True blue: Swanpool coach Darby Morrison, pictured in 2012, says ”there has to be a place for both of us”. Photo: Wangaratta ChronicleThe Swanpool and Tatong football-netball clubs are just 15 kilometres apart, and both are struggling to survive. Before Saturday’s matches against Benalla All Blacks and Whorouly, their senior footy teams had this year booted a combined total of 825 points and conceded 2791. Things have been much the same since they entered the Ovens and King league for the 2010 season. But don’t go mentioning the m-word to the passionate folk who are the backbone of both clubs.

”All a merger would do is destroy clubs with a 100-year history,” insisted Tatong president Felicity Munro. ”It doesn’t solve the problem. It just creates another situation where clubs are losing their identity, rather than addressing other things like increasing player payments, which are killing grassroots footy.

”Blokes just want to get out and play footy and enjoy it. But when you’re coming across teams where their star player is getting $1500 to $1700 a game, and our blokes are only getting $100 to $200, how do you compete on that level?”

Swanpool and Tatong have been bitter rivals for more than a century, and less than two decades ago they were powerhouse clubs in the old Benalla and District league. Tatong won a hat-trick of premierships between 1994 and ’96, then Swanpool responded by winning the flag in 1997 and ’98.

More recently, Swanpool’s senior side lost 26 games on the trot before it beat Tatong by four points last season. Earlier this year Tatong beat its old rival by 160 points, but three rounds later it lost to Milawa by 48 goals.

”The dynamics of a whole lot of things have changed,” said Swanpool coach Darby Morrison. ”Kids are not playing sport. There might be big numbers in Auskick, but they’re dropping out. And it’s not just footy. When I grew up we played tennis and cricket, but other sports are struggling for junior numbers and it’s starting to impact heavily on our competition.”

Talk of Swanpool and Tatong merging has been around for a long time. But such chatter became louder when the newly formed body that oversees the game in their region, AFL North East Border, announced a review into the plethora of lop-sided results in the Ovens and King league.

Games like the one that took place in round two, when King Valley beat Swanpool 48.21 (309) to no score, have helped bring the issue to a head. The review began when AFL North East Border regional general manager John O’Donohue started meeting with club officials on Tuesday. O’Donohue plans to release some interim findings next month, then hand down his recommendations by mid-October.

”We are going to work with the clubs,” he said. ”We’ll go in with an open mind and see what happens.”

A number of possible solutions will be placed on the table during the review process. Swanpool coach Darby Morrison is adamant that splitting the league into two seven-team competitions would give the Swans and Tatong the best chance to survive.

The Picola league has operated along such lines for a number of seasons, while the clubs that make up the Ellinbank league in West Gippsland recently voted to institute a similar change.

”I think we need a promotion-relegation system, where clubs can fight against others that have similar financial backing,” Morrison said. ”If a club gets up and going, then it can go up into the next level and participate vigorously against the stronger clubs.”

However, Morrison’s idea is unlikely to be enacted.

”We explored all those options when the Benalla and District league wound up,” O’Donohue said. ”If you split it in half, the problem is you have to take clubs that have been in the O&K for a long time and put them in the lower league. That’s not going to wash.”

As they prepare to mount a case in defence of their clubs, the hard-working folk at the heart of Swanpool and Tatong need look only 50 kilometres north for inspiration. Fellow O&K club Glenrowan didn’t win a senior game last year. Yet the Kelly Tigers were unbeaten heading into Saturday’s clash with Milawa.

Adamant that it can stage a similar revival, Tatong recently embarked on a self-funded $25,000 upgrade of its clubrooms. The Magpies have also worked hard to build a base of indigenous players and supporters. They even staged their own Dreamtime game in May and wore special guernseys designed by a local indigenous artist.

”No other club is doing that,” said Munro. ”They’re our traditions and we don’t want them to be lost.”

But what if, after all that, the review recommends that football would be best served by a Swanpool-Tatong merger?

”The clubs will be galvanised,” Morrison said. ”People will say, ‘We can’t have this happen.’ You’ve got to exhaust all other avenues first. We’ve been around for 106 years. I think there has to be a place for both of us.”

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.