Central West will still make the trek to Tamworth for this year's Caldwell Cup and there is no concern over the competition's viability, NSW Country Rugby Union president Barry Ruddy said, after confirming Newcastle-Hunter's withdrawal from the senior men's top tier.
Newcastle-Hunter Rugby Union (NHRU) president Bill Clifton revealed the move last Wednesday evening, citing cost, a lack of a genuine pathway and a hesitancy to release the region's best players for representative duties as the main reasons behind the decision.
It will be the first time in the championships' 66-year history the Novocastrians won't compete in the senior men's competition, with Clifton also saying NHRU believes NSW Country hasn't been aggressive enough in commercialising the championships, and is hopeful this could be the catalyst for change.
We'll proceed as usual because there's no issues with any other zones, they've all indicated they will still attend.NSW Country Rugby Union president Barry Ruddy
Ruddy admitted NRHU's decision to boycott, or "press the pause button" as he put it, is a disappointing one considering their status as a perennial powerhouse, but with the remaining zones all locked in he went to say "it's full steam ahead" regardless.
"It's no secret Newcastle-Hunter have been looking at different options and pathways and part of that, this year, is making the call to sit out of the Caldwell Cup," Ruddy said.
"It is disappointing because I don't think they've ever been relegated from the Caldwell Cup and we want all our zones to participate but ... things have changed, zones have different priorities and there's a lot of other different factors, so we do need to be flexible about how we allow zones to be fluid sometimes.
"We'll proceed as usual because there's no issues with any other zones, they've all indicated they will still attend (and) I'm hopeful Newcastle-Hunter will eventually see the value in sending a side and be back bigger and better next year."
As last year's grand finalists Illawarra and Central West were already locked into the top tier again as the highest seeds, while Central Coast earned promotion by winning the Richardson Shield in 2018.
With Newcastle-Hunter's withdrawal Mid North Coast, slated for relegation after last year's tournament in Warren, will remain in the Caldwell Cup.
READ MORE: Bulldogs scrape past gallant Cowra Eagles
Western Plains, Far North Coast, New England and Central North will contest the second tier Richardson Shield, the two latter sides re-emerging after combining to form the Northern Bushrangers last year.
NHRU actually considered withdrawing their colts side from the Rowlands Cup too despite being defending champions however changed tact after consultation with and financial input from their junior association, while the steadfast under-19 pathway was a consideration too.
Ruddy said Newcastle-Hunter's women's side is also still expected to front at Tamworth, a promising sign considering Clifton also left the door open for a senior men's return in 2020 if the commercial side of things is improved.
"It's still good their colts and women's sides will be there," Ruddy said.
"On the women, three years ago we had sort of nothing there and now it looks like we'll virtually every zone at Tamworth this year which is just outstanding. Central North and New England might combine, but we're flexible with that while we grow the women's game."
Of course NRHU's decision will also impact the NSW Country Cockatoos as well, although the majority of the squad from last year's third finish made themselves unavailable for selection anyway.
"There's a lot of players that still want to be involved though but you need to be at the Country Championships to be eligible for Cockatoos selection," Ruddy said.
"They can't just parachute into other zones so there is a fair bit of that we need to work out, we're sorting through that now."