Callum Walker looks at the history of Rugby League in Wales and asks whether it can ultimately succeed.
Rugby League has a long if sporadic history in Wales.
In 1907, the Welsh Northern Union was formed in Wrexham, but the Northern Union refused it affiliation as they wanted the body located in South Wales. As such, the WNU soon folded. From that point onwards, there have been various attempts to introduce professional Rugby League to Wales throughout the 20th century. In 1907 two Welsh clubs – Ebbw Vale and Merthyr Tydfil – joined the Northern Union and also competed in the Challenge Cup. Those two pioneering clubs were then followed by Aberdare, Barry, Mid-Rhondda and Treherbert, who joined the Northern Union in 1908/09.
In the 1908-09 season there were enough Welsh clubs for a separate Welsh League section of the competition, alongside the Northern Union’s Yorkshire and Lancashire Leagues. The Welsh League, however, would last only two seasons before folding in 1910 after most of the competing teams disbanded. Aberdare, Barry, and Mid-Rhondda dropped out after their first season, with Treherbert following the next year. Merthyr Tydfil lasted until 1910/11, whilst Ebbw Vale was the last to leave, after the 1911/12 season. By 1912, these six clubs were all defunct.
Pontypridd and Cardiff
It took 15 years for another Welsh club to try to establish a foothold in the game.
Encouraged by the 22,000 strong crowd which attended the Wales vs England match in 1926, local promoters established a club in Pontypridd, which then joined the Northern Union for the 1926/27 season. The club initially experienced good-sized crowds, but a string of poor results soon saw attendances drop, and the club only lasted eight games into its second season before folding.
A club from the Welsh capital, Cardiff, participated half a century later in the Northern Union’s 1951/52 season after a few impressive years in the Welsh League. But even the capital could not sustain a Rugby League side and the club withdrew after that season following a disastrous run of form and with dwindling crowds.
The 1980s and Cardiff once more
It was 1982 before the next club tried its hand.
Following Fulham FC’s example, later called London Broncos, Cardiff City FC entered a side to compete in the Rugby League 1981/82 season. The Blue Dragons, as the Cardiff side was known, shared Ninian Park with the footballing Bluebirds.
Things initially went well for the Cardiff side and their first game against Salford on 30 August 1981 attracted a crowd of 9,247. Yet, despite a mid-placed finish in the Second Division in their first season, success on the field was never forthcoming and the club failed to win promotion in three seasons at Ninian Park. Towards the end of their tenure in Cardiff crowds had dwindled to about 500 and the club was forced into liquidation after the death of Cardiff City Chairman Bob Grogan.
In July 1984 hope and optimism was in the air when a consortium rescued the Cardiff club from liquidation, but the new owners came under intense pressure from the Welsh FA, which wanted Ninian Park as their permanent headquarters and opposed ground-sharing with a Rugby League side.
With Cardiff no longer a viable option, the Blue Dragons changed their name to Bridgend Blue Dragons and relocated to Bridgend Town AFC’s Coychurch Road ground for the 1984/85 season.
But in the small town of Bridgend, the enthusiasm and interest for Rugby League simply wasn’t there. The Blue Dragons’ first home game on 9 September 1984 attracted a crowd of just 1,983 to watch Bridgend be defeated 28–16 by Swinton. After that, attendances dropped and by February 1985 fewer than 200 fans were turning up at Coychurch Road. Their lowest gate was a depressing 148 for the final home game against Doncaster on 21 April 1985. And, after a dismal season in which the club managed only one win, the Blue Dragons finished bottom of the Second Division.
Things came to a head four days before the start of the 1986–87 season as the Rugby Football League (the sport’s governing body) dropped Bridgend Blue Dragons from the fixtures for failing to secure a ground.
After the experiment had failed to reap rewards, Bridgend RLFC decided not to seek reinstatement. Rugby League in Wales had, once more, failed to take off.
South Wales Dragons
Yet, it was not for the want of trying.
Again, another attempt was made to establish a successful, professional club in the mid-1990s, this time under the all-encompassing South Wales Dragons title.
The club, however, could not tie down a permanent home. Games were played at Aberavon’s 3,000-capacity Talbot Athletic Ground and one game was played at Swansea’s 1,200-capacity Morfa Stadium against Bramley, whilst all the games for the second half of the season were held at the 12,500-capacity Cardiff Arms Park.
On a plus note, they were coached by former St Helens and Salford full-back Clive Griffiths, assisted by Danny Sheehy. Attendances still left a lot to be desired, though, and the first home game played at Aberavon on 31 March 1996 attracted just 1,876 spectators, as the club was demolished by Hull Kingston Rovers, 70-8. Crowds and interest fluctuated depending upon where the club played.
The last home game of the 1995/96 season, for example, saw a crowd of only 400 at Cardiff Arms Park as the Dragons beat York 20-16. The season as a whole, however, was reasonably successful as the Dragons finished fifth in the Second Division, winning twelve games and losing ten. Given the relative success of the club and its geographical location the club had high hopes that it would be awarded a franchise for the new Super League competition that was created in 1996.
A case was put forward by former Cardiff City Blue Dragons’ player and Welsh international Mike Nicholas and head coach Clive Griffiths. However, the club failed to be awarded a franchise. Because of their ever-decreasing crowds and the failure to achieve Super League status, the decision was made to disband the club before the start of the 1997 season. Once more, Rugby League appeared destined to fail in Wales.
The last stand – Crusaders
The last major Welsh experiment came in the form of Crusaders Rugby League.
Founded as Celtic Crusaders in 2005, the club was initially based in Bridgend where they competed in what was then National League Two from 2006–07 and in National League One in 2008.
In 2009, in the hope that the Welsh public would get on board, the RFL awarded the club a Super League licence. An early February start saw the Crusaders make their Super League debut in freezing-cold conditions at Leeds Rhinos’ Headingley, where they went down 28-6 with centre Luke Dyer scoring the club’s first ever top-flight try. This was followed by another loss away at Salford before the Crusaders held their first ever Super League game at home to Hull FC.
A strong crowd of over 5,200 witnessed the Welsh side just fall 20-28 to the Airlie Birds.
But it would be a tough maiden season for the Crusaders as they accrued a mere six points with just three wins and, after the last game of the 2009 season, coach John Dixon announced he would be moving on after four years at the helm.
Ahead of the 2010 season, the club moved from Bridgend to Wrexham in North Wales, dropping the ‘Celtic’ part of their name. Legendary British coach Brian Noble was to take charge with former Welsh international Iestyn Harris and former Great Britain assistant Jon Sharp as his assistant coaches.
And it was a season to remember. The Crusaders finished eighth and reached the Super League play-offs in what was a major step forward for Welsh Rugby League. And, although they were defeated in the first-round against Huddersfield Giants, it was a huge improvement after the bitter disappointment of the previous season.
Yet financial difficulties were never far from the surface, and, in November 2010, the Crusaders were placed into administration due to “inherited debt”. As a result, a six-points deduction was given to the club for going into administration – a decision which meant the Welsh side would finish bottom in the 2011 season with just eight points.
During the 2011 season, the Crusaders initially applied to continue with their Super League licence for the 2012–15 period, but on 26 July 2011 the club announced it had withdrawn its application. The club’s owners, Geoff Moss and Ian Roberts, pulled out, claiming that they were not able to fund the side any more, which eventually led to the club being wound up in September.
And, in rather dismal fashion, the Crusaders bowed out of Super League with a 42–10 defeat at Wigan Warriors.
The Crusaders, who had been arguably Wales’ most impressive Rugby League side, disbanded after the 2011 season, and were succeeded by a new club, North Wales Crusaders, in Championship 1 in 2012. The new club was coached, ironically by Clive Griffiths – the man at the heart of the attempts to expand Welsh Rugby League over the past 30 years.
South Wales Ironmen
But, in the midst of the Crusaders’ disaster, there was a new club slowly emerging out of the shadows. After the Crusaders moved north to Wrexham, South Wales RLFC were formed by a consortium of businessmen led by Phil Davies in late 2009 and, after being accepted into Championship One – the third tier of British Rugby League – for the 2010 season, they quietly went about their business at their new home the Gnoll in Neath.
A name change by a fans’ poll in December 2009 meant the club was renamed South Wales Scorpions. Their first-ever competitive game saw Workington Town visit the Gnoll in late February 2009, who the Scorpions defeated 22-20. However, a crowd of just over 500 attended the game and the attendances did not improve.
In 2016, the Scorpions relocated to the home of Caerphilly RFC’s Virginia Park with attendances falling below even 500. And, in a further attempt to stoke a Welsh interest in the sport, the club rebranded as South Wales Ironmen for the 2017 season as it moved to Merthyr Tydfil, a town that, at one time, was the largest producer of iron in the world.
Sadly, however, the club moved once again, this time to Llanelli, with another rebranding as the West Wales Raiders.
Will Rugby League in Wales ever succeed?
Over the course of a century, Welsh Rugby League has flirted with success, only to be knocked down at the very last moment.
Time after time, clubs have been created with genuine hope that they can sow the seeds of Rugby League in Wales. But, again and again, these attempts have fallen flat.
The Crusaders have come the closest to overturning this pattern, which was set way back in the late 1900s. But they were once more dogged with financial problems.
Whilst a competitive Welsh side would benefit the national game in a country that had a dismal 2017 World Cup, there seems to be little genuine support for a Welsh Rugby League side in the nation itself.
The question that remains is whether Wales can ever be a successful breeding ground for Rugby League?
Callum Walker is the author of ‘Cas Tigers: the Breakthrough Year’, which can be ordered at www.totalrl.com