THE Merriwa Magpies' quest for back-to-back Hunter Valley Group 21 CRL Women's 9's crowns has begun in earnest.
But, the defending premiers were made to fight all the way in the season opener at Murrurundi on Friday evening.
The Magpies, who clinched the 2018 title from the Greta Branxton Colts 24-14, accounted for a new-look Aberdeen Tigers 10-6 at Wilson Memorial Oval.
In the other fixtures, a revitalised Singleton Greyhounds trounced the Muswellbrook Ramettes 22-0 and the Murrurundi Mavettes held off the Scone Thoroughbreds 22-12.
Unfortunately, the Colts and Denman She-Devils will not contest the 2019 format due to a lack of numbers.
However, that goes against the grain of the rise in female participation with up to six CRL Women's 9's competitions kicking off at the weekend.
Group 3 Juniors, Group 4, Group 19, Group 21, Albury and Group 16 all started, with an additional five taking the field in the coming weeks.
CRL women's participation officer Kylie Hilder believes the 9's are the perfect opportunity for new or returning players to get involved in the game and reach a higher level of playing.
"These 9's are very important as it's the first step into the representative pathways," she said.
"Our 9's are being used to identify girls for the Regional High Performance Academies, which will then be used to select the regional sides for the 2020 Country Championships.
"Our Country Rugby League Player of the Year Takilele Katoa was discovered through the Women's Country Championships playing for the Riverina Bulls.
"This year alone, she went on to represent NSW Country in the Women's National Championships, the NSW Blues and the St George-Illawarra Dragons in the NRLW competition.
"Takilele also played in the two-day Albury 9's carnival."
After five weeks of action, the Group 21 competition will wrap up on Friday, November 15.
In round two, on October 18, the Tigers face the Mavettes from 6.30pm at No. 1 Oval, Merriwa.
The Thoroughbreds tackle the Ramettes afterwards at 7.05pm, with the hosts, the Magpies, locking horns with the Greyhounds at 7.40pm.