A new Waikato-Bay of Plenty based team coached by Huntly league legend Tawera Nikau has been granted entry into the 2004 Bartercard Cup.
The WaiCoa Bay Stallions will replace the Taranaki Wildcats in the domestic league competition next year. The changes come after a revamp of the Bartercard Cup format.
The Stallions will be based at the Tainui sports centre, at Horahora, just north of Ngaruawahia. Nikau will be head coach, assisted by New Zealand A selector, Tauranga's Len Reid.
The team will take in Waikato, central north island coastal areas and Bay of Plenty. The region, which has 17 teams in its domestic competition has been applying for entry into the Bartercard Cup compitition for some time. Games will be played in the Waikato, Rotorua and Tauranga.
New Zealand Rugby League general manager Peter Cordtz said the Waikato and Bay of Plenty were now the third strongest rugby league region in New Zealand, with rapid growth sustained in recent years.
WaiCoa Bay is the made up name of the main areas of the catchment - Waikato, the east and west coasts and Bay of Plenty.
The NZRL received 15 applications to run franchises for the competition which will remain at 12 teams.
It is understood Auckland clubs resisted a move to merge clubs, but have been warned it is likely in the future.
The Hibiscus Coast Raiders have been asked to extend their catchment to take in Northland.
The 15th bid - from the Te Atatu Roosters was turned down, as the NZRL felt west Auckland was well served by the Glenora Bears.
Otahuhu will amalgamate with the Ellerslie club.
Cordtz said the Bartercard Cup was going from strength to strength and was well regarded by both the Warriors and the National Rugby League as a reputable feeder competition.
Cordtz said the most contentious issue in the review was the number of Auckland teams in the competition.
The NZRL wants to reduce the number of Auckland teams when licences are next granted.
"We are looking seriously to rationalise Auckland teams in 2005."
Strengthening rugby league across New Zealand was a priority, said Cordtz.
"We are particularly keen to have strong infrastructure in Wellington and Christchurch."
"If New Zealand's bid for a second NRL side is to be taken seriously, we have to show we are able to support this," said Cordtz.
This year's Bartercard Cup winners, the Canterbury Bulls, remain the only south Island team in the competition.
The Wellington franchise is the only one to be governed by a district league.
Those who have been granted licences are: Hibiscus Coast Raiders, North Harbour Tigers, Mt Albert Lions, Marist Richmond Brothers, Glenora Bears, Eastern Manukau Tornadoes, Otahuhu-Ellerslie, WaiCoa Bay Stallions, Central Falcons, Wellington Rugby League and Canterbury Bulls.