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