For almost two decades Hunter had a mortgage on the NSW Country Rugby Union Championship but with Illawarra ending the Novocastrians' 17-year, XV-a-side reign last year and Central West fresh from a stunning tour of New Zealand, the Blue Bulls look primed to return to the top.
Last week's trip to Aotearoa was designed to be the first step in the Blue Bulls' quest for country week glory and there's little doubt they took it, producing two excellent performances to score back-to-back wins over University of Canterbury and then High School Old Boys.
Bruising defence was the catalyst for the 17-10 and 19-5 victories, respectively, a massive positive considering off-the-ball work was a big focus for both the women's and men's groups on the week-long, Christchurch-based tour.
Naturally those on-field results produced plenty of excitement for the group, but so did a number of off-field experiences, particularly a visit to the Crusaders' Rugby Park HQ, breakfast with Black Ferns prop Phillipa Love and a training session with two-time World Cup winner Melissa Ruscoe.
Orange Emus' Amanda Ferguson, who manages the Wallaroos, returned to the playing field on the tour and is the namesake for Central West's women's club competition, went as far as saying the trip was one of her best.
"I've been lucky enough to go on a lot of rugby trips around the world and this is up there as one of my highlights," she beamed.
"I [was] really excited to be part of the trip, being able to mix with a lot of the younger generation of players both female and male, being able to experience different rugby cultures, it's just been a great week."
That's something her Emus teammate Jacky Lyden, who made the trip despite recovering from a knee injury that sadly ruled her out of the ACT Brumbies' 2019 Super W campaign, West Wyalong's Lou McCabe and Bathurst Bulldogs' Mel Waterford all echoed.
"Going to the Crusaders for that experience behind the scenes … it [was] awesome," Lyden said.
"It's something not many of us girls get the opportunity to do and it really shows the next level of rugby, you know, for those aspiring to that level and what it really takes to achieve those goals," McCabe said.
"I just totally loved the experience, it's definitely something new but it really brings big camaraderie for all the teams to come together and it's really moving women's rugby towards a new era where we are standing as one with the men."
"We had a fantastic week," Waterford added.
"It was an amazing trip, we've bonded as a team, it was just a fantastic experience."
The tour will also serve Central West well ahead of the sevens championship, they finished fourth in that tournament last year after winning it in 2017.
This year's women's country championships have undergone a slight change of format.
Last year the sevens tournament was played alongside the men's Caldwell Cup and Richardson Shield competitions, but in 2019 the XV-a-side championship will coincide with those men's equivalents at Tamworth on the June long weekend.
The sevens championship is expected to be held separately, and will remain a feeder program for the University of New England’s AON Uni 7s pathway.
Central West's women will continue training, as will the men, throughout the next couple of months before naming their squad for country week.
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