A RADICAL new structure is set to revive the Ovens and King Football League's ailing under-18 competition.
The North East Victorian league, which boasts 14 senior clubs, will have just five teams in its junior division this season.
The new structure sees rival clubs joining forces to field an under-18 team.
North East Football Netball general manager Zac Guilfoyle, who administrates Ovens and King, said a scarcity of players had forced the overhaul.
"We began last season with nine (under-18) teams and most of those teams had 12-15 players at that stage," Guilfoyle said.
"Everyone intended to go ahead like that, but we finished the year with only seven clubs.
"Glenrowan joined with Greta and King Valley midway through the year, and Whorouly and Milawa merged their thirds sides as well. It got to the stage where even the merged entities had 12 players."
Guilfoyle said club feedback at the end of last year showed the junior competition was unsustainable.
He said the league, with VCFL area manager John O'Donohue, developed the new format based on current player registrations, numbers in junior leagues and Auskick centres.
"The clubs were crying out for some sort of help," Guilfoyle said.
"It's stressful for the coach and the team managers, trying to get players on the ground and it wasn't the healthiest thing to have 12 kids slugging it out in the middle of winter through four 20-minute quarters without any rotations."
He said the player shortage was the result of a gradual decline over the past five years and statistics showed clubs would be worse off again next year.
"From 2014 onwards it looks like it's going to pick up a little bit.
"The dream is to have 14 under-18 sides, but at this stage five is the way we're going to have to go."
This year, Milawa and Whorouly will continue last year's alignment, under the new name Snow Road Saints.
Greta, King Valley and Glenrowan will unite under the banner of the Southern Suns, while Tarrawingee and North Wangaratta will combine as Londrigan, a farming district between the two towns.
Bright's team, the Alpine Eagles, will continue its alignment with neighbouring Ovens and Murray club Myrtleford.
Benalla All Blacks - while still a stand-alone team - will be known as the Benalla Panthers, to ensure each under-18 club has a new identity.
Guilfoyle said the league was "steering away" from calling the club alignments a merger.
"If you cut back the new club identities and the alignments, the players will still be registered with their home club," he said.
"They will play on permit to the under-18 teams, and the top-age kids will still have the opportunity to go back and play seconds or senior football throughout the year at the club they're registered with."
The four clubs who joined Ovens and King when the Benalla and District league disbanded in 2009 - Tatong, Goorambat, Swanpool and Bonnie Doon - and existing club Moyhu, will be without under-18s this year.
"There may be scope in the future to have another thirds side out of Benalla, maybe an alignment of Tatong, Goorambat and Swanpool," Guilfoyle said.
"But the numbers just aren't there at this stage."
Guilfoyle said clubs were initially shocked by the overhaul.
"It's a complete change from what they're used to, which was scraping at the bottom of the barrel just to get a side together.
"Some days you'd turn up and it was simply a case of the team with the most players wins.
"But we had to work out what was best for our competition and for kids in the local area.
"If we need to revert back to the stand-alone clubs at some stage, that would be fantastic."