SATURDAY'S Maryborough-Castlemaine District league match between Royal Park and Maryborough Rovers feels somewhat like an engagement party.
Earlier this year the two clubs agreed to the equivalent of a football-netball marriage when the decision was made that they would merge.
The wedding, so to speak, will take place at the end of the season when both clubs wind up as stand-alone entities and officially join forces to form what is intended to be the brand new Maryborough Giants Football-Netball Club.
On Saturday the two clubs will come together as rivals for one last time for what feels like that middle step between an engagement and a wedding - the engagement party - to be held at Royal Park's Hedges Oval.
"It's not a bad way of looking at it," Royal Park president Kate Balzan said this week of the engagement party analogy.
For Maryborough Rovers vice-president Mark Raven he is both excited and intrigued to see how Saturday plays out given it's the unique situation of two clubs who have agreed to become one going into battle against each other.
"I'm looking forward to seeing the two sides combining for the first time since the decision was made and seeing what the reactions are," Raven said.
"It's a bit different this week where when people from the two clubs come through the gate, they aren't doing so as enemies because we are joining together.
"It will be interesting to see how the players approach it and probably a bit of a strange feeling playing on an opponent and thinking, I could be running around as his team-mate next year."
It will be interesting to see how the players approach it and probably a bit of a strange feeling playing on an opponent and thinking, I could be running around as his team-mate next year- Mark Raven - Maryborough Rovers' vice-president.
Royal Park is the oldest of the two amalgamating clubs having been formed in 1934.
The club has won eight senior flags - 1967, 1968, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1977, 1981 and 1982 - which is the third most behind only Carisbrook (15) and Maldon (9).
Maryborough Rovers joined the MCDFNL in 1966 and has three senior flags - 1978, 1990 and 1991.
The last of those three flags was, ironically, won against Royal Park in 1991 when Rovers prevailed 9.8 (62) to 4.8 (32) in a derby on the biggest of stages.
More than 30 years on though since their 1991 grand final it is an on-field battle for both Royal Park and Rovers, who head into this Saturday each with just one senior win apiece this season.
"There's always been history given we are two local teams within the one town," Balzan said.
Added Raven: "I reckon if you went back five years ago they were always really fierce battles.
"But because we at Rovers have been down for a bit now, while you turn up each time you play Royal Park and want to win, I don't think it has been quite as cut-throat as what it had been.
"I think both clubs would probably consider they have bigger rivalries with some of the other clubs in the league rather than each other."
While there has long been discussions around a potential merger of Maryborough Rovers and Royal Park given the increasing pressure on the town of Maryborough to sustain three senior clubs - there is also the town's Bendigo league club - the decision that now is the time to do it came about relatively quickly earlier this year.
In March the two clubs confirmed they were in discussions to "explore the exciting opportunity to amalgamate from next season".
And by the end of April the decision had been made - the two clubs would cease as stand-alone rivals at the end of the season and join together for 2024.
The Maryborough Rovers' vote was 100 per cent in favour of the merger, while at Royal Park the vote in support of the move was around 90 per cent, with the merger working party having since formally met once to map out the way forward.
"For us we could see that the writing was on the wall... it's becoming a real struggle in terms of volunteers," Raven said.
"Our volunteers have been involved with the club for a long time and eventually they are going to say it's time to do something else.
"If you don't have volunteers you don't have a club, so that was a big factor for us in the decision, as well as the fact we are short for players in our junior grades at some levels of football and netball.
"And you only have to look at the results of our reserves over the past few years - they haven't been flattering.
"We had to do something about it or else we wouldn't be here at all and I'd rather the club be something rather than nothing."
And why was now the right time for Royal Park to say yes to a merger?
"Our big concern too was we didn't just want to fade away to nothing," Balzan said.
"To compete in our league we need to be stronger and we are Maryborough, so why have two district teams competing against each other?
"There's so many clubs within the area and we're all pulling from the same pool of people."
Since the decision to merge has been made several initial steps have already been made, starting with the intended name of the Maryborough Giants.
And the intended jumper the club will wear is based on the charcoal colored with an orange G away strip of the AFL's GWS Giants.
"The two clubs were fairly intent on starting fresh and creating a brand new club for the community," Raven said.
"This can obviously be very divisive when you're trying to combine two clubs and you're not going to please everyone, but our feeling with the name and colours is it gives us a fresh start to resonate with the community."
The club will also be based at Royal Park's Hedges Oval, but there will be a link retained to Rovers' ground, Jubilee Oval, where practice matches and pre-season training could be held.
"We'd like to have a transition period from our ground whereby there might be some times where we still train at our current ground," Raven said.
In comparison to Jubilee Oval, Hedges Oval is a bigger ground, has more room for car parking, but most notably, it has a netball court, which Jubilee Oval hasn't had for the past eight years.
Both Balzan and Raven say the merger decision has been met with a positive reaction by both playing groups, with the new club expecting it will field the full quota of football and netball teams next year, as well as NetSetGo and AusKick programs to build from the grassroots up.
"From our perspective, the players have probably been the most positive," Balzan said.
"I think our older life members have probably been a been a bit more emotional, but our players who haven't been here as long as others have been positive.
"Because we haven't been as successful as we would have liked over the past few years our players are excited to think that we could be stronger together rather than battling against each other."
Because we haven't been as successful as we would have liked over the past few years our players are excited to think that we could be stronger together rather than battling against each other- Kate Balzan - Royal Park president
They are sentiments echoed by Raven, who himself is a former Royal Park player.
"Because we've been down for a while now (Rovers hasn't won a final since 2010) our guys are excited to potentially be part of a stronger team," Raven said.
"We know it doesn't mean that every player this year is going to commit, but if we can keep as many as possible from both groups we should be in a good position."
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