As the fallout continues from the Waratahs' record-breaking winless Super Rugby season, ESPN can reveal that fierce rivals the Brumbies went within a whisker of carving off a huge slice of NSW Rugby territory at the start of 2021.
Earlier this year the Central West rugby region, which stretches from Temora in the south to Condobolin in the west and as far north as Coonabarabran in country NSW, seriously entertained a switch to the Brumbies catchment after NSW Rugby cutbacks meant community resources were stretched across the state.
Current Waratahs players Harry Johnson-Holmes, Jack Grant and Hugh Sinclair all hail from the Central West region, so too Pat McCutcheon who was a part of the NSW squad that won the 2014 Super Rugby title.
With NSW Rugby having laid off development officers amid the coronavirus pandemic last year, sources with knowledge of the situation told ESPN that clubs throughout the Central West region were upset by the lack of support stemming from NSW Rugby.
A Brumbies spokesperson told ESPN that conversations about the region joining the ACT's rugby catchment came about "organically" as a result.
But conflicting sources suggest the Brumbies saw a genuine opportunity to snatch some Waratahs territory and were very much on the front foot in their desire to absorb the Central West region.
That is certainly how the discussions were seen at NSW Rugby.
"NSW Rugby was very disappointed to learn that discussions were happening between the ACT Brumbies and our Central West Zone," NSW Rugby chief executive Paul Doorn told ESPN.
"The Central West has always been an integral part of New South Wales going back over 100-plus years to the commencement of the game in the state and the suggestion that another Union was enticing it to move is both inconsistent with tradition and with the collaborative approach we've all adopted in recent years."
Regardless of who was pursuing who, Central West Rugby fielded what was a "detailed" presentation from Brumbies officials about switching its allegiance, sources revealing the Brumbies' player pathways and development plans for Central West had impressed the clubs in attendance.
Seemingly caught on the hop, NSW Rugby officials then presented its own plan for Central West Rugby moving forward. Sources told ESPN that the NSW Rugby plan "lacked detail and appeared rushed".
But the vote to join the Brumbies catchment fell just short of the 75 percent required to change Central West Rugby's constitution, sources telling ESPN that a bushfire in the region meant one club's representatives missed the vote. It was understood that that club's intention was to back the Brumbies and the two votes would have been enough for Central West to leave NSW Rugby.
NSW Rugby chief Doorn defended the organisation's community rugby program and said that a development plan specific to the region's needs had since been created for Central West with the zone having remained in Waratahs' hands.
"NSWRU works hard across NSW to ensure the needs of community rugby are met, with almost $4m spent on development staff, competition managers, referee education, coach education, schools managers and country staff," Doorn said. "As an organisation we know we must continually work hard to ensure that we are focused on growing the game through supporting clubs and their volunteers to increase participation.
"We have subsequently worked with the zone on a zone-specific plan in an effort to prioritise their requirements."
Just a few months after the vote, the Waratahs ran a training camp and conducted coaching clinics across the Central West after the completion of their Super Rugby AU campaign. NSW Rugby said the country tour had not previously been planned, but given the team's early exit from the Australian domestic season and the lightened COVID restrictions in place at the time a country visit made sense.
NSW Rugby also cited open training sessions at both Manly and Western Sydney Two Blues this season, a coaching masterclass in the Illawarra region ahead of the Waratahs-Crusaders game and a trial match in Narrabri as other examples of its community engagement.
However, news that one of the state's biggest rugby regions almost shifted to the Brumbies is yet another low point in what is already a tough year for NSW Rugby.
With the Waratahs finishing with an 0-13 record, having sacked coach Rob Penney mid-season, and with NSW Rugby quietly posted a $3 million profit for 2020 last week, the organisation's administrators remain under mounting pressure to arrest the slide.
At the top of the list is the hiring of a new coach, the shortlist reportedly reduced to just Darren Coleman, John Manenti and John Mulvihill, while recruitment also remains an issue but one infinitely tied to the hiring of the new coach.
The Waratahs were able to sign Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco towards the end of the Super Rugby season, the back-rower debuting off the bench against the Highlanders, while Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper will be back in the NSW squad in 2022 having completed his six-month Japanese playing sabbatical.
On the community side of the game, NSW Rugby also rejected reports that 12 development officers were made redundant amid the pandemic last year, the governing body insisting only three community coaching employees were retrenched.
"This year's profit must be seen in the light of the impact of our financial results from 2019 and the effect of COVID-19 during 2020, which together, cast significant doubt and added pressure on the operations and financial stability of NSW Rugby," Doorn told ESPN.
"The funds accumulated in 2020 are critical to ensuring the financial viability and the future of the business as we navigate our way through an uncertain 2021 and beyond.
"An additional Mid North Coast Development Officer starts work on Monday, with two additional roles - one Sydney and regionally based coming online next month."
NSW Rugby cited the ongoing construction of its Centre of Excellence, the new Sydney Football Stadium, which continues to be built at Moore Park, and the implementation of a new community rugby model as reasons for optimism about the code's future in the state moving forward.