry-type stuff.
“I really don’t think crowd limitations is going to be an issue.
“Thankfully, the ability for clubs to generate some revenue and pay players is there.
“This year’s also got the inclusion of a couple of Central Coast sides – Wyong and The Entrance.
“They’re strong teams so it will make a difference.
“We saw Wyong, in 2020, claim the minor premiership and reach the grand final qualifier.
“The Entrance is another powerhouse.
“So, they’ll both come in as potential top five outfits.
“And, they’ll certainly test our better sides.
“Without a doubt, that’s good for the standard of the comp.”
The addition of Wyong and The Entrance to the fold couldn’t have come at a better time for the Real NRL, according to Harris.
“There’s been discussions for a number of seasons on how we grow the competition from eight teams,” he said.
“Until now, we hadn’t seen the opportunity to do that within our boundaries.
“Unfortunately, in the short term, Nelson Bay is not in a position to field a first grade line-up – it’s an area we’d like to keep an eye on.
“So, where do those extra one or two sides come from?
“The talk surrounding Newcastle and the Central Coast merging or combining competitions has been around for three decades.
“In fact, it was around when I played [on the Central Coast].
“It makes a lot of sense however, whether it be politics or self-interest, it’s always struck a hurdle.
“I think the merger of the CRL (Country Rugby League) and NSWRL, plus having Wyong back in last year, probably knocked down some of those barriers and made it possible for it to get across the line.
“It adds interest and certainly it’s a shot in the arm for the comp, which I believe we needed.
“Logistic issues aside, the bottom line is it creates more interest, more exposure and allows us to host an 18-round format where everyone plays each other twice.
“That’s a much fairer system.
“The pre-season is hectic and frustrating, with draws and registrations, but we’re looking forward to the kick-off.”