AFTER six weeks of the Group Three Rugby League season Old Bar sits in last place and still without a win.
Taree City is second last, with two victories. But the Bulls have suffered heavy losses in the past two games against Wingham and Port City and will need a dramatic form reversal this weekend against Macleay Valley at Kempsey if they are going to change this trend.
Old Bar sits third in reserve grade while the club's 18.5s remain unbeaten. Taree City's reserves are seventh while the club doesn't field an under 18.5s. Both clubs are out of the top five in women's league tag.
Presidents from both clubs, Michael Clarke (Taree City) and Jamie Moorehead (Old Bar) believe now is the time to start talking about a merger. The Bulls and the Pirates were powerhouses in Group Three Rugby League at the turn of the century. However, the last decade has been a struggle for both.
Taree hasn't played in a first grade grand final since the club's record breaking year in 2007 when the Bulls won all three grades. This was before league tag was introduced to Group Three.
The Pirates qualified for a grand final in 2013 but otherwise have battled to be competitive.
Mr Clarke and Mr Moorehead spoke informally about a possible merger earlier in the season. However, both agree it's time to talk officially, Mr Clarke describing the amalgamation as 'inevitable.'
Officials from both clubs will meet next week to start negotiations concerning a merger.
Mr Clarke and Mr Moorehead agree there would be opposition to the move from some supporters. The Pirates will discuss the matter at a committee meeting this week, Mr Moorehead said.
Mr Clarke said he has spoken to some members of his committee about an amalgamation, but it has yet to be raised officially. Mr Moorehead and Mr Clarke are united in saying if there is support for the move then work has to begin immediately.
The new venture's name and playing strip along with playing and training arrangements would be among a plethora of matters that would have to be determined.
Worth a discussion
OLD Bar Pirates Rugby League Club's committee will discuss the possible merger with Taree City this week.
Club president Jamie Moorehead said he has had informal talks with Taree City president Michael Clarke on the matter.
"It merits a discussion,'' Mr Moorehead said of an amalgamation.
He said at the moment both clubs are chasing the same players and the same sponsors. He added that while Old Bar is unbeaten in the under 18.5 grade this year and the junior club has an under 16s, the next oldest age group is under 12s.
Mr Moorehead said relations between the Pirates and Bulls remain amicable.
"I know in the early 2000s when they were the two top clubs in the group there was a fierce rivalry,'' he said.
"But that's changed now - there's still rivalry, but it's more about bragging rights these days. I'd say the majority of players from both clubs would have been in the same side at various times in their junior days.''
However, Mr Moorehead said he would want input from the wider community before a decision is made.
"We'd need to speak to our players, our committee, our sponsors, our junior league club and our life members,'' he said.
"And I think the group should also be involved and the Country Rugby League. There are protocols that have to be followed to set up a new club.''
The Pirates have been an important part of the Old Bar community for nearly 30 years and Mr Moorehead expects there would be some opposition. However, he added the final decision would have to be made purely on rugby league terms and not emotion.
"The new club would need to have a new identity,'' he added.
"I don't think 'Bulls' or 'Pirates' could be included.''
Given the amount of background work that would need to be done, Mr Moorehead said 2021 might be a more realistic time frame to launch the new entity, providing both clubs agree.
"That would certainly give us more time,'' he said.
However, he wonders if either club would be able to operate next year, knowing it was going to be the last. Mr Moorehead said there could also be a radical change to either club's executive before 2021, with new committee members not supporting a merger.
Mr Moorehead agreed with Mr Clarke that if the merger goes ahead every effort should be made to sign a high profile player-coach for the maiden season. While both first grade teams are struggling, Mr Moorehead said there's enough talented young players in both clubs to ensure a merged side would be highly competitive.
He added if the new club has a successful first year in all grades any misgivings about the merger would quickly be forgotten.
Not a knee-jerk reaction
"THIS isn't a knee-jerk reaction to the results in first grade from the last two games," assures Taree City president Michael Clarke.
He is referring to Taree's two heavy losses to Wingham and Port City in the Group Three rugby league competition.
Taree City and Old Bar Pirates clubs will meet next week to start negotiations concerning a possible merger. The amalgamation could happen as soon as next year, although Mr Clarke thinks 2021 might be the better option. Mr Clarke and Old Bar president Jamie Moorehead have had an initial conversation on the matter.
Both sides are struggling in the first grade competition this year while the Bulls don't have an under 18.5s. Taree City hasn't won a first grade premiership since 2007 or appeared in a grand final since that season. Old Bar's last premiership was in 1999 with the club's most recent grand final appearance being in 2013.
Mr Clarke believes an amalgamation is 'inevitable.' He said the club remains confident the first grade will make the final five this year. However, Mr Clarke said the club has to be realistic about the future.
He said the lack of job opportunities in the area coupled with the loss of young players to the city for work or higher education is taking a toll on both clubs.
Mr Clarke said at one point earlier this year it appeared the Bulls would only have a first grade side and women's league tag until Shane Glass was signed as reserve grade coach.
"And it's not just a problem here - it's right through the Country Rugby League,'' he said.
However, Mr Clarke added there are a number of matters that need attention before the clubs can agree to merger.
"We can't just say we're going to start a new rugby league club,'' he said. "We have to speak to our players, supporters and sponsors. At the moment the discussion has been limited to just a few senior officials in our club, while I've also spoken to Jamie.''
Mr Clarke warned against rushing into a merger without all the due processes being in place. "We need to start now and not leave it to the end of the season. We might be able to get things in place before next year, but possibly we might have to wait until 2021 to make sure we have everything covered,'' he added.
Mr Clarke said securing a high profile captain-coach would be one of the priorities for the joint venture club. He pointed to the success Wingham has enjoyed this year since signing Michael Sullivan as coach. Sullivan, a Wingham junior, played in the NRL before heading to Orange CYMS, where he enjoyed a highly successful nine year stint as a player-coach. Wingham now sits in third place on the ladder.
However, Mr Clarke added this is a conversation for the future. The immediate concern is for the clubs to start a positive dialogue.