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Crusaders look up after trading down
The Celtic Crusaders will launch the latest attempt to establish a professional club in Wales on February 12 when they face London Skolars at Bridgend's Brewery Field in the Northern Rail Cup.
It is more than nine years since the demise of the one-season South Wales Dragons, but the Crusaders chief executive Chris O'Callaghan, a former Aberavon rugby union player and coach, insists that the new club's priority will be earning promotion from National League Two as part of a plan to reach the Super League.
The Crusaders are backed by Leighton Samuel, the businessman behind the Celtic Warriors union franchise that was wound up last year, and have recruited John Dixon from Wayne Bennett's Brisbane Broncos staff to work with the former Wales international Kevin Ellis.
Dixon has signed six Australian players who will arrive this week and, according to O'Callaghan, form "the spine" of an otherwise Welsh squad. [The Australian players are understood to include Michael Ryan, Tony Duggan, Damien Quinn, Jace Van Dijk and Matt Jobson.]
Dixon said: "The most important thing if we're going to get the game going down here is to have a team that can challenge for promotion to National League One straight away.
"In an ideal world we'd love to have an all-Welsh team but it's a few years too late for us to build a side around the guys who went north like Allan Bateman and John Devereux. So we've gone to Australia rather than the north of England to get the spine of our team, although there is plenty of local talent coming through the Conference clubs down here to build around."
The Crusaders have been given a highly favourable draw in the Northern Rail Cup being involved in a new southern group which includes St Albans and Hemel Hempstead, two largely amateur clubs from National League Three. But their first National League game on April 9 is a tough outing at Workington, one of their likely promotion rivals.
"It's a big challenge for us because there's no easy way of getting up there," added O'Callaghan. "We've done all the logistics and even if we fly to Glasgow or Newcastle it's still a two-hour drive at least, so we'll be having an overnight stay and preparing properly. We are expecting nothing less than a major war."
The fixtures for the National League's First Division, which are also officially released today, feature a Good Friday derby between Leigh and Widnes, the two clubs relegated from the Super League last season, in the second round of matches.
Leigh's former coach Darren Abram, who left by mutual consent in August six weeks before they were relegated, has been appointed to succeed Bobbie Goulding at Rochdale Hornets. Abram's first game in charge will be in the Northern Rail Cup at home to Oldham, another of his former clubs.
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Andy Wilson is the rugby league writer for The Guardian and The Observer newspapers in the UK. We thank them both in reproducing Andy's article here.