Penrith will join the John I Dent Cup in 2022 after the club was handed a 12-month lifeline from ACT Rugby in a move officials hope can be the start of "a new era", but there are private concerns among existing clubs about the financial toll of looming travel.
The Penrith Emus were dumped from the Shute Shield following the 2021 season in a move that blindsided club officials.
Penrith president Gary McColl feared thousands of juniors would turn their back on rugby union to join rugby league following the club's unceremonious exit from Sydney's premier club rugby competition.
But now the club has struck a deal to field teams in ACT Rugby's first grade, second grade, women's and colts competitions, with the affiliation to be reviewed after 12 months.
Some Canberra clubs are privately concerned about the financial implications of sending four teams as well as coaching and support staff to Sydney for away games.
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Existing John I Dent Cup clubs were caught off guard the announcement was made so swiftly, while acknowledging they knew Penrith's arrival was an option for 2022.
But there is a sense among them the John I Dent Cup needs to expand, having been left with six teams since Easts left first grade, and it may allow the ACT pathway to unearth talent overlooked by rugby league in a huge catchment area.
"The competition has a wonderfully rich history, and when we think of some of the players the John I Dent Cup has produced, we can only be excited for young rugby players in Penrith, girls and boys who hope to go on to bigger and better things."
Western Sydney clubs were left fighting for survival after the Shute Shield's power clubs - Easts, Randwick, Sydney University, Manly, Gordon and Northern Suburbs - drafted a participation agreement demanding higher standards.
Among the terms included were all clubs needing a minimum of four grade teams, three colts teams, a women's XVs team, and a full-time head coach and general manager by 2023. Clubs were also asked to demonstrate a minimum turnover of $550,000.
The eastern bloc pushed for the three western Sydney sides - Penrith, Western Sydney Two Blues, and West Harbour Pirates - to merge in order to survive.
The clubs refused, now Western Sydney face West Harbour in round one of the 2022 Shute Shield season, while Penrith will be on the bus to Canberra.
There is a concern some Penrith players will sign with rival Sydney clubs to continue playing in the Shute Shield, but officials hope an effort to keep the club playing in a first grade competition - regardless of location - will foster a production line of talent in Emus colours.
"The Emus have great support from Penrith City Council and local businesses and healthy playing numbers across their senior rugby program. This is exciting news that gives certainty to their dedicated players, coaches and volunteers," Brumbies deputy chief executive and general manager of community rugby Craig Leseberg said.
"ACT [and] SNSW Rugby are delighted to be able to support Penrith's ambitions to play at a premier rugby level and thrilled at the prospect of a refreshed competition structure for next season, as we eagerly re-emerge from a COVID-interrupted 2021."
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