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It’s quite ironic that I’m first hearing Nadirah X’s new single “Here it comes” on a cold autumn morning in South Wales where the rain is hammering it down as per usual in this country at this time of year.

“Here is comes” heavily samples the Eurythmics classic, “Here comes the rain” with permission from the creators Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart I hasten to add (she has close working links with both), but this is more than just a reimagining, it’s a brand new song in itself with the lyrics giving everyone a lot to think about. It’s an outstanding start for the young (I don’t know how young, she won’t tell me the year she was born) rap artist from Jamaica and I’m hoping that this single will finally lift her into the limelight.

To be fair, she should be up with the greats already. Her song, “I Hate This” was included on the soundtrack of the film Tomb Raider - Cradle of Life while she co-sung the theme to the re-make of “Alfie” in 2004. And if you want even more credentials, she opened for Pink on her 2006 tour of Europe. It was at this time that I first met her when we were staying at the same hotel. She was watching Rugby League on TV in the bar and I was helping her to understand it! I wonder if she knows that her two countries, USA and Jamaica, faced each other on the Rugby League field last night in Jacksonville with the US winning 36-26.

But I digress – Nadirah (or Nadz to her friends) invited me to watch her when she came to Cardiff on her club tour later that year. I gladly accepted and I think she was pleasantly surprised when I turned up! We chatted and had a drink afterwards and she gave me a copy of her promotional EP CD containing some well written and great sounding tracks like “Bomb Dat” and “Ordinary Girl” (love the remix with hubby Swisha by the way). We’ve kept in touch ever since and I’m reviewing her music here as I feel that it deserves a much larger audience. We have shows like X Factor these days that create a lot of manufactured pop stars and while some of them aren’t that bad, it’s people like Nadz who are working hard to give their music to the world.

On mentioning the X Factor, one could say that there are obvious minor comparisons between Nadz and Cher Lloyd. However Lloyd’s style is more on the side of pop, Nadz’s singing is more in line with of hip-hop, reggae, soul and spoken word. More than your traditional rap artist, she is very much a revolutionary and her songs need listening to carefully for their depth and meaning. While her style is nothing like another of my favourites, Midnight Oil, her ideals and the general meanings of her songs certainly are – both know their ideals and know the causes that they are standing up for… through the medium of music.

If you haven’t sampled her work yet, please do so, and if you like it, go out and buy the single “Here it comes” or the album “Ink” which has this on there as well as the aforementioned “Ordinary Girl” (but no “Bomb Dat” which is a pity – you can tell which is my favourite here!).

A good place to check out some of her work is on YouTube, she’s done a lot over the last few years, including playing a part in official Greenpeace songs alongside other greats like Dave Stewart, Mudbone, Natalie Imbruglia, Annie Lennox and Imogen Heap. But it’s her individual work that really excels for me. “Here comes the rain” is superb but not necessarily her best song in my opinion. However it is music that will greatly appeal to the mainstream hip-hop and general music lovers a bit more and I can see why it was chosen as a first single. Hopefully this will do well enough to justify a second mainstream release, which is normally the one to watch. If taken from the album I’m hoping for “Ordinary Girl”, which is a contradiction in terms – Nadirah X is no ordinary girl, she has the skills and potential to be a music legend. Please support her.

The Bluebirds are flying high at the moment (despite a derby day defeat) but what is happening to the rest of Welsh football? And more to the point, why is it that a lot of people don’t care?

The state of the Welsh international team is at an all-time low and it isn’t going to get better anytime soon, even if the best manager in the world takes over. There simply isn’t the resources here on or off the pitch, to field a decent international side, especially when players like Craig Bellamy pull out after successfully playing for City on the weekend before. To play for one’s international side should be the pinnacle of an international career so why is not treated as such?

Right now, we are falling behind many, most or perhaps all international sports in Wales in regards to our international sides, and I place the blame solely on the Premier League and the money that its prepared to pay out!

Why make such an outlandish comment, you may ask? It’s theorised to be as simple as this – the Premier League is now full of players from all around the world. Gone as the days where a top league side would have one or two foreign players. That’s why in the 1970s and 1980s we all knew of players like Ossie Ardiles of Spurs, Bruce Grobbelaar of Liverpool or Jesper Olsen of Manchester United. Sure, there were a few more, but not many of them. Most top league sides were full of British players, be it Scottish, Irish (north and south), English or Welsh.

But why is this important? Well, if Johnny Foreigner is playing at almost 1 to 11, where are the British players going? Mainly they’re off to non-Premier League sides, with the English players not even being considered for international selection (think Jay Bothroyd here) and the Welsh having far less experience when we take on international sides.

Let’s face it - the last three Welsh international games have been a disgrace. We lack passion, leadership and the aforementioned experience and we’re turning into more of a joke than we were before. Someone commented that we’ve gone from almost qualifying to almost winning to almost scoring to almost having a chance, and that’s not far off the truth.

So where are we, as Wales, going wrong? At under 16 level recently, we hammered England 4-0 with seven of the starting side and one substitute coming from Cardiff City. This shows that the development is there and it would be nice to think that those eight will all progress to the City first team and play for the Wales senior side within five years, but we know, with all due respect to the youngsters, that this is probably not going to happen.

We, as in Cardiff City, will be signing another cracking Englishman or other foreigner, someone like Bothroyd, Chopra or Olofinjana, who the crowd will love and hail as a hero, and that’s if we’re not in the Premier League. If we are in the elite, then we’ll have 50% or more foreign players in the side and the Welsh will be lucky to get a look in.

Now that might be “okay” if we were an English club – there are 20 of them at the top level alone so they should have plenty of players ready to try to get in the England side and are probably even learning a lot from your Fernando Torres’ of this world. In Wales, as I’m sure everyone knows, we have two sides in the Championship in us and Swansea, and two sides looking to get back into the Football League and doing alright in the Blue Square Premier in Wrexham and Newport. After that, it’s park football time. We can only bring in a maximum of 44 Welsh born regulars to choose from to play at one time for our professional clubs and we’re not doing even half that. It’s not good enough to try and select a so-called top level international side.

So where do we turn to? The answer has been relying more and more on the grandparent rule for our international players. In the European Championships qualifying game at the Cardiff City Stadium against Bulgaria, eight of the 18-man squad were born in Wales. This again might be “okay” if the ten were top level players but they weren’t. We are looking more and more at grandparent rule players from lower league clubs! How is this helping Wales when they’ve not been brought up with the Gwlad, may not have the passion and, more importantly, don’t know the national anthem.

This is where we start comparing it to the other footballing codes. In rugby union, Warren Gatland recently stated that he would only pick players from Welsh clubs, and there’s only four of them! What kind of luxury is that? He says that it shows devotion to our country which is admirable and he believes that his sport can cope with that. I don’t know if they’re all Welsh born or if some qualify through residency but you can be certain it’s mainly the former.

It’s when you compare us to Rugby League that it gets more interesting. When Wales won the European Cup in October, seven of the 17-man squad were born in Wales, a similar statistic to the football. However, out of the remaining ten, a further six are or have played club Rugby League in Wales (plus the Welsh coaches, John Dixon now Iestyn Harris, makes sure that they all know “Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” believing it’s important to get that pride it before starting a game).

But it’s not just about singing and passion. The Rugby League clubs are not afraid to bring the youngsters through. Sure, the Crusaders, who play in Super League, are still mainly reliant on foreigners but have still fielded four or five Welsh internationals in a lot of their games. There is just one other professional club in Wales in South Wales Scorpions, who play in Championship 1 which is like our League One in football. From that squad of 30 players in 2010, 24 were born in Wales and a further two were Welsh qualified, and both played for Wales this autumn.

So is football even below Rugby League when it comes to the development here in Wales? When it comes to crowds or coverage or even money, absolutely not, but that’s because the papers and TV report on every move and arse-scratch that happens at either the Cardiff City or Liberty Stadiums. We all know when the football and rugby union is on, even if you’re not a big fan, we don’t when it comes to the 13-man game. But when was the last time that the Welsh football side did anything decent? The under 21s were recently cheated out of a play-off place for European finals, but that’s about it! If Rugby League had as much publicity as football, then they would be walking over the 11-man game at just about every level.

Right now, City are going to plod on and go for promotion to the Premier League, which would be fantastic for the club and for the city of Cardiff as a whole, but would it be good for us - the nation of Wales? I’d like to say that I think it would bring more players wanting to play football and more Welsh youngsters being developed in the lower ranks but I think that’s happening already. Right now, many Welsh-born footballers have nowhere to go when they turn 21 and are too old for the academy, and are not improving or are being lost to the game as a result. Players like Craig Bellamy and Darcy Blake are one-offs – is that really how it should be?

But as long as Cardiff City are doing well and are pushing for the Premier League, do we really care how many are Welsh? And is it right that we should think in that way?

Written for the next issue of "Watch the Bluebirds Fly" - Cardiff City's number 1 supporters magazine.

A new era is dawning for Italian Rugby League with the game at its strongest in Europe’s sixth most populous country for the first time in decades.

  There are a host of talented Rugby League players all round the world with Italian heritage lining up to play for the Azzurri, and with players like Anthony Minichiello said to be putting his hand up to have a shot at the World Cup qualifiers next year.

  However that doesn’t mean that the Italian Rugby League are only using professional heritage players and are ignoring their home land – far from it. They now have a healthy six team competition in Italy which provided a number of players for the national team that took on Lebanon and Wales.

  Italy have just come out of a three match international season with two wins and one defeat. But the major win and the biggest shock was a 13-6 victory over European Cup winners Wales in Wrexham.

  Fair enough, the Welsh side was very much understrength with a number of teenage debutants and just seven from that friendly going on to play in the European Cup, but a win against Wales it was and their Salford-born coach Carlo Napolitano says that they can build on this, both on and off the field, for the good of Italian Rugby League.

  “To say that was our biggest win ever is pretty accurate," he said. "A win against Wales is a massive win, whatever team they put out and it's a significant scalp. This is the basis of the team that we have as we look forward to the World Cup qualifiers for next year.

  “We’ve not been told how the qualifiers work yet but we’re all very much looking forward to them. The Welsh win plus our two performances against Lebanon will not only give us a lot of confidence but it will also assist us in our quest to find quality Italian players who want to play Rugby League for Italy.”

  It’s been a tough ride for Napolitano and his backroom staff to relaunch Rugby League in Italy. But the game isn’t a new sport to the Italians by any means. It was originally played there in the 1950s and 1960s famously hosting internationals against France and Australia during that period.

  But in the late 1960s, the threats made by the Italian Rugby Union regarding disqualification of players were successful, despite the game being amateur in Italy, and the Italian Rugby League was closed down as a result due to lack of players.

  Italian Rugby League was revived in 1995 through the passion of enthusiasts, Mick Pezzano and John Benigni and it was during those early years that Napolitano had his chance to play for Italy.

  “When I was playing for Salford, I saw an article in one of the rugby league magazines saying to get in touch if you have Italian heritage and want to play for Italy,” he explains. “I ended up speaking to Mick Pezzano, played in the Mediterranean Cup in 1999 and the Emerging Nations World Cup in 2000 and that planted the seed. As my role in Rugby League changed from a player to a coach therefore my role changed with the Italian Rugby League too. I’ve been involved for over ten years now.”

  It was back in 1999 that Napolitano played alongside one Anthony Minichiello for Italy. The full-back or winger that has made over 200 NRL appearances with Sydney Roosters and played 19 times for Australia between 2003 and 2005 actually played a few times for Italy before that and Napolitano hopes that he will be back in the colours of the Azzurri next year.

  “Anthony has come out publically to say that he wants to play for Italy next year,” confirms Napolitano. “When I get back to Australia, I’ll speak to Anthony myself and get that confirmed. We’re close friends and we speak quite often.

  “He’s one of our main scalps. You could tell in 1999 that he was a force to be reckoned with and now look at what he’s done. For him to come out and say that publically when we weren’t going to announce it, is great for me and the Italian Rugby League. To have a Golden Boot winner and the best player in the world from a few years ago in our side sends a message out to other players that we’re not here to look like a small nation. We want to be challenging and we want a Super League side in Italy eventually. We want to be considered for a licence in the long-term future.

  “Once we have Anthony committed, the possibilities for us are endless. You’re talking Cameron Ciraldo, Grant Rovelli, Anthony and a few others - Shaun Berrigan has Italian heritage too apparently. Because of the Italian community in Australia, there’s an array of NRL lads that we could field in the World Cup qualifiers.

  “However I’m not going to let anyone put the Italian shirt on unless they respect their Italian heritage. I was born in Salford to an Italian father and Maltese mother and was brought up a very proud Italian. Every person who puts that shirt on should respect their heritage as much as I do.”

  One of the Australian-Italians who played for Italy against Wales was Rocky Trimarchi who played the 2010 season at Crusaders in Wales before being released.

  Trimarchi played for Italy in 2003 and 2004 but, frustratingly for him, he has always been unable to play for his country since, either through injury or because of club commitments.

  But, when the Wales v Italy game was announced for Wrexham, he made sure that he was available, even if it meant flying back to Australia for a friend’s wedding, staying for less than two weeks and then flying back again to North Wales.

  It was that kind of commitment to his country that ensured his appointment of captain of the side and he too has high hopes for the future of Italian Rugby League.

  “It was good to finally play for Italy again, I was really proud to captain and the win in Wales was outstanding,” Trimarchi said.

  “I wish that I could have played sooner but I’ve been in the NRL since then and it's very hard for them to let their players go over to Europe. It was great to come back over here and take on the Welsh at the ground that I've played at all season.

  “We didn’t have that many training sessions together in Wales, but at the first one, I could see that some of the domestic players were picking up Rugby League really fast. A little bit more practice for them and we’ll have the makings of a really good side. The win over Wales got into the papers in Italy so hopefully we’ll be able to attract some new players out of that.

  “I think that in the World Cup qualifiers next year, we’ll have a lot of good players. It’ll be a big step for Italian Rugby League. It’s a great opportunity for us. We want to qualify for the World Cup, be back in the European Cup and also aim to qualify for the Four Nations eventually. There’s no limit to what we can achieve.

  “Apparently the fan base back in Italy is getting bigger too. Obviously football is the number one sport over there but Rugby League is getting higher and higher and more players are transferring over from rugby union to play Rugby League.”

  As Trimarchi confirms, there are big plans to expand the domestic Italian Championship to produce more Italian born players for the national side. Napolitano is right at the centre of this, as he has been since the relaunch.

  “Six years ago, we took a group of Australian and British-based Italian players back to Italy and five years ago, the Federation of Italian Rugby League (FIRL) was formed,” Napolitano said. “I’m on the committee of that too so I’m fully hands on to make sure that the organisation is going in the right direction.

  “Now we’ve got a real structure in place in Italy to develop our players. We had a domestic competition and a talent ID pool. This gave us about 30 players and from them selected the best possible players who we thought could cut the mustard against Wales. Our talent ID programme has worked a treat and I was great to see them on the field against Wales. At least three of them had only played half a dozen Rugby League games in their life. That’s what we’re dealing with.

  “We’re here to develop the players and help them find their right position in Rugby League. One of the players who turned up is a large lad called Fabio Nannini from the club XIII del Ducato. I asked him, ‘Where do you play in rugby union?’ and he said ‘centre or wing’ which my response was ‘Today my son, you’ll be a front rower’. He was outstanding against Lebanon in both games and there was no way that we couldn’t take him to Wales. He played just a short spell in Wrexham but even his little runs, goosesteps and agility for a big man is sensational.

  “It would be nice to get some of them into Championship 1 Rugby League in England to help them develop. However the Euro that they earn in first division rugby union in Italy is quite strong and that’s what we’re up against. Saying that though, I must thank the rugby union clubs in Italy for giving them the opportunity to play.

  “The future of the game in Italy has been mapped out. We’ve got pockets of Rugby League clinics in Italy. They generate the interest and we generate a small competition. We’re hoping to get provinces involved so there’ll be four competitions going on throughout Italy. The winners of those will go into what we will call a Province Competition and we’ll pick the rep sides through that.”

  Napolitano’s experience and contacts in the world of Rugby League has not only helped him attract a healthy playing squad but also a strong backroom staff, including Wakefield Wildcats Assistant Coach and Challenge Cup winner with Sheffield Paul Broadbent who, it is hoped, will be in situ for the 2011 World Cup qualifiers.

  “Paul will be an invaluable addition to the FIRL set up,” Napolitano confirmed. “He assisted me in the Wales game as I asked him to watch certain areas of Wales during the match and his info was extremely valuable in the half time discussion.

  “I will bounce some ideas off him over the next couple of years and will give him an area to work on when we are in camp for the World Cup Qualifiers in 2011.”

  With all this positivity in the Italian camp, it is hard to find any negatives. Apart from player availability, a matter that Napolitano is working on, finance is a big issue. The FIRL needs more money for all aspects of the game, primarily for insurance for some of the big-name players that they hope to attract.

  Napolitano confirms: “Sponsors are the backbone to any international team but because we have a massive community in Australia who enjoy Rugby League -and are not too bad at playing it - we work hard to seek them from there and they have been great.

  “Mick Pezzano and Reno Santiguida have been sensational and have worked hard to put fundraising nights on. Even the players have put their own levy in. Also, the FIRL committee work hard to gain in-kind sponsorship from the local municipality in Monselice.

  “All this takes a lot of planning. Hopefully with the positive result in Wales we can now gain some positive media so as to procure some long term sponsorship for FIRL and the national team. If anyone out there can give any assistance, please drop me a line at c.napolitano@firl.it.”

This article was written for the December 2010 issue of Rugby League World magazine which is out now.

You would never have believed it three months ago, but rugby league in Wales looks like it's about to start a new golden age.

This Sunday, four Welsh Rugby League clubs are set to play in three entirely unique games, all of which tell a lot about the positive state of rugby league in Wales at this moment in time.

Crusaders travel to Warrington Wolves in the engage Super League, South Wales Scorpions take on local amateur representative side South Wales Thunder in a friendly, while Blackwood Bulldogs, the Welsh Conference Premier Champions, travel to Co-operative Championship One club Oldham Roughyeds in the Third Round of the Carnegie Challenge Cup.

The Crusaders are set to take a record away following to Warrington Wolves this Sunday with an estimated 300 plus set to make what is now the short journey to the Halliwell Jones Stadium (kick-off 3pm).

It's ironic that Warrington's ground is where the Crusaders easily had record travelling support in their pre-Super League days, where a similar crowd figure travelled up from South Wales to watch the 2009 National League One Grand Final, where they were defeated by Salford City Reds after extra time.

But that seems like aeons ago now. While a number of the players who played that day are still at the club, including Luke Dyer who scored one of the Crusaders' most memorable tries of 2008 against the Reds, the Crusaders' home venue, ownership and brand of the club has been completely changed after they were saved from extinction by Wrexham Village Ltd in December last year.

It was a move that many people thought was destined to fail. Rugby at either code had never worked in North Wales before. However the North Wales rugby loving public had never been given a proper team to follow in the past. The Scarlets played in a few "on the road" games to The Racecourse Ground but the team didn't actually belong to them. When the Crusaders moved to North Wales, this was a team that they could get behind as their own.

However the Crusaders hierarchy knew it wasn't just a "Field of Dreams" that "if you build it they will come". A lot of hard work has gone into promoting the club over the last couple of months. With their partnership with Wrexham County Council, they have backing like they've never experienced before from such an organisation, while their former home of Bridgend was also unfortunately lacking a dedicated daily newspaper. In Wrexham this isn't the case and the excellent "Leader" paper has backed the club with front and back page stories from day one.

An opening sell-out club record crowd of over 10,334 followed for the game against Leeds Rhinos. This was followed up three weeks later by a healthy 6,794 crowd, still bigger than any of the attendances in Bridgend, at the second home game against Hull FC, an 18-16 win for the Crusaders that gave them back to back victories for the first time in Super League.

With coach Brian Noble and assistants Jon Sharp and Iestyn Harris in tow and an outstanding marketing department to complement them, the club seems destined for a good season. However the Crusaders' move, while initially considered to be a disappointing chapter in the history of the game in Wales, has opened up a number of new opportunities to spread the rugby league gospel throughout the nation.

The move has enthused the North Wales public to not just want to support but to play rugby league too. For over 20 years, the north has been represented by just the one amateur side, Rhyl Coasters, who have played in a number of guises and leagues against sides from the north west of England. Now, thanks to the Crusaders move, there are set to be up to 12 new rugby league clubs playing in a merit table in North Wales during the summer in 2010.

Matt Pritchard, the Community Development Manager at the Crusaders, said: "The support we've had up here has been huge from lots of different sports clubs and community backgrounds. Because of where we're based, what everyone is saying in the community is that North Wales has been screaming out for a professional sports team for years and we're providing that. Snowdonia is only an hour and 20 minutes away so we've got the whole of North Wales excited about this. Everyone's keen to get involved and I'm inundated with requests for rugby league coaching, it's a very busy time. Development of the clubs is something that needs to be done correctly though, and if that is done, either this year or next, then we'll have a strong rugby league set-up in North Wales.

"However because of our location, it's not only clubs, businesses and organisations in North Wales that are keen on following the Crusaders and getting involved, we have had massive interest from people in places like Chester, Shorpshire and Cheshire as well. Lots of them are adopting the Crusaders as they're local rugby team too and coming to support us.

"I would like to point out though that the Crusaders haven't upped and left South Wales. Street Rugby League will continue this summer and we've an adult tag rugby programme that looks like it will be starting too. All the development work that we started in South Wales and the Bridgend area specifically is continuing but Crusaders moving up to Wrexham means that we now have rugby league and community programmes throughout the whole of Wales."

As Matt Pritchard states, the Crusaders' legacy isn't confined to the north as South Wales Scorpions Rugby League Club were formed to fill the gap that was left by the Crusaders' departure. The Scorpions have started life in Co-operative Championship One and stunned the sporting world by beating the experienced former Super League club Workington Town 22-20 in their first ever game last Sunday.

A team like the Scorpions was always on the cards, even if the Crusaders had remained in South Wales. Back in 2006, it was talked about by one of the Crusaders founders Chris O'Callaghan that should the Crusaders reach Super League then another Welsh professional side would be formed in its place. Last year, before the Crusaders even thought about upping sticks, the idea was talked about again as it was felt that, with Super League ditching its reserve league in favour of an under 20 competition, there was nowhere else to go for up and coming Welsh players if they hadn't managed to secure a regular Super League place by the time they had turned 21 years old.

The Scorpions' formation may have been accelerated but the club have certainly started as they mean to go on. Their first team squad of 25 contains 24 players who are qualified to play for Wales, 22 of whom were born in Wales and 19 of whom came through the Crusaders academy or have played for local amateur clubs in South Wales. The Scorpions also have the potential to take British-born Crusaders players on loan and can dual register Crusaders first team squad players who are under 23 years old to assist with their development.

The Scorpions' 22-20 win over a club that had just celebrated its 65th anniversary was an outstanding achievement. For many of the players, it was there first foray into the professional game and they came through it with flying colours. Man of the match Steve Parry was outstanding after coming on as substitute, his try topping off a fine performance.

Parry said: "I was very pleased with last Sunday. It's always good to get a try on your debut. I think the game went well especially in the first half. The boys in the pack made it easy for me and helped me to make a couple of runs which steadied the nerves. My aim now is to play well this weekend, do my best and improve on my game."

Parry is one of many players who have signed for the Scorpions from local Welsh Rugby League Conference Premier clubs.
"The step up has been pretty good," he said. "It's obviously a lot harder than Valley Cougars but the coaching staff have helped me get to grips with it and I'm learning all the time."

This Sunday, South Wales Scorpions take on South Wales Thunder at Carmarthen Athletic RFC (kick-off 1pm). The Thunder are a relatively new side themselves, having only played a couple of games so far.

With a team selected from players who turn out in the successful Welsh Conference Premier League, South Wales Thunder were formed late last year to give young Welsh players a chance to play rugby league all year round as the Conference season runs from just May to August.

The Scorpions will field more of a development side in this game with coach Anthony Seibold making sure that any squad player who didn't get a game against Workington Town, will take the field against South Wales Thunder while no Crusaders dual registered or loan players will take part. Loz Wildbore has also been rested.

Seibold says: "I wanted to give all of our players a game against Wigan a couple of weeks ago but that match of course was called off. They'll get a chance to impress on Sunday now. Obviously our team for Doncaster the following week will depend on who we get back from the Crusaders but it's up to these guys to impress on Sunday to earn a place in the squad for the following week."

The Scorpions coach says that he hasn't ruled out making more new signings and if anyone impresses him from the South Wales Thunder side then they could also get a chance to turn professional.

"The door isn't closed," Seibold adds. "The Thunder guys will be keen to impress too as I'm sure a few of them trialled for the Scorpions but didn't make the cut, and they'll want to prove a couple of points. If we see someone who performs well this week, there could be an opportunity for them to join our squad as we're always looking for quality Welsh players."

The fact that there is a team like South Wales Thunder is testament to the growing interest of young men who want to play rugby league in Wales. The Welsh Conference (which will probably now be renamed the South Wales Conference after positive developments in the north) is set to expand to at least 12 teams this summer and they will be divided into two divisions for the first time with each team playing ten games before competing in the play-offs.

The Premier Division will consist of Valley Cougars, Bridgend Blue Bulls, Cardiff Demons, Blackwood Bulldogs, Newport Titans and a new West Wales "Super Club", the Carmarthenshire Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion (CPC) Bears.

The regional division, which will be contested on a Merit Table basis will include Torfaen Tigers, Tydfil Wildcats, Dinefwr Sharks, Neath Port Talbot Steelers, West Wales Wildboars and Ammanford Rhinos with the possibility of more teams also joining. The official launch of this league is set for Wednesday 7th April at The Senydd in Cardiff Bay where all clubs, including representatives from the Crusaders and the Scorpions, including Iestyn Harris, will be present.

This Sunday, Blackwood Bulldogs take on Oldham Roughyeds, a team in South Wales Scorpions' division, who beat Swinton Lions 38-20 in their first Championship One game of the season last Sunday.

The Bulldogs, last year's Welsh Conference Premier champions are the first non-professional Welsh side to reach the Third Round of the Challenge Cup in ten years following defeats of Edge Hill University and Edinburgh Eagles in their first two ties.

In 2000, Cardiff Demons lost 90-0 to Keighley Cougars, who were then riding high at the top of the Northern Ford Premiership, the division below Super League at the time.

The game is set to be played at Sedgley Park RUFC as Oldham are currently a club without a home ground. Kick-off is at 3pm.

Blackwood Bulldogs chairman Andrew Smith said: "Everyone in Blackwood is looking forward to Sunday's game. We know how tough it will be, Oldham are a professional side who have played five competitive games already this season while we'll only be on our third game of the year with some of our lads maybe having to play rugby union the day before. But we'll have a strong side going up there as usual and we're once again determined to do Wales proud. We'll go out there full of confidence as we do want to win. Cup shocks have happened throughout the competition's history and who knows? We could pull off another one this Sunday if we play well as we want to be drawn against the Crusaders in round four."

Full-back David James, who scored a hat-trick for the Bulldogs in the last round, will play for South Wales Scorpions after Blackwood's cup run ends and has been training with the new professional side since its inception.

James said: "It will be a really good experience to go up against Oldham this Sunday. We're fielding more or less the same team as in the earlier rounds so we know that we can do a good job. It'll also be good for me to see how Oldham play as hopefully I'll be facing them again twice more this year when the Scorpions play against them."

With all of this positivity coming out of Wales it's not surprising that local and national media are queuing up to cover the sport.

Sky Sports' "Boots N All" programme are showing highlights of South Wales Scorpions' opening game on this Wednesday night's show after the full game was covered live on BBC radio. ITV Wales are planning a special report on the evening news this Friday, focussing on the exploits of both South Wales Scorpions and Blackwood Bulldogs. The Bulldogs' second round game was covered by BBC's Super League Show and they are set to do the same for the Oldham match.

In the written media, all of these clubs are hitting the headlines both in their local areas and nationally.

As mentioned above, the Crusaders have been adopted by their local paper, The Leader, as their team and as such consistently have both front and back page headlines. The Scorpions have had just as good coverage from the South Wales Evening Post, the newspaper that covers Swansea, Neath, Port Talbot and other areas further west, and have similarly hit the front page. Blackwood Bulldogs have always had generous column inches from the South Wales Argus, and all three teams are regularly featured in Media Wales' trio of publications, Western Mail, South Wales Echo and Wales on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the April edition of "Rugby League World", released this Friday, has dedicated over 10 pages to the development of the game in Wales.

This is headlined by Matt Annis' stunning six-page feature on the Crusaders, Scorpions, Thunder and Welsh Rugby League in general, outlining how rugby league in Wales has blossomed over the past few years. It contains interviews with some of the top men from Wales Rugby League - Mark Rowley, Phil Davies, Caro Wild and Iestyn Harris, as well as a fascinating interview with Crusaders and Wales' newest rising star Elliot Kear.

Harris also joins Crusaders' Mike Turner, Paul Retout, Michael Witt and Peter Lupton to answer supporters' questions in a separate article while there is also an interesting feature about why rugby league is no longer just a northern sport. It contains a number of interesting insights including the fact that rugby league is now played in 41 countries around the world, there are 151 schools playing rugby league in London and that there is now at least one rugby league club in EVERY county in England (complementing the fact unmentioned in the article that there should be at least 22 rugby league clubs in Wales by this summer). No, I don't think it's only a northern sport!

In addition, there have been a number of positive blogs from national newspaper writers with the highlight being a piece from Andy Wilson in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago. Andy has never hidden his enthusiasm for the grass-roots development of rugby league in Wales and has expressed his delight at both the increasing numbers of youngsters who have chosen rugby league as their sport and the number of people wanting to watch them play.

Whatever happens in this Sunday's three games, it's certain to be a year to be another year to remember for rugby league in Wales. Crusaders' under 18s are currently top of the Gillette National Youth League with a game to go and are defending champions after their 32-0 demolition of Leigh Miners Rangers in the Grand Final last year. Crusaders will field under 15 and under 16 sides out of Glyn Neath in April, May and June, with players selected from schools who are competing in the Carnegie Champions Schools tournament and the club's scholarship programme. Plus Wales will field international sides at every level once again throughout 2010 culminating in Wales' senior team who will be looking to qualify for the 2011 Four Nations to take on England, Australia and New Zealand.

However that's all in the future. There's still this Sunday to get through first and whether you're supporting teams in Warrington, Carmarthen or Oldham, you're certain to see more exciting developments in the adventure that is rugby league in Wales, the country's fastest growing sport.

Article by Ian Golden - written for www.walesrugbyleague.co.uk

REFERENCES

Bibliography

Barnes, S., “Anfield Kop becomes silent focus of city’s mourning” in The Times (London), April 17, 1989.

Cross, D., Sapstead, D. and Souster, M., “Death roll rises to 95 as teenager loses fight” in The Times (London), April 19, 1989.

Dawe, T., “Picture of excessive drinking emerges” in The Times (London), April 20, 1989.

Dawe, T., “Police hit back at fans” in The Times (London), April 19, 1989.

Davenport et al, “Police in 'open gate' inquiryin The Times (London), April 17, 1989.

Dudman, G., “All the newspapers carried the same story” in The Guardian (London), February 14, 2005.

Kelso, P., “Sun Hillsborough apology fails to stem anger over Rooney interviews” in The Guardian (London), July 8, 2004.

Kilroy-Silk R., “Grounds for concern” in The Times (London), April 21, 1989.

Miller, D., “We watched them die, innocent figures, lying prostrate and crushed on the green grass” in The Times (London), April 17, 1989.

Sissons, H., “Practical journalism : how to write news”, London : SAGE, 2006.

Smith, I. and Souster, M., “Hurd bid to stop police row over Hillsborough” in The Times (London), April 20, 1989.

Sullivan, A., “Let's hear it for prejudiced television news” in The Sunday Times (London), November 17, 2002.

Taylor, Lord, “The Hillsborough Stadium Disaster Inquiry”, London : HMSO (1989).

Tomas, J., “Football Focus” in The Sunday Times (London), April 16, 1989.

Unknown writer, “Tragedy on the Terraces” in The Sunday Times (London), April 16, 1989.

Unknown writer, “CUP HORROR: 53 ARE DEAD” in The Football Echo (Cardiff), April 15, 1989.

Varley N., “Parklife”, London : Penguin (1999).

Wilkins, E., “Mixture of sympathy and censure; European reaction; Hillsborough football disaster” in The Times (London), April 19, 1989.

 

Videos

“Hillsborough” TV movie, directed by Charles McDougall, written by Jimmy McGovern, UK: ITV (1996)

 

Websites

http://archive.thetelegraphandargus.co.uk/1999/4/15/164123.html - accessed on April 10th 2008.

http://blogs.pressgazette.co.uk/wire/1893 - accessed on April 4th 2008

http://everything2.com/?node_id=1027885 – accessed on February 2nd 2008

http://www.123exp-history.com/t/03764082111/ - accessed on April 4th 2008

http://www.anfieldroad.com/images/stories/ hillsborough/sun_the_truth.jpg – accessed on February 2nd 2008.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNR7VYbT1RE – accessed on April 4th 2008.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/2347091.stm - accessed on April 4th 2008

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/3151429.stm - accessed on April 4th 2008

http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/news/2007/11/14/50721.shtml - accessed on April 4th 2008

http://www.bbc.co.uk/liverpool/content/articles/2006/12/07/local_history_hillsborough_feature.shtml - accessed on April 5th 2008

Appendix

The Times (London)


April 17 1989, Monday


Catalogue of terrace tragedy; Hillsborough Football Disaster

SECTION: Issue 63370.

LENGTH: 233 words

The disaster at Hillsborough was the worst in British sport and the third worst in international football. Previous catastrophes include:

1902: Twenty-five deaths at Scotland v England international at Ibrox Park when part of a stand collapsed.

1946: Thirty-three deaths at Bolton v Stoke City FA Cup tie at Burnden Park.

1964: More than 300 deaths when Lima crowd rioted over disallowed goal during Peru v Argentina Olympic qualifyer.

1967: Forty-two deaths at Kayseri, Turkey, when 15,000 spectators rioted.

1968: Seventy-three deaths in Buenos Aires during River Plate v Boca Juniors after burning paper thrown into crowd.

1969: Twenty-seven deaths in Bokavu, Congo, when too many let into stadium.

1969: Ten deaths in Kirikkale, Turkey, when fighting broke out between fans and shots were fired.

1971: Sixty-six deaths on stairway after Rangers v Celtic match at Ibrox Park, when fans trying to leave met others returning as late goal scored.

1974: Forty-eight deaths in Egypt when 80,000 allowed into stadium built for 40,000.

1985: Fifty-six deaths when fire destroyed main stand at Bradford City v Lincoln league match.

1985: Thirty-nine deaths when Liverpool supporters rioted at European Cup Final against Juventus in Brussels.

1988: More than 100 deaths when crowd rushed for cover to avoid violent hailstorm in match at Katmandu, Nepal.

The Hillsborough Stadium disaster on Saturday April 15 1989 was and still is officially the worst sporting disaster in British sports history (http://www.bbc.co.uk/ liverpool/content/articles/2006/12/07/local_history_hillsborough_feature.shtml). The fact that 96 people died from this tragedy quite obviously led to wide-spread media coverage both in the UK and overseas (Wilkins, 1989). Ninety-four people died within 24 hours of the disaster, another one a week later and the 96th died in March 1993 (http://archive.thetelegraphandargus.co.uk/1999/4/15/164123.html).

At the time, the British media handled the event in different ways. Looking at the articles from various newspapers online, it appears that the majority were sympathetic due to the nature of the tragedy and the events the surrounding it. However some newspapers wrote controversial stories on the event, especially in the week following, but also at later dates after the event (Dudman, 2005). Even now, the media are still learning to treat the tragedy with kid gloves despite the fact that we are almost 20 years on.

This project will concentrate on how The Times and Sunday Times newspapers reported on and handled the Hillsborough disaster in the week following the events and also around 29th March 1991 when the accidental death verdict was announced, paying particular close attention on whether it is sympathetic or not to the supporters who were at the ground. I will also look at the “Hillsborough” TV movie made in 1996, which covers those two years, and see how it compares to the stories published in The Times and it is the chronology of this film that has helped me to choose the articles to summarise.

I am not writing this project as a case study to evaluate the causes of the Hillsborough disaster. This was done at the time in the document “The Hillsborough Stadium Disaster Inquiry” by The Rt Hon Lord Justice Taylor (1989) and it is in this document that one can find what is probably the most concise piece of literature ever written on the disaster.

Taylor (1989, page 9) says that “Only six minutes into the game, play was stopped when it was realised that spectators on the terraces behind the Liverpool goal had been severely crushed. In the result, 95 died and over 400 received hospital treatment.”

With no public internet at the time, the only updates were from television, radio and newspapers. Both BBC’s Grandstand and ITV’s results service gave extensive coverage to the disaster with both shows not having any closing music as a sign of respect, Grandstand simply placing their iconic BBC Sport logo to culminate. That night's Match of the Day also had no opening or closing music (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNR7VYbT1RE).

The “evening pink” newspapers were popular at the time and it is expected that this Disaster would have been front page news all around the country. The “Football Echo” in Cardiff certainly did do this with the headline reading “CUP HORROR: 53 ARE DEAD – Tragedy as Liverpool, Forest fans spill onto pitch”. The article had no writer credited to it so it is likely that it came through their Press Association wires. This newspaper, which would have been on the streets of Cardiff by around 6pm on that Saturday evening, reported on the facts that they knew about at the time, namely the deaths, how fans helped to carry the victims from the field, and also reported on Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish’s announcement asking everyone to co-operate with the police and first aid people and to help anyone that was injured.

However, even by this early stage, the controversy had started. “Liverpool had protested about the Hillsborough ticket allocation,” read the Football Echo, “They had fewer tickets than Forest, but their average gate is far higher.”

There were resemblances made to the Heysel Stadium disaster, caused by hooligans, less than four years before – a natural claim at the time as the reason for the events at Hillsborough wasn’t yet known.

The newspaper also claimed that there was “sporadic fighting among rival fans as hundreds of Liverpool supporters wandered aimlessly around the pitch, shocked and bewildered”, a claim that would be expanded on as this extraordinary week panned out. Taylor (1989, page 52) spoke about this claim saying that “To have had open fighting in a ground where some 90 spectators already lay dead would have been an unthinkable and obscene development”.

However he did follow that up by talking about the fans on the pitch saying that “Their conduct in abusing, assaulting and spitting at the police was disgraceful, the more so since earlier police failures had little to do with those officers now doing their best for the injured. However, although the abuse was widespread, the number of assaults and spittings was on the evidence comparatively small. In deploring them, one must recognise the uniquely horrifying experience which those responsible had just suffered and were still suffering.”

The article in the Football Echo coupled with Taylor’s report shows that there was fuel to the fire in regards to supporter misbehaviour at the ground. The reason that I have chosen to concentrate my research on The Times is twofold. First is to see how one of the quality newspaper reported on the disaster, whether they tried to lay blame or if they remained neutral and second, because The Times is owned by News International, the same as The Sun and it was that paper that on Wednesday 19th April 1989 printed the most controversial story ever regarding the Hillsborough disaster. The Sun’s front page headline was “The Truth” underneath which were the subheadings, “Some fans picked pockets of victims”, “Some fans urinated on the brave cops” and “Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life” (Varley, 1999, p.51) The report also claimed that It took The Sun over 15 years to even attempt to apologise for printing these words (Kelso, 2004). Because a few papers printed similar stories and also commented on The Sun, it will be interesting to see how another of Murdoch’s stable deals with these issues. I have gathered data from The Times’ archives on Lexis Nexis Butterworths so only text will be analysed. Because of this, the page numbers from the newspapers are unknown and are not referenced.

The initial analysis shows that between April 15th 1989 and March 29th 1991 that 406 articles were written by The Times and Sunday Times, 75 of them in the first week. The Sunday Times dated 16th April 1989 devoted no less than 5,171 words to the disaster over six different articles. The lead article (2,040 words) gives a very concise chronological account of the disaster which looks to have researched well. This article gave the reader the bare facts of the disaster, the writer (unnamed on Lexis Nexis) looked to give no personal opinion but the article seems to be firmly on the side of the fans, many of whom were interviewed. “Catalogue of errors” was just one phrase used by the writer to describe events.

The other articles in The Sunday Times that day backed up the lead writer’s view that it was errors that caused the disaster. “This makes the game irrelevant”, “'Mayhem' after gate was opened”, “Liverpool counts its dead and plans memorial mass” and “Thatcher calls for immediate report” were the headlines of the other stories that day, all of which blame either the design of the ground or the policing and were sympathetic to the fans.

The final article that day was an opinion piece by Jason Tomas which started with the line “DISTURBING evidence emerged last night that the worst disaster in British football history stemmed from a series of blunders” where ticket allocation and policing were named as the main culprits. The article does report that some fans attacked a photographer and were abusive but Tomas says that “In the circumstances their tirade was understandable and forgivable.”

It’s not surprising to see that there were a lot of articles in Monday’s Times. Nineteen different viewpoints were in the publication totalling 12,027 words. The leading article (written by Peter Davenport, David Sapsted, Craig Seton and Philip Webster) said that “a complete breakdown in police co-ordination of the crowd” was being blamed for the disaster”

Minor comparisons to Heysel were continuing to be made but each reporter expressed that the cause of this disaster was not the same as the tragedy in Belgium four years previously. While lives were lost in both cases, the former was caused by hooliganism and in this case, all Times reporters accepted that it wasn’t. “This is something different,” wrote Simon Barnes. “There is no shame: this is shock and unalloyed grief.”

Every article on that day was on the side of the fans. The majority of the interviews were with fans with almost all of them criticising the authorities. Their events of the day are completely replicated in the “Hillsborough” film and watching this is very similar to seeing a live action version of these reports, such seems the accuracy. However this means that the balance of the publication completely sways towards one side. I would have expected to have seen at least one right of reply that day from someone from the police and the authorities from Hillsborough itself but there was none. There were just two comments from FA officials, one was regarding the future of that season’s FA Cup competition while one, from FA secretary Graham Kelly, is confined to David Miller’s opinion piece. Miller, like the rest of the writers, is firmly on the side of the fans saying “Kelly suggests the Leppings Lane end was 'under capacity', which self-evidently was untrue once the police opened the gates to admit even non-ticket holders. Furthermore, Kelly says Hillsborough is 'magnificently appointed', when it is no more than a patched-up old stadium.”

Tuesday’s newspaper contained little new information, simply updates on the events. The majority of the articles centred on safety and why the disaster could have happened. The names of the 94 dead were also published.

It is only natural that the police would eventually speak out in defence of their organisation but it was a shock to see it done in such an extreme way. The “Hillsborough” film portrays a policeman talking to a journalist in a pub saying “We’re getting sick of this brave Liverpool fans rubbish, I’ll tell the papers about these brave fans shall I? They pissed on the dead, they attacked my bobbies when they were trying to help the dying. Put that in the bloody newspapers. They went through the pockets of the dead and robbed them.” While this is obviously a dramatisation, the events would have certainly taken place in such a fashion and it is this that led to The Sun’s headlines as talked about above. These events would have certainly taken place on the Tuesday.

The Sun’s headline story on Wednesday April 19th was echoed in The Times but the difference looks to be that The Times reported on it with more decorum. Because The Sun chose to use the headline “The Truth” and spelled out its allegations in block letters, there was no doubt that where its stance was coming from. However, although The Times made the same allegations, it didn’t sensationalise it, nor did it come to its own conclusion, unlike its sister paper. The first paragraph in Tony Dawe’s article in The Times read “Drunkenness and hooliganism were major factors in the Hillsborough disaster, police said yesterday”. Immediately they are pushing the statement onto the police and reporting the facts that they were given. The report isn’t an opinion piece, unlike The Sun and carries onto say that “The officers claimed that drunkenness and hooliganism were strong factors in the tragedy. They told of supporters picking the pockets of the dead and urinating over officers tending crush victims.”

Chairman of the Hillsborough Support Group, Phil Hammond, commented in 2004 that “all the newspapers carried the same story”. The Guardian on Monday 14th February 2005, talks about this and mentions the Times’ article along with those that were in the Daily Star, Daily Express and Daily Telegraph (Dudman, 2005).

An article by David Cross, David Sapstead and Mark Souster in The Times on Wednesday also reports on the 95th person to die as a result of the tragedy.

In Thursday’s Times, there were more accusations that Liverpool fans had been drinking alcohol prior to the game. Again this was reported on as facts and writer Tony Dawe gave no personal opinions. Mark Souster and Ian Smith report on the complaints following the previous day’s The Sun with Peter Wright, Chief Constable of South Yorkshire ordering his men to make no further comments and Home Secretary Douglas Hurd “telling police and football supporters to stop their 'mess of accusations and counter-accusations' and leave the verdict to the judicial inquiry.” Robert Kilroy-Silk’s opinion piece in Friday’s newspaper is the only one of its kind that features the Hillsborough disaster since Monday. Kilroy-Silk speaks in defence of the Liverpool fans saying “I can only say that never, attending any match at Liverpool, have I felt the threat of violence or the menace of the mob as I have at other grounds.”

It took two years for the inquest to be heard. After an 80-day hearing, an accidental death verdict was announced. The Times devoted just three articles to the hearing on the day after the verdict was announced, March 29th 1991 with no lead-ups or follow-ups on any of the months surrounding. The articles were balanced and contained reaction from fans and police. These comments were echoed accurately in the Hillsborough film.

In conclusion, the media have still found the disaster hard to handle here and now in the 21st century. It appears that on more than a handful of occasions in this decade, someone has been forced to apologise for remarks that have offended. However on every occasion, no offence seemed to be intended. In October 2002, FHM magazine in Australia printed pictures from Hillsborough with crushed fans alongside captions saying “shoppers waited for the doors to open for the end-of-year sale” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/2347091.stm).

Alexei Sayle had to apologise in August 2003 for saying “The sentimentality in Liverpool is compounded by both Heysel and Hillsborough, you know. Liverpool people are so sentimental anyway and even more so with this 'Oh, we're the greatest people and you'll never walk alone' and all this s****” http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/3151429.stm

The BBC had to apologise twice in 2007. First was in November when EastEnders character Minty said in the show that “Five years out of Europe because of Heysel, because they penned you lot in to stop you fighting on the pitch, and then what did we end up with? Hillsborough.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/news/2007/11/14/ 50721.shtml) , while on The Politics Show a month later, Patrick Burns compared the disaster to the Heysel Stadium tragedy (http://blogs.pressgazette.co.uk/wire/1893).

Sissons (2006, p.13) says: “All journalists can make sure they balance their stories by explaining as many of the arguments involved as possible. And if you are accusing someone of something, they should be allowed to respond”. The Times didn’t strictly keep to this in the week following Hillsborough disaster. If they, or any other newspaper, had done so immediately, or if the police had organised a proper press conference on the Monday, then perhaps the sensationalised Sun story may not have occurred.

At an early stage, it appears that The Times learned to not annoy the fans, in other words, their audience or potential buyers. Sullivan (2002) says: “Trying to present many sides of an issue is the mark of an honest journalist; maintaining a distinction between news and opinion is the mark of an honest editor”. The Times kept that distinction throughout their reporting. The news and opinion columns were kept strictly separate. Their reports on the Hillsborough Disaster were naturally sympathetic to the fans but any bias was mainly subjective, they didn’t go for sensationalism like The Sun, and therefore didn’t risk losing their readership. The Sun did just that and lost readers in Liverpool as a result (http://www.bbc.co.uk/ liverpool/content/articles/2006/12/07/local_history_hillsborough_feature.shtml). The Times reported with professionalism throughout and although they, like The Sun, repeated the allegations against Liverpool fans made by a senior police officer, they are not historically remembered for doing so, which shows that they did this and all of their reporting in a correct and dignified fashion.