Championship Focus: Rugby League still alive and kicking in Wales

Welsh Rugby League clubs have never had an easy ride.

There have been various attempts to introduce the sport in a country far more readily associated with the rival code.

Ebbw Vale and Merthyr Tydfil were trailblazers, joining the Northern Union in 1907, and by the following year, there were enough teams to start a six-strong Welsh League to run alongside the main competition.

But it lasted only two seasons, and by 1911/12, only Ebbw Vale remained, finally disbanding after a third-bottom finish.

Pontypridd entered for the 1926/27 campaign, but after they also ended up third-bottom, they dropped out just eight games into the next season.

The first of two Cardiff sides came in 1951 but went the year after, partly because they couldn’t compete for paying customers with the city’s football club, who in 1981 followed the example of Fulham the year before by launching a Rugby League team.

While more than 9,000 attended the opening game against Salford, Cardiff City Blue Dragons couldn’t win promotion to the top-flight, and after relocating to Bridgend in 1984, lasted just one more campaign.

South Wales appeared in the third tier in the first summer season of 1996, playing matches in Swansea, Aberavon and Cardiff, but floundered after failing to win a Super League franchise (it went to Gateshead Thunder instead).

Celtic Crusaders, based in Bridgend, played in National League Two in 2006 and 2007 and after winning promotion, National League One in 2008, and did manage to win a three-year Super League licence starting in 2009.

They moved to Wrexham for the 2010 campaign, and dropped ‘Celtic’ from their name, but during the following season, withdrew their application to remain in the competition for the next three years and in 2012, were succeeded by the current North Wales Crusaders.

Meanwhile South Wales Ironmen entered Championship One in 2010 (following Crusaders’ relocation to North Wales) and reached the play-offs under future South Sydney Rabbitohs and Brisbane Broncos coach Anthony Seibold.

But that proved a high for the club, which was initially based in Neath, then played in Caerphilly, Mountain Ash, Maesteg and finally, as South Wales Ironmen, Merthyr Tydfil, so bringing Rugby League back to the town after a 106-year absence.

The presence of the 13-a-aide code was even shorter than before, because in July 2017, the  Ironmen were bought by Andrew Thorne and moved to Llanelli.

For the following year, Thorne rebranded the club as West Wales Raiders, the amateur side he had founded in 2015 and who now became semi-professional.

They have finished bottom of the third tier in each completed season since, picking up only three points in 64 matches – from a 44-16 win over Coventry Bears (now Midlands Hurricanes) in 2019 and a 24-24 draw with Doncaster last year, both times at their home ground of Stebonheath Park.

Throw in the truncated 2020 campaign and cup-ties, and the Raiders reached the end of 2021  having lost 70 of their 72 games.

West Wales were due to host Doncaster nine days ago (Saturday, April 24) but had to forfeit the match after being unable to secure the necessary duty doctor, echoing their scheduled first match against Newcastle Thunder in February 2018, which was postponed hours before kick-off because the medic present didn’t have the necessary supplies (it was rearranged with the visitors winning 82-20).

The irony of the Doncaster game was that when a 48-0 scoreline was assigned under Rugby Football League rules, it represented the second-closest margin in a Raiders match to date this term after losses to Swinton Lions (96-0 at home in the Challenge Cup and 82-4 away in the league), Rochdale Hornets (52-12 at home) and Oldham (100-4 away).

It’s all a bit bleak, and West Wales have had plenty of criticism, but Thorne insists they are on a sound financial footing and that despite the current difficulties, the will to carry on is there.

Having visited North Wales Crusaders, the Raiders host Keighley Cougars on Saturday – and Thorne is confident there will be a doctor present.

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