The first of two challenge matches between North Wales Crusaders and South Wales Ironmen kick-off this Sunday at Queensway Stadium in Wrexham (kick-off 2.30pm) as both of Wales’ professional sides revamp and build for a tough 2017 League 1 season.
This first “friendly” match will be refereed by Welsh referee James Jones in his first professional Rugby League refereeing game following his switch from full-time professional rugby union and a period of refereeing RL community games.
The return game between the two clubs will be a week later at the new home of the rebranded South Wales club, The Wern in Merthyr Tydfil.
Both outfits have gone through considerable changes in the off-season. The team who used to be known as South Wales Scorpions were rebranded as the Ironmen, introduced new kit colours, moved to a new ground and have signed a number of new players.
Meanwhile those from the North also have a new ground, admittedly Queensway is just across town from The Racecourse which is where they’ve played since forming in 2012, have a new head coach in Mike Grady, who coached the Scorpions for two years, and also a batch of new signings.
Grady has taken over a club that’s going through its first major rebuild since regenerating into North Wales Crusaders. A few players have come and gone and significantly, it looks like that the Crusaders could start the season without a Welsh born or qualified player in the first team for the first time ever following the departures of Rob Massam and Andy Oakden, and that’s something Grady, who did well in bringing many local youngsters through in South Wales, is keen to address quickly.
“It’s tough,” he said. “Unlike South Wales there hasn’t been an open age competition running in the north, so there is a big gap we need to bridge to enable a pathway and step up to League 1 level.
“Allen Jones has done a great job in the north in developing young players. He introduced a number of age-groups up here, and for most importantly an under 18s who I’ve already had training alongside the first team. Allen has recently been made redundant from Wales Rugby League as there is a funding cut in place soon, which probably makes the task even harder, but we as a club have said that we have to start the process of developing Welsh players now. It won’t happen overnight but if we can start chipping away at it then we can start developing the next Rob Massam or Rhys Williams here in North Wales. It’s going to be a good four to five years with the correct structure in place to start bringing North Wales players through to being regulars in League 1, but we did it in the south and working hard, we can do it in the north.
“We can’t wait for the derbies over the next couple of weeks, obviously to see what level the squad is at, but personally I have many great memories coaching the Scorpions and have made a lot of friends who I still speak to now. They were probably minutes from beating Crusaders last season and maybe deserved to get a win, they will be fired up for the games as we will be, let’s not forget they are friendlies but a win would still be nice.”
The North have always come out on top in these encounters, at least at open-age level, so could this be the year that the South will rise again? South Wales Ironmen coach Phil Carleton has primarily stuck with the policy of bringing through talented Welsh players and has also pulled off some coups by bringing a couple of Welsh internationals back who have joined other clubs in the past.
They’ve brought back Lewis Reece from Gloucestershire All Golds whilst Andrew Gay, a founder member of the Scorpions in 2010, has returned from Australia (with younger brother Richard in tow) and was a part of the Wales side last year in the World Cup qualifiers.
Gay could take Paul Emanuelli’s place in the halves, the full Welsh international taking a back seat from playing the pro game but is now looking for a place in the Wales Students side (and has turned out recently for rugby union’s Ironmen – Merthyr RFC), as is Dafydd Hellard, as both of whom are now studying at the Ironmen’s college partner in Coleg y Cymoedd.
Carleton said: “We’ve a nice blend in the squad with some experience joining in the shape of Andy Gay and Lewis Reece and we’ve given youth a chance with five of last season’s successful reserve side stepping up to the first team. Alex Davidson has returned north (joining Crusaders) but we are delighted that Richard Jones has joined us permanently from the All Golds.
“We have a new captain in Christiaan Roets – he gives 110% every game and is vastly experienced. We were all delighted when Roetsy agreed to take on the role.
“We still have a little way to go before our squad is finalised. We’ve agreed terms with one rugby union convert who will be joining the squad in February. We’ve another couple of union players with us on trial and are looking to bring one or two more experienced league players in as well. We are pretty happy with what we’ve got so far but if we can land all our remaining targets we will be in a very good place.
“We did a lot of our business early on bringing in the likes of Lewis Reece, Andy Gay and Richard Jones. Sometimes you have to play the long game but we are pretty confident we will land our remaining targets and will have a strong squad.”
Both sides kick-off their Kingstone Press League 1 season on Sunday 5th March with games in the League 1 Cup and Challenge Cup to be played in the fortnight proceeding.
IRONMEN IN: Richard Jones, Lewis Reece (both Gloucestershire All Golds), Andrew Gay (Mackay Cutters), Peter Gay (Toukley Hawks), Connor Parker (Widnes Vikings), Ross Price (Valley Cougars), Morgan Jeffries (West Wales Raiders), Ethan Coombes, Paul Edwards, Rhys Gant, Lewis Hughes, Shane Lee, Jake Thomas (promoted from Development side), Ashley Bateman, Shaun Owens (both unattached)
OUT: Mike Connor (Cardiff RU), Rhys Davies (released), Paul Emanuelli, Dafydd Hellard (both Ironmen coaching staff), Dai Evans (Bargoed RU), Scott Gregory (released – injured), Bradley Hill (released), Sion Jones (Halifax RLFC), Tom Morgan, Jamie Murphy (both Bridgend Ravens RU), Barrie Phillips (Cardiff City RL), Osian Phillips (Australia – club TBC), Anthony Symons (Newbridge RU), Ian Newbury, Kyle Scrivens (both Torfaen Tigers – coaching staff).
CRUSADERS IN: Stephen Bannister (London Skolars), Dan Price, Andy Unsworth (both Coventry Bears), Dean Thompson (Widnes Vikings), Greg Wilde (Swinton Lions), John Cookson, James Dandy, Dale Bloomfield, Corey Lee (all Rochdale Hornets), Alex Davidson (Gloucestershire All Golds), Callum Mulkeen (Tumut Blues, Australia), Josh Simm (West Bank Bears)
OUT: Rob Massam (Rochdale Hornets), Tommy Holland (Whitehaven), Billy Brickhill (Gloucestershire All Golds), Stuart Reardon, Stephen Wild, Mark Hobson (all retired), Andrew Oakden (Whitchurch RU).