Talking Grassroots: Wales Rugby League ready to take progress to another level

Keep your eye over the next few years on what’s happening at amateur level in Wales.

I’ve had ample cause during the last decade or so to reflect positively on grassroots developments in that wonderful country, and it could well be that the Welsh RL is set to take progress to another level.

A press release that dropped in late last week appeared, at first glance, to be one of those that are perhaps more worthy than anything, focusing as it obviously did on off-field rather than on-field matters. 

But such announcements can be, if not more important, at least more far-reaching than most of those that deal with match results and reports. And this was one. 

Wales RL, which runs its own affairs, has a firm grip on how to nurture the amateur scene, for which chairman Brian Juliff and his colleagues deserve huge credit, and it was invigorating to learn that Mark Jones is stepping up from his role as National Development Manager to take on an overseeing role and that his previous duties will be shared by four people.

Wayne Ponting will concentrate on the east of the country, Richard Lewis (no, not that one) will oversee the west, and feelers are being put out for someone to nurture the north. And Louise Morgan, meanwhile, will be responsible for the burgeoning Women’s and Girls’ Rugby League scene.

I get the feeling sometimes that Welsh Rugby League can, as far as most fans in the north of England are concerned anyway, go under the radar a little, perhaps because there isn’t at the moment a Super League club in place. But there’s plenty of positive progress in what I would once have called, as a matter of course, the Principality, including at professional level, where North Wales Crusaders are much stronger than many folk seem to think, while West Wales Raiders just need, perhaps, a touch of good fortune for the spark to properly ignite in their neck of the woods in terms of results.

Amateur development will, of course, be key to the Raiders’ long-term ambitions and I firmly believe that the statement made by the Wales Rugby League in early May 2022 will be looked back on in future years as a real benchmark moment.

It so happens that this latest development coincided with Wales hosting the Celtic Cup, with Ireland and Scotland also contesting the competition at Wrexham, and it wasn’t a massive surprise to learn that the Welsh retained their crown in yet another area of Rugby League in which those who wear red shirts with huge pride – not least captain Stuart Williams, who became the first Welsh player at any level to hit 50 career tries on Saturday – are so strong. That’s due to plenty of fine and effective work over the years, and as I pen these notes I can’t help reflecting that you never really know in this game, or in life, who will make big contributions many years down the line. 

I’m thinking of Brian Juliff and, also, of Mike Nicholas MBE, who was Juliff’s predecessor as Wales RL Chairman, is now President, and who has also been a massive influence down the decades. 

I don’t know either man. All I know is what I recall from the sidelines, as a spectator the best part of half a century ago, when they played professionally after having taken the well-established route north from Welsh rugby union. Both appeared – not to put too fine a point on it – to be hot-heads, with short fuses, and they both sometimes seemed close to being out of control emotionally. In fact Juliff was nick-named ‘Mad Dog’, which might tell you something. And don’t get me started on Jim Mills, who really did have a fearsome reputation but who these days is heavily and productively involved with former players. How very, very, very wrong can you be, going by impressions gained by watching folk on the pitch? 

Meanwhile, many of the regional competitions in England are now kicking off, and results appear in today’s issue. I hope readers will accept my apologies for many of those games not showing as fixtures in last Monday’s League Express. The GameDay agency hadn’t flagged any matches up at that stage and it came as something of a surprise to me, when GameDay sent fixtures through last Friday for the Saturday programme, that quite a few were listed. Now that the 2022 season appears to be in full swing, I hope to be able to offer a regularly reliable service regarding all results and fixtures around the land. 

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