Entering a new decade, the region's football netball clubs continue working hard to remain stable in the face of the Wimmera's declining population.
Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics' latest census show population across the vast majority of the Wimmera's towns and districts continued to decline.
Horsham was conversely one of the only towns with a rising population.
Horsham Rural City mayor Mark Radford said it illustrated an ongoing trend of people moving away from farming communities and closer to bigger towns.
"For quite a long time now, farms have been getting bigger, and the outlying communities have gotten smaller," Cr Radford said.
"That is a reality and a challenge, but I also want to emphasise that that link does not devalue those outlying communities. They are still incredibly important."
The potential impact of population decline on these communities of course extends far beyond our beloved football and netball clubs.
But Cr Radford said sport was vital to the Wimmera's communities.
"Whether it be cricket, tennis, football or netball, those outlets are hugely important." Cr Radford said.
"You can't overstate the importance of that social side of sport to country communities."
AFL Wimmera-Mallee regional general manager Bruce Petering said the population decline had increased the importance of football and netball clubs.
"I think they are more important (than they ever used to be)," he said. "If you look at the decline in everything else that goes on in those small communities ... the football and netball clubs are now the main meeting point for the whole community.
"There used to be a lot more places for the community to connect, but now not so much. It's become even more important that the football netball club exists for that purpose."
Mr Petering said the drifting population had made it more difficult for clubs a long distance from Horsham to field junior teams and remain competitive at a senior level.
He said clubs still had good support from the community and were mostly financially stable. The problem was simply a lack of playing numbers.
"I go to a lot of games, and the gates are almost equal or better than what we've seen in the past," he said.
"The people going to the game is still there, and the emotional connection to the game is still as strong as it has ever been.
"Looking at the history of it, clubs that have folded or merged in the region don't do it because of a lack of money - it's always a lack of people.
"So we've just got to help clubs as best we can to keep what they've got."
In July, a Horsham Rural City Council assessment suggested the need for a third football facility in Horsham, in addition to Horsham's City Oval and Coughlin Park.
The assessment predicted the number of football netball clubs located near Horsham to rise, while clubs from smaller towns faced an uncertain future.
"As rural populations decline, the viability of supporting AFL teams in these areas may reduce," the assessment stated. "Leading to consolidation and increased demand for facilities to be provided within central Horsham."
The amount of clubs in the Wimmera league and Horsham District league rose to 20 in 2016 with the addition of the Southern Mallee Giants.
Only two of the 20 clubs are located in Horsham: the Horsham Demons and the Horsham Saints.
Mr Petering said AFL Wimmera-Mallee was determined to help support small-town clubs.
"We know from talking to these clubs that they want to maintain their independent existence. They want to stay in their towns, so that is what we're trying to do," Mr Petering said.
"It's important to us that those outlying places exist, and it's important to those communities."
Jeparit-Rainbow president Jason Hutson said, among other concerns, a lot of clubs outside of Horsham were struggling for junior numbers.
"We just don't have the juniors coming up like Horsham, and the Horsham Saints do," Mr Hutson said.
"Sometimes they have 15 or 20 kids missing out each week in the footy because they are just overflowing with numbers.
"We don't have that available to us."
Mr Hutson said strong junior numbers resulted in senior success.
"The last few years in the Horsham District league, all the sides that are going well in the seniors have got a good junior base," he said.
"You look at somewhere like Noradjuha-Quantong - they kept a lot of their juniors and had a really good year in the seniors, making the grand final.
"Good on them for keeping them - it makes a difference. But they are helped by being only 10 kilometres out of Horsham."
Mr Hutson said a lack of employment in small towns resulted in youngsters moving away.
"Unless they are sticking around the family farm, it's hard to keep them here," he said. "There's just not the work around like there was 20 years ago."
Across the last several decades, neighboring clubs all across the Wimmera have merged in order to maintain the presence of a football netball club.
Mr Hutson said he expected more mergers to happen in the coming years.
"I think mergers will keep happening. I think clubs would already be sussing out other clubs," he said.
"It is getting harder and harder to maintain (a club), I'm sure that is the case at a lot of clubs."
Mr Petering said he would be surprised if clubs were not already discussing potential mergers.
"It's really self-evident that good mergers come from clubs doing their due diligence and doing it properly," he said. "Whether anything happens in the future with the clubs in our region, I don't know."
I think mergers will keep happening. I think clubs would already be sussing out other clubs.Jason Hutson, Jeparit-Rainbow president
Mr Petering said AFL Wimmera-Mallee does not direct clubs to discuss mergers, but would support the decisions made at a club level.
"We've been pretty clear that it is not our responsibility to merge clubs," Mr Petering said.
"If a club came to us and said they would like some assistance or guidance for a merger, we would get involved. That is part of our role. But we will not be the ones starting it."
Mr Petering said there was no easy solution for the issues facing the region, but said flexibility from clubs, leagues and governing bodies was crucial.
"We need to be in transition almost constantly," he said. "People are going to have to be really flexible with how they approach the game moving forward."
Mr Petering said two successful examples of recent change was the required junior playing numbers, and the player points cap for senior football.
In junior football, the Wimmera Football League and Horsham District football league allow clubs to swap players and play a match with as many players as they have available.
AFL Wimmera-Mallee's Stephen McQueen said the changes were successful.
"Teams are realising you have to have an opponent, even if it is a mix of players from both clubs," Mr McQueen said. "Teams are helping each other with numbers just so they can have a game. It has been a bit of a cultural change that is definitely working."
Mr Petering said the player points system helped clubs from smaller districts.
In the Wimmera Football League's 2020 player points allocation Dimboola and Nhill have the most leeway, with a cap of 44 points. This them to sign more high-quality senior footballers that have not previously played at the club.
The Horsham Saints have the smallest player points cap with 35.
"Some of the changes sound a bit scary and complicated, but the decisions are being made for the benefit of clubs," Mr Petering said. "At the end of the day, the thing we talk about within the commission is - 'what is the right thing to do?'"
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