COACH Scott Coleman is confident the Hunter Wildfires can be a genuine force in the Shute Shield next season but believes the true worth of playing in the Sydney competition will come to fruition in three years.
The Newcastle and Hunter Rugby Union (NHRU) on Tuesday committed to fielding two senior grades, a colts and a women's side in the premier club competition in Australia at least until the end of 2022.
A late inclusion in a COVID-stalled 2020 Shute Shield, the Wildfires finished 11th of 13, despite a three-week preparation and limited resources.
"Next year, with the benefit of a full pre-season and recruitment plan, qualifying for the finals is the goal. If not, then on the cusp of qualifying. We want to be definitely in the finals by the end of year two and looking to have a crack at the title in year three."
The NHRU premier competition, after consultation with the clubs, was canned this year due to the impact of COVID-19.
A number of players joined the Wildfires, allowing them to add a second-grade side for the July 19 kick-off.
Next season in the NHRU. only the top two grades will be compulsory.
The Wildfires attracted 11 players from outside the region last season. Many of them have committed to staying and Coleman intends to recruit another 15 to 20.
"We have to recruit a certain amount of players from outside the area so that the player drain on local clubs isn't too big," Coleman said.
"With each year, the need to recruit diminishes as our young players develop and others come back to the area.
"For next season, we are looking to strengthen our tight five, bring in some game managers and a bit of x-factor. We are looking at bringing in 15 to 20 to the program, whether they all play in the top two grades or feed back to local clubs.
"Our biggest asset, apart from Newcastle being a beautiful city, is the cost of living compared to Sydney. Now with a three-year licence, we can attract players to come here and get a career job.
"We are hoping that this is the jewel in the crown and country kids will come here to play in the local premier competition and push their claims to have a crack at Shute Shield."
The aim, as well as compete for trophies, is to provide a platform for the region's best players to experience top-level rugby without having to relocate to Sydney.
"This is a long-term project and is about seeking generational change for rugby in the Hunter," NHRU president Bill Clifton said. "The junior Wildfires rep program will be linked to the senior Wildfires rep program to ensure there is a pathway. It won't be a quick fix. This is a sustained long-term commitment."
The Newcastle Wildfires previously played as a club in the Shute Shield from 1995 to 1999.
This time, although the Wildfires will have their own governance and be self sufficient, they will operate as a representative program.
Framework will be designed, most likely in the form of a draft, to align new players to the region with a local club. There will also be measures to ensure local clubs aren't hurt financially.
"We have been consulting and collaborating with the local clubs," Clifton said.
"We have a lot more to do but that can be done in parallel as Scott prepares the team for the football.
"We will form a working party that will look at a deed of co-existence that allows the Wildfires and clubs to co-exists. We will put in some rules around players moving from clubs to the Wildfires so we don't disrupt the clubs.
"We have the support of Hunter Junior Rugby, the referees and the Hawthorne Club."
Howard Davies, who raised sponsorship to cover this season's program, is in advanced talks with a potential naming rights sponsor and a number of other commercial partners.