Championship Focus: North Wales Crusaders in rude health as they reach landmark

It’s 250 up for North Wales Crusaders – and encouraging that the longest-lasting of the various clubs to have emerged from the country reached their milestone match in a League One play-off tie.

Departing coach Anthony Murray’s men took on Doncaster in the qualifying clash – meaning both will be involved in this weekend’s pair of matches – as Rochdale and Oldham met in a derby elimination game.

It’s the second year running North Wales have made the play-offs – they lost 48-34 at home to Doncaster in the 2021 elimination semi-final (the second of the four stages) – and their third involvement in the eleven seasons since being formed after Crusaders folded after finishing bottom of Super League amid financial difficulties.

Back in 2013, their second campaign, the then-Wrexham club didn’t need the play-offs, since they won automatic promotion to the Championship under former St Helens and Salford back, dual-code Wales international and former Wales and Great Britain coach Clive Griffiths by finishing top of League One, winning 14 out of 16 games to be two points clear of Oldham (Rochdale went up through the play-offs).

North Wales were unfortunate, because with two teams relegated from the Championship far more often than not, their fourth-bottom finish would normally have ensured survival, but a league structure following the end of licensing in Super League meant five fell through the trapdoor in 2014.

Having been assistant to Griffiths, Murray, the former Warrington, Widnes, Leigh, Rochdale, Barrow, Swinton, Oldham, Workington and Chorley hooker, began his first spell as coach midway through that season, and in 2015, led North Wales to the play-offs via a final position of fifth and to success in the inaugural League One (iPro) Cup, with Swinton defeated 12-8 in the final at Bloomfield Road, Blackpool.

The following season, the club made the final of the League One Shield, contested by the bottom seven teams at the end of the regular season, but lost 31-26 at Newcastle.

And in 2017, with ex-South Wales Scorpions coach Mike Grady at the helm and Wrexham’s Queensway Stadium the base rather than the Racecourse Ground, North Wales again got to the League One Cup final, only to go down 38-32 to Barrow back at Blackpool.

Grady was sacked early in the 2018 season, paving the way for the return of Murray, who last month announced he will stand down at the end of this season and whose absence will surely be felt at Colwyn Bay, where the club moved in 2021.

While North Wales look towards their 251st match, West Wales Raiders, from 175 miles to the South in Llanelli, finished the season having played 92 matches over five testing years since succeeding South Wales Scorpions/Ironmen, who turned out 178 times between 2010 and 2017, playing home games at Neath, Caerphilly, Mountain Ash, Maesteg and Merthyr Tydfil.

The aforementioned (Celtic) Crusaders played 182 matches from 2006 to 2011 out of Bridgend, then Wrexham, featuring in all three tiers (National Two in 2006 and 2007 and National One in 2008 before making Super League under the first round of licensing from 2009 until 2011).

The fourth longest-lasting Welsh club are Ebbw Vale, one of six formed in the early stages of the 20th Century, along with Aberdare, Barry and Tonypandy-based Mid-Rhondda, all three of whom lasted only the 1908/09 season, Treherbert, who entered the league in 1908/09 but failed to complete their fixtures the following campaign, and Merthyr Tydfil (1907/08 until 1910/11).

Ebbw Vale also joined in 1907/08 and continued until 1911/12, playing 155 times and supplying a player, ex-Hull back Chick Jenkins, for the first Lions tour, to Australia and New Zealand in 1910.

Fifth on the matches-played list are Cardiff (later Bridgend) Blue Dragons, the second club from the capital after the side who survived only one season in 1951/52.

The second version, who despite signing former Wales rugby union internationals Steve Fenwick and Tommy David, struggled to attract spectators, were involved in 136 matches between 1981/82 and 1984/85.

The country has had two other teams: Pontypridd, who after finishing third-bottom in 1926/27, lasted only a few games of the following season, and South Wales, who competed in the third tier in the first Summer campaign of 1996, coached by future North Wales chief Griffiths. Playing games at Aberavon, Swansea and Cardiff, they finished sixth out of twelve.

South Wales disbanded after failing to win a Super League franchise.

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