By VINCE RUGARI
WEST Wyalong Knockout co-ordinator Peter Campbell has declared the lucrative pre-season competition's future is assured, despite only 13 teams entering to compete this year.
Group 20 clubs have dominated the entries with more than half the competition - including grand final winners Tullibigeal-Lakes United and minor premiers Leeton - to descend upon Ron Crowe Oval next weekend in pursuit of the $13,000 prize purse.
The draw for the knockout was released on Wednesday night and also includes four teams from Group Nine, Group 11 powerhouse Orange CYMS and Canberra outfit West Belconnen.
While numbers are down from the last few years, Campbell - who is considering stepping down from his role as organiser - said the future remains as bright as ever for the two-day tournament, which offers $8500 for the winner.
"It's not going anywhere for a long time," he told The Area News.
"We've been a bit spoiled in the last three years when there's been a full draw.
"When you look at the last 12 years, we've only had a full draw five times.
"This is nothing unusual. We had 10 teams in 2007 and it was a very successful knockout.
"There will be many more successful knockouts to come, whether I'm co-ordinator or not."
Yenda, host club West Wyalong and wildcards Hay - who are entering the knockout for the first time ever - are the other Group 20 entrants.
The Black and Whites, Waratah Tigers and Darlington Point-Coleambally are all struggling for the requisite numbers at this time of year to participate while Bidgee is the only Group 20 club to have shunned the knockout by choice.
Campbell said there were a variety of reasons why teams have opted not to enter the competition this year, with the timing of their seasons chief among them.
"Three groups that we target, their comps are starting much later than usual and the clubs are having difficulty getting players on the training paddock for a February knockout," he said.
"Group Nine, Group 11 and Canberra don't start their competitions until the last weekend of April, or even May, if you have the bye first up."
The Blueheelers will kick off the tournament with a tantalising match-up with Temora, who are now coached by former Waratahs junior Michael Henderson and will boast veteran Group 20 forward Tim Rice in their pack.
Leeton, however, have drawn the short straw and will face Group Nine sensations Albury Thunder first up.
"It's always hard at this time of the year to sort out who'll be the hotshots and who won't be," Campbell said.
"But with a bloke straight out of the NRL in Michael Henderson in Temora, you don't know what that might do.
"There's both Group 20 grand final teams, the premiers out of Group Nine and Group 10, and Southcity, who are going for three knockouts in a row.
"When we finished the draw we thought, 'geez, how good does that look.'"
Up to 3000 punters are expected to attend the first night of the knockout next Friday with finals to be held the following day.