Wales are preparing for a huge test of their rugby credentials against France this weekend, but it isn’t just happening in Japan. This is the Wales rugby league team and the tournament is the World Cup Nines, which start in Sydney on Friday – just part of a busy current schedule for the league code, as Graham Thomas reports.
Wales and the Rugby World Cup may be fixing much of the nation’s attention at present, but the sport’s other code is working hard to grab some of the limelight.
Rugby League in Wales has always faced a challenge to move beyond the shadow of rugby union and this season might be their biggest yet if Warren Gatland’s team go all the way in Japan.
But the other version of the game – one played with 13, rather than 15 players – now has deep roots in Wales and they know how to be resilient.
A Wales team featuring one of the genuine young stars of Super League, Regan Grace, will be in Australia this month for the World Cup Nines – a nine-a-side version of rugby league – that starts in Sydney on October 18.
That will be the day Wales begin their campaign against France, with group matches against England and Lebanon to follow. The Wales squad also features experienced campaigners such as Elliot Kear, Rhys Williams and Ben Flower.
It’s a new tournament and so international fixture lists for the full 13-a-side version of the game have been left clear – meaning Wales have no Test matches this autumn.
But that should allow more focus to be given to the new Wales women’s rugby league side, who are preparing to make their bow this autumn.
On Saturday October 26, at The Gnoll, Neath, history will be made when Wales women take on Great Britain Teachers in their first game. It’s a milestone for rugby league, with a second match – and first capped Test – against England Lions, pencilled in for November 16 at Leigh.
Head coach Craig Taylor held a trials for over 50 potential players before settling on his 24-player squad.
“I’ve been involved with representative rugby for a number of years, and it was one of the best trial days I’ve ever experienced,” says Taylor.
“If that day was anything to go by, then the future of women’s rugby league is bright in Wales.
“I’ve already been in touch with them all, sending homework – videos to watch and to give feedback. Everyone is so enthusiastic.”
Rafiuke Taylor – one of 14 Cardiff Blue Dragons players in the squad – won five caps for Wales in rugby union between 2013 and 2014 and so could become Wales’ first female dual code rugby international.
At age group level, Wales run a national U19 squad, coached by former Wales player Anthony Walker, as well as an U16 team who can boast as their coach, ex-Great Britain legend, Lee Crooks.
It’s not just the international end of Welsh rugby league that is evolving, though. At the grass roots and club level, things are starting to change.
The men’s club game has always struggled to sustain a senior domestic league in Wales of both depth and quality, although leagues have blossomed at Under 12, U14 and U16 levels this season.
Many of those youngsters play both codes of rugby – union and league – a far cry from the time 25 years ago when the two sports inhabited very separate worlds.
The two leading clubs in Wales – the North Wales Crusaders (Wrexham) and the West Wales Raiders (Llanelli) – play in League One, the third tier of professional rugby league and this summer was a notable one for the Raiders who won their first league match to end a 44-game losing streak.
In the level below, the community game, the weakness of the Welsh domestic league has seen the Cardiff Blue Dragons and the Valley Cougars – who play at Nelson and Treharris – join a newly launched league, called the Southern Conference.
It gives the two Welsh clubs the chance to raise standards and income, by playing alongside the best English clubs at that level.
There are now rugby league student teams based at Cardiff Met as well as Swansea, Aberystwyth and Bangor Universities.
Coleg Y Cymoedd, based at Rhondda Cynon Taff and Caerphilly, even offers a full-time study course in rugby league – the only one in the country.
Wales also now has a representative team from the community game called the Dragonhearts, who play South of England Lionhearts at Neath on the same day as that first Wales women’s game on October 26.
Wales wheelchair side have also had fixtures this autumn, with a victory over Scotland and two defeats to England.
Newly appointed Wales Rugby League chief executive Gareth Kear says: “I have a passion for all sport and especially rugby league because it’s always been open and inclusive to all parts of the community.
“Working with our strategic partners, Sport Wales, rugby league can help make us a more active nation and provide a lifelong enjoyment of sport for everyone.”
World Cup Nines:
Friday, October 18: France vs Lebanon (8.20am), England Women vs PNG Women (8.45am), England vs Wales (9.10am), Tonga vs Cook Islands (9.35am), Samoa vs Fiji (10.10am), Australia Women vs New Zealand Women (10.35am), Australia vs New Zealand (11am), Papua New Guinea vs USA (11.25am)
Saturday, October 19: New Zealand Women vs Papua New Guinea Women (1.30am), France vs Wales (1.55am), England vs Lebanon (2.20am), Samoa vs Cook Islands (2.45am), Tonga vs Fiji (3.10am), New Zealand vs Papua New Guinea (3.45am), Australia vs USA (4.10am), Australia Women vs England Women (4.35am), Lebanon vs Wales (5am), England vs France (5.25am) Fiji vs Cook Islands (6am), Tonga vs Samoa (6.25am), New Zealand vs USA (6.50am), Australia vs Papua New Guinea (7.15am), Australia Women vs Papua New Guinea Women (7.40am), New Zealand Women vs England Women (8.05am), Men’s semi-finals (8.55am and 9.20am), Women’s final (9.45am), Men’s final (11am)