COUNTRY football is the lifeblood of many small communities and regional towns.
But it is dealing with obstacles in a changing environment.
Experienced football administrator Rod Ward stepped into to oversee AFL Western District in April.
He's been busy working with the four leagues under its umbrella - Hampden, Warrnambool and District, Mininera and District and South West District - to future-proof and ensure the sport is sustainable at all standards and age groups.
Ward, who also runs AFL Goldfields, spoke to The Standard about some of the issues facing AFL Western District's clubs and the plans in place to ensure grass roots football thrives long-term.
The points cap
AFL Western District has implemented an advisory board to help iron out kinks in the player points cap.
Players are allocated a point, from one to five, based on what standard they've played and where they're transferred from.
Clubs, based on their locality and success, are given a total they must adhere to each season.
"I am also regional manager for Goldfields and we've had one in place for three years," Ward said.
"We found out the first year the system rolled out, the commission sat down with the staff and we went through and allocated points and set points on that basis.
"But we found the intimate knowledge league boards have of their own clubs is something that should not be ignored so after the first year we set up and advisory committee which includes two commissioners, myself and a representative from each league's board.
"The benefit is they can consult with their own board members.
"It has been approved by the commission so very soon I will be writing to each league asking them to nominate a board member to sit on this advisory committee."
The junior plan
The South West Junior Review was commissioned in April to investigate and make recommendations for the structure of the Portland Junior Football Association and the Hamilton Kangaroos Junior Football League.
Hamilton Kangaroos have under 16 and under 14 sides in the Hampden league but Portland starts its grades at under 18s.
"I am hoping we'll be in a position to announce or release the draft recommendations late next week," Ward said.
"The reason for my trip to Hamilton on Thursday is to meet up with Jock Whiting and put together draft recommendations.
"I've written mine and he's written his and we'll compare notes and send them up to the commission and hopefully put them out for comment and feedback late next week if not the week after.
"That will be the third stage of consultation. We've been very clear throughout this process that we'll be going through three stages of consultation.
"There was initially the surveys, the second stage was the one-on-one interviews and now the third stage will be getting clubs a lengthy opportunity to provide feedback on the draft recommendations."
The minor leagues
The Mininera and District league has endured lop-sided contests and players shortages in 2019.
Some clubs are on the brink, with Ararat Eagles forfeiting a senior match just lack weekend, due to a lack of numbers which is impacting the quality of the competition.
"There's two parts to that. We met with the Mininera board last Wednesday night and we're working closely with them and we're hoping to expand their junior competition next year," Ward said.
"If we can do that, it's going to help with the sustainability of clubs at senior level.
"The second part of it is, those clubs work are struggling on and off the field, we're working closely with them to try and strengthen them on and off field.
"Those clubs who have asked for help, we're certainly offering.
"We're catching up with Ararat Eagles very soon. They're probably the biggest concern but they are not the only concern.
"We met with them (Hawkesdale-Macarthur) a week or so ago and while their results on-field, and Cavendish is the same, aren't great, both clubs are taking the opportunity this year to really strengthen up off-field.
"I am quite optimistic you'll see improved results from both of those clubs on-field next year."
The Hampden league reserves have been hit by number shortages and even a forfeit this season.
Calls for a permanent 16-a-side competition, which would ease the burden on coaches and clubs searching for players each week, are growing louder.
"You don't want to see anyone forfeit reserves football and that was particularly disappointing for the Port Fairy footy club," Ward said.
"However, I attended a meeting for the Hampden football league last week and they're looking at options to shore up their competition structure for reserves football.
"All clubs in the league are unanimous in their view that having a viable reserves competition is critical to the sustainability of their clubs.
"A reserves footballer might play 200 games for a club, go on a committee, volunteer, organise social functions.
"They are, in many cases, the heart and soul of a football club.
"They are adamant they will be continuing their reserves competition but we have to look at opportunities for different formats for reserves football.
"I know some leagues run 16-a-side reserves football. All those things are on the table."
- The Hampden, WDFNL, Mininera and District and South West District leagues all have a bye on Saturday, July 6.
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