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Yesterday at the Glyndwr University Racecourse Stadium Wrexham, 1,204 people witnessed a piece of Welsh sporting history. Undetected by most in the main stream media, some may argue understandably so. However, yesterday’s game between the North Wales Crusaders and the South Wales Scorpions was the first Welsh derby in Rugby League for 102 years.
A game in the Co-operative Championship 1 is hardly going to excite the Rugby League World, particularly between two teams that only have one win between them before the first whistle. The game was an entertaining one and with the North Walians getting the better of their Southern rivals 34-22. But the significance of this game goes far beyond the final score as rugby league looks to expand its popularity beyond its heartlands in the North of England.
Rugby league is almost a forgotten entity in Wales. The nation is dominated by its love for Rugby Union. The Welsh Rugby Union side enjoy huge publicity through all platforms of media and their international matches attract thousands upon thousands to Cardiff, many of which without tickets, just to sample the atmosphere surrounding the match day. Rugby League has had little to no coverage and is considered a minority sport. Despite this, over recent years there has been an increase in popularity for the sport. More and more local clubs are being set up in Union heartlands and there’s been an increase in the number of people watching and participating at all levels of the game
Perhaps the most famous example of Rugby League’s expansion in Wales is the Celtic Crusaders franchise. Formed following the disbanding of the Celtic Warriors region in Rugby Union, the Crusaders took the rugby league world by storm and were successful in earning a Super League license at the first time of asking when the league changed from a relegation format into a franchise system. Things started off well for the side, getting into the end of season playoffs under the well-respected guidance of Brian Noble. But things quickly turned sour with problems with the Racecourse and financial problems off the field forced the club to fold at the end of last season. Despite the franchise not existing anymore, it increased the profile of the sport in Wales no end.
Yesterday’s home side the North Wales Crusaders were formed as a result of the disbanding of the franchise. It proves that there’s still a market for the sport in North Wales. The Scorpions aren’t they’re only rivals within Wales. There’s also the South Wales Cougars, based in Gwent who play their rugby in the Co-operative Conference 3 as well as a clutch of other clubs being set up in local and regional divisions around Wales.
The sport has been helped by a number of high profile players. Jonathan Davies, the BBC pundit and commentator is perhaps the most famous player to have played both codes for his country. Iestyn Harris and Gareth Thomas are both players who have enjoyed a high profile in both codes of the game. Lee Briers who is considered one of the best players in today’s game is a proud Welshman and led his country into last season’s Four Nations tournament before retiring from all forms of international Rugby League.
Internationally, Wales are an emerging force in the game. A semi-final appearance in 2000 stated their intent going into the twenty first century but it was last year that Wales made the biggest impact on the international stage. The traditional end of season triangular series was increased to four teams and Wales were included for the first time. It was ultimately a disappointing campaign with Wales failing to register a win, but it’s an encouraging sign for the game in the country that they can rub shoulders with the best in the world.
The Super League’s goal when it was set up was to increase the sport’s popularity in areas not traditionally associated with the sport. They took their showpiece ‘Magic Weekend’ to Cardiff on three occasions with the event raising the curtain on proceedings on last year’s Super League season. Has Super League’s goal of expansion been successful in Wales? Absolutely. Rugby League is the fastest growing sport in Wales. Its popularity to both watch and play has increased significantly since the turn of the new millennium, despite the folding of the Celtic Crusaders. Yesterday’s derby looks set to be one of many that Welsh Rugby League is set to enjoy in future years and this can only be a positive to both players and fans be it at grass roots, franchise or international level.