When the first whistle sounds across a Far North paddock at 7pm on Friday, it will complete the transformation of what started as a rebel competition into the only game left in town.
Hone Harawira founded the breakaway Taitokerau Rugby League (TRL) with a handful of clubs six years ago amid frustration over how the sport was run from Whangārei.
Now TRL runs the only competition in Northland.
The latest team to switch from Rugby League Northland (RLN), the sport's official body in the North, are the Portland Panthers.
They will join Whangārei teams the Ōtāngarei Knights and the Hikurangi Stags, which made the move to TRL last season.
Another Whangārei team, Horahora, has combined with Hikurangi for 2022 while traditional Whangārei powerhouse Takahiwai are playing in Auckland.
The exodus means for the second year in a row there won't be a rugby league comp in Whangārei, Northland's biggest population centre.
And while Harawira's TRL goes from strength to strength, that hasn't been accompanied by recognition or funding from the national body, New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL).
Harawira, a former Taitokerau MP, said he didn't feel like he'd achieved some kind of victory.
"But it does vindicate our position that if you base your competition on kaupapa Māori and you give all of the mana to the clubs and the players, you'll get a competition that everybody wants to be a part of."
Harawira said the NZRL model of a board of corporate appointees based in Whangārei making decisions for clubs in places like Te Kao and Awanui was never going to work in the Far North.
"The clubs of the Far North have sent that message loud and clear. We want to play rugby league, but we don't want to be dictated to by a board that's based in Whangārei and makes decisions that favour Whangārei."
Portland Rugby League chairman Raki Harding said with Ōtāngarei and Hikurangi playing in the Far North and Takahiwai in Auckland, only three or four clubs were left in Whangārei.
Switching to TRL was driven in the first instance by a desire to play league.
"We can't have a four-team comp ... I wanted our senior team to have an opportunity to play, but I also like the way they [TRL] organise themselves. All comp decisions are made by the club representatives and it's a majority decision. So when teams don't get their way they still support the decision."
Meanwhile, the Ōtāngarei Knights are about to kick off their second season in TRL.
They surprised everyone except their own fans when they were declared last season's joint winners with the Waipapakauri Bombers, after the grand final was called off due to Covid.
Captain Daley Johnson said the main reason the team left RLN in 2021 was the lack of competition.
"We were playing the same teams every few weeks. We wanted to challenge ourselves and play teams up north. Another reason is most of our boys have ties up there, in Hokianga and Kaitaia."
Johnson said the team enjoyed playing in TRL last season even if it meant a lot of travel.
That would be reduced this year with the first month's games all in Whangārei.
"We're looking forward to playing in front of our families and supporters. We have a big fan base," he said.
TRL chairman Dave Bristow co-founded TRL with Harawira in 2016.
"I was coaching Moerewa at the time. In our eyes RLN was only looking after some teams. I said to Hone, 'We'll run our own comp', and that's what we did. We started with six teams all in the Far North."
Since then Bristow had seen TRL grow to 10 teams, including his own Moerewa and clubs as far away as Portland.
"We don't close the door to anyone. The more teams the better."
One of the key differences between RLN and TRL was the way decisions were made, he said.
RLN operated a three-tiered system of clubs, delegates and an appointed board.
"You have to go through those tiers to decide anything or sort anything out ... In TRL every club has a member on the board so every club has a vote. We all negotiate what we want to do," he said.
"In RLN some clubs were looked after and others were treated like poor cousins. I've been with the Moerewa Tigers since 1976, and I know how they used to treat us. It was shocking."
One of the reasons Far North teams gave for abandoning RLN was the travel involved when many of the games were in Whangārei.
Ironically, now it's the Whangārei teams that could find themselves driving a couple of hours to play.
Bristow said that had been addressed by splitting the TRL into three zones — Whangārei, Ngāpuhi (Mid North) and Muriwhenua (top of the Far North) — with all games in the first round played in the clubs' home zone.
The next round would see Northland split into north and south zones. Only in the final round, when the top teams faced off for the Premiership Shield and the rest for the Championship Cup, would clubs have to travel around the region.
That would also give clubs time to build up their finances to cover travel expenses.
Asked how TRL funded the competition, Bristow laughed: "That's a good question."
Harawira said if TRL were officially recognised it would receive funding, coaching clinics and referee development, and be allowed to play in international competitions.
NZRL, however, would recognise only one entity per zone, and that was RLN.
''They want us to play by their rules, but their rules don't work for us. We'd like them to share the resources. Even though we've got all the senior clubs, we're not demanding all of the funding. If we had half of it we'd be happy. But they refuse to give us one brass razoo ... that's hard. But kaupapa Māori and the love of the game trumps all that. We have to suck it up and move on."
RLN community manager Phil Marsh was sympathetic to TRL's funding situation.
"The comp was struggling down here [in Whangārei] for numbers for various reasons.
"They run a great comp — that's why teams from down here have gone up there — plus they get to play different teams every week and it's more whānau based," Marsh said.
"Unfortunately for them, if you're not affiliated to the national body it's hard to get funding from the NZRL or the usual agencies like charitable trusts, which is a bit of a p***-off, for them especially."
A number of attempts had been made over the years to bring TRL back into the fold.
"But TRL don't want to lose their autonomy and you can't blame them for that."
The Whangārei teams playing in TRL still had junior grades playing in an NZRL-sanctioned competition. Some of their players competed in last weekend's National 9s Tournament, Marsh said.
■ The first match of the season kicks off at 7pm on Friday when Kaikohe Lions face off against Valley United Crushers in Kaikohe. The other games will start at 2pm on Saturday: Ngāti Kahu Sharks v Waipapakauri Bombers at Taipā, Kerikeri Makos v Moerewa Tigers at Kerikeri, and Horahora-Hikurangi v Ōtāngarei Knights at Horahora.