Ross McDermott can remember a time when Macquarie had dozens of players under the age of 18 taking part in the club's pre-season program.
It got to a point where he and then coach Greg Edwards had to sit a handful of players down and tell them they wouldn't be able to play that season due to the sheer numbers in the club.
Out at Nyngan, Trevor Waterhouse looks back fondly at an under 11s team which stormed to the Dubbo and District Junior Rugby League title and seemed destined to carry that form through to the top of the club.
There are stories like that littered throughout the eight Group 11 clubs but these days things are different.
Raiders president McDermott and board members have been forced to go into various schools around Dubbo themselves and try and attract players as just nine juniors had registered and turned up to train two months out from the 2019 season.
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Waterhouse and the Nyngan Tigers board have also been putting in the hard yards to boost numbers. The players from that under 11s side should be in their final year of the 18s now but at training during the past week only one member of that squad was at Larkin Oval.
At Narromine, Jets president Archie Harding admits it's a constant battle each season in the under 18s while Westside has worked tirelessly to strengthen the bond with the Dubbo City Magpies junior club to ensure it's long-term survival.
Every club in Group 11 is in a different position when it comes to under 18s but but a representative from each told the Daily Liberal the same thing - something needs to be done as numbers are declining.
It's not even a new message and it's not something that is just an issue in rugby league.
Mick Fraser, chairman at Dubbo CYMS, says his club relies "massively" on a St John's junior club which has the best numbers in the region.
He's also someone who has been heavily involved in cricket in the past and knows that sport struggles with the same problem and while Parkes Spacemen president Joe Spicer considers his club's under 18s situation as "healthy", he says the same can't be said for AFL and rugby union in his town.
That being said, many within Group 11 feel it is quickly approaching a critical point in rugby league.
THE CURRENT PROBLEM
The battle to attract under 18s players is such a problem currently it is going to be a major point of discussion at Sunday's Group 11 general meeting.
Representative from all clubs will give an update of their situation and Group 11 secretary Paul Loxley confessed it could lead to some major decisions, if not this year then in the near future.
Loxley and the Group 11 committee has already flagged the issue with Country Rugby League's manager - Western Region, Peter Clarke.
Currently the Group 11 constitution states it is mandatory for each of the eight clubs to field and under 18s side in order to register for the competition, but that could change.
"There is a clause in the constitution where things can be changed if they're in the best interest of the game," Loxley said, admitting there could be a day where not every club features a junior side.
"It will be either that or it will go to a Tens competition. I'd like to see all clubs field a team but if we can't do that then we've got to do whatever we can to ensure the maximum number of people are participating."
The NRL isn't oblivious to the worrying numbers.
While statistics released after the 2018 season showed player numbers in NSW passed 100,000 for the first time, one area of the game which did not experience growth was the 13-18-year-old boys group.
"We still have a challenge in terms of growing the game for young men between 13 and 18 years old and we are working on that," ARLC chairman Peter Beattie said at the time.
"We are losing people in that age group, we need to continue to get them."
Among the options listed then as potential initiatives to trial were the introduction of weighted competitions and expanding age-groups from 12 months to 18 months.
Some initiatives are already being used in Group 11, with some of the smaller centres allowed a certain number of overage players to boost the under 18s.
"Without that under 19s rule that allows us a couple of players overage we wouldn't have got in," Nyngan's Waterhouse said.
"Last year we struggled but we got kids from Bourke, Warren, Brewarrina, Trangie and I can't see it getting better."
Westside is another club which may rely on players from towns outside of Dubbo in 2019, while Narromine is also attracting players from elsewhere to line up in Jets colours.
WHAT'S THE CAUSE?
For Macquarie and Narromine, The reason behind the struggle for under 18s players this year stems from the fact the two clubs failed to field an under 16s side in the Dubbo and District Junior Rugby League last season.
That meant there was no juniors filtering up through the grades for season 2019.
That was a new situation for Macquarie, so often a powerhouse of junior rugby league talent in the past.
The Raiders will have an under 16s side again in 2019 and that bodes well for the future, but a town like Narromine is all too used to not having junior sides in certain age groups.
Centres like Narromine and Nyngan, despite the Tigers' strong lower-age numbers, are unique as they are smaller towns that lose a number of kids each year to boarding school and employment away from the region each and every year.
A veteran of junior rugby league administrator like Waterhouse has seen it all before many times.
"They get to a certain age out here and they start hunting pigs, chasing girls, and picking up bad habits," he joked.
Waterhouse, Harding and also Wellington Cowboys president Darren Ah See confessed a struggle for younger players is just part in parcel of being a smaller town in the Group 11 competition.
But the battle is getting more difficult and another reason for that discussed by many within the game is the sheer amount of options teenagers have in their life now.
As well as various other sports on offer there is the rise in technology while there is a shift to more young people working on weekends.
Another problem highlighted by Ah See was the current tarnished reputation of rugby league.
The NRL has been rocked by numerous scandals in recent years and Ah See isn't the first to say that could affect the decision making process of parents.
"Kids are redirected for whatever reason but it does come down to the image," he said.
"There needs to be promotion and people like the NRL, NSWRL, and CRL have to put in to try and encourage kids to play the game."
The CRL's Peter Clarke has no doubt each club will field a junior side in 2018, something that is near-certain to be the case.
But many people in the region still want more NRL and CRL involvement, and while Clarke is also keen for that he stated a need for caution with eight weeks still remaining before the opening round.
"Until the season kicks off this is all a little premature," he said of the concerns, before speaking about more potential involvement from the governing body.
"More mentors and assistance we can have in helping clubs and coaches is better for the game and communities."
That is coming too, with the NRL set to roll out a number of coaching development programs and framework initiatives for clubs in the coming years.
That's good news for the likes of Macquarie president McDermott and under 18s coach Tony Wilson, people who know they'll have a side playing this season.
But that hasn't stopped them from speaking out. They don't want to have this battle each and every year.
"It happens to every club in cycles and we're not saying just because it's happened to Macquarie it's an issue for everyone," McDermott said.
"This has been an issue for about five or 10 years."
The likes of CYMS, Parkes, and, in particular, Forbes, are in a healthy state heading into the 2019 season but representatives from each club still spoke at length about the issue.
Forbes is in a lucky position as rugby league powerhouse Red Bend College provides the town with a host of players, but Magpies president Matt Coleman said he's always wanting to raise awareness around junior player numbers as not every town is as lucky as his.
This has been an issue for about five or 10 years.Macquarie president Ross McDermott
"Last year we had five or six who didn't live in Forbes but were (Red Bend) boarders," he said.
"We did have a trial during the school holidays and we only had 14 players and then another five or six turned up after the holidays … I can understand why teams struggle."
Coleman also feels their is another reason behind the success of junior rugby league in Forbes and it's something which is somewhat replicated at Parkes and CYMS' feeder club, St John's.
"It's more just the whole town gets into it," Coleman said of the incredibly passionate one-club town.
The Magpies seniors, who have won two of the past three Group 11 premierships, are heroes in their hometown and Parkes president Spicer notices a similar thing at the Spacemen.
Former Spacemen first grader Luke Clarke coached the under 18s in recent times while fan favourite and returning fullback Sam Dwyer has taken the reins this time.
"We've had a coach the last two years who put a lot of pride back into the club and now with Sammy Dwyer as coach it's created a fair bit of interest," Dwyer said.
"We've got very good number because of Sam and we're in a healthy spot."
Parkes and bush footy legend Dennis Moran is currently president of the Parkes junior rugby league association and that too has made a real difference.
At St John's, almost every junior side is coached by a current CYMS player regardless of if they have family members in the side or not.
"Across the board it's just well run," CYMS chairman Mick Fraser said of St John's.
"It all starts with the administration and there's a lot of helpers."
Having those role models from within the club is a massive help and that development is something McDermott highlighted.
For him the battle is ongoing, but the need to have youngsters playing rugby league was not just for the good of the game.
"We develop these young men as players and also as individuals," he said.
- Stay tuned to the Daily Liberal in the coming week for ongoing stories on the issue of player numbers in rugby league.