Reigning two-time premiers the Moree Boomerangs have withdrawn from the 2020 Group 19 season, citing the coronavirus pandemic as the reason, with it feared other rugby league clubs in the region will follow suit.
Boomerangs president Mitchell Johnson said the club had made the decision after "weighing up a number of issues and consulting their players, supporters and general community members". The decision was reached at a Boomerangs board meeting on Thursday.
Johnson said the major concerns discussed at the meeting related to the pandemic and uncertainty surrounding the entire rugby league community - from the NRL down to grassroots footy clubs.
"The board had major concerns on a number of issues, but the overriding concern was for the health, safety and wellbeing of our players, supporters and their families," he said.
He added: "Whilst the decision to withdraw from the competition was not taken lightly by the board, we stand by our decision."
If the season were launched, the Boomerangs did not want to potentially expose their supporters to a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
Another major concern was the potential for the competition to be shortened. Johnson said: "A shorter competition, let's face it, means fewer home games.
"And for clubs this means less opportunity to make money to pay club costs. Financial viability then becomes an issue."
The club said they would be back in 2021.
Group 19 chairman Terry Carson warned: "Look, I certainly don't think they will be the last club, either ... you don't know where anybody's at at this stage.
"We don't even know if we'll [Group 19] get on the field, is a big thing too."
Despite his sombre tone, Carson said most clubs had exhibited a "pretty positive attitude" when dealing with him. "But, obviously, no one really knows where they're at at this stage. Obviously the big thing is the financial liability."
Carson said a lot of clubs were sponsored by a pub or a club. Registered and licensed clubs, as well as licensed premises in hotels and pubs, are currently barred from opening.
Those footy clubs "were in trouble" if that sponsorship well dried up, he said, adding that every rugby league Group and every sport were facing the same challenges. "Uncertainty is the big thing," he said.
Group 4 chairman Ray McCoy was more upbeat, saying: "All the clubs have confirmed they are all positive and ready to go when we get the green light."