The carve-up of country footy continues in SA's South-East
Nobody could have foreseen the impact that COVID-19 lockdowns and border closures would have on those living near the border but they are about to have a profound impact on local football and netball competitions that traverse these imaginary lines of longitude or either side of a river.
Border bubbles were formed and then cancelled leaving town clubs on the other side stranded in terms of shopping, banking, medical appointments and schooling. Essential travel permits were obtained but sporting competitions were - in the early stages - not covered and therefore stay at home orders cancelled weekend rounds of local football and netball competitions.
Whilst the South East of South Australia's leagues will likely fracture soon, the problems crossing the border to play sport in Victoria and New South Wales is instructive.
The River Murray essentially having twin town crossing points all the way along the border. For the Sunraysia, Central Murray, Golden Rivers, Murray, Picola, Upper Murray and Ovens and Murray competitions, this has presented local administrators significant consternation. The Sunraysia even played games in NSW locations in front of allowable crowds while the Victorians enacted a no gathering policy.
Even the Hume Football and Netball League (Eastern Riverina and North of Albury area) have not been immune with the competition continuing with 4 of the 12 teams enduring significant player losses. The Billabong Crows, CDHBU, Murray Magpies and Henty recruited key players, coaches or ex-pat NSW folk living south of the Murray back to play sport on the weekend with their mates.
The Victorian Government dropped a number of NSW councils or shires out of its border bubble resulting in Hume's Lockhart and Osborne and Hay (in Farrer, moving games to Moulamein) being forced to relocate home games further south inside the bubble.
The problem has been significant in South East SA and South Western Victoria.
Kaniva Leeor decided to leave the mainly SA based KNTFL for the 2021 season after sitting out the 2020 COVID year. They joined the Horsham District FNL and changed the structure of recruiting at the club, no longer seeking travelling players from South Australia. Kaniva Leeor concentrated on getting juniors back to the club from other Victorian towns.
The pressure has mounted during season 2021 on Murrayville who play in the SA Mallee FL.
The Bulldogs are 100 plus kilometres from the nearest football side in Victoria, the Ouyen United Kangas. Murrayville has played their football with Pinnaroo and Border Mallee sides for 100 years. Season 2021 has seen games cancelled and drawn and even Murrayville playing with its SA and Adelaide based players on the SA side to try and win matches and make the finals series.
Victoria and South Australian government closures of borders to cross bubble communities have left resident and sporting administrators frustrated and with little option but to confine sport within their State.
Given the pain and ill-feeling in the Mallee league over the Murrayville situation, it is likely to they will play elsewhere - or not at all - in the future.
The Mallee Fl is a six-team competition and the loss of any side could see the competition fold into the future. Discussions about potential mergers of clubs could see wholesale changes in Murraylands and Mallee football in 2022 and beyond, such as :
Border Downs Tintinara merging with Meningie, and
Karoonda joining forces with Tailem Bend.
While Kaniva was the first domino to fall it is unlikely to be the last.
Border Districts footy club, located at both Frances in SA and Goroke in Victoria, has not been able to play in KNTFL matches on three occasions this year due to the Victorian lockdowns. The club has struggled for a number of seasons without junior grades and entertained amalgamation with Edenhope Apsley who 15 years ago was a cross border Victorian member of the mainly SA KNT league.
The survival of the Western Border League is now in serious jeopardy. Casterton Sanford was the only Victorian club to remain in the Mt Gambier based league after Hamilton clubs and Portland left in 2012 to join the powerful Hamden league based around Warrnambool.
Casterton Sanford could move to the South West Football League - which has nearby Coleraine as a club and was formerly in the Western Border up until 1995 - following this season's lockdowns.
This would leave Mount Gambier’s 4 teams, East, South, North and West plus Millicent looking at options for the formation of a South-East SA competition not dissimilar to the 2020 COVID year Limestone Coast Football League.
Meetings among club Presidents have already occurred and a further meeting is scheduled to review club positions soon.
Change is in the winds and one expects the demise of clubs and changes within the Mid South Eastern FL and Kowree Naracoorte Tatiara competitions in 2022. Border issues aside, general fatigue is a factor for smaller town player numbers and issues fielding junior sides.
Speculatively, the powerhouses of SA's South-East may form a ‘Super League’ with the remainder of clubs playing in a new league with north and south conferences.
Clubs at the extremities like Kingston South East, Keith and Port MacDonnell may be travelling further to play. It is 2 and a half hours on the road from Keith to Mt Gambier and 3 hours between Keith and Port MacDonnell.
The Victorian-based clubs are likely to fold or move to Victorian leagues given the political leaders' territorial tussle is unlikely to end until their governments lose support from constituents on lockdowns (which up until now has seen electoral success and favourable opinion polls).
We are not likely to see borders dissolved or bubbles reinforced. Further health restrictions and even the unthinkable passports could come into effect further crippling cross-border football participation.
The way the lie of the land looks, we may see a Victorian Olympic Committee apply to send a team to the Brisbane Olympic Games.
Let's hope our local country football, netball and other sports competitions can thrive - and reasonable border policies prevail from our political leaders soon.
But that is a line they are unlikely to cross.