League hoping to grow in Wales

Rugby league has its best chance yet to establish itself in south Wales, according to former Warrington forward Mike Nicholas.

Celtic Crusaders will lead the latest attempt by the 13-a-side code to lay down firm roots when they play their first match next month, with a place in Super League the ultimate goal.

The Crusaders, based at the Brewery Field, Bridgend, are rugby league's newest professional club and aim to succeed where Cardiff Blue Dragons and South Wales both failed over the last 20 years.

"I think it's got the best chance ever this time because it's supported from the grass-roots up," said Nicholas, the president of Wales Rugby League who was involved in both previous attempts.

Speaking at the launch of the Northern Rail Cup in Manchester, Nicholas added: "We've got a 10-team league of amateur teams and the game is being played at every level, from schoolboys to internationals.

"These are exciting times because we really are building from the bottom this time.

"We're geared up for when Super League turn to franchises in 2009 but we'd like to do it on merit. We're three years into a five-year plan.

"We've a very nice stadium, with over 4,000 seats, and there are even moves to build a new stadium if needed."

The Bridgend club are aiming to fill the void created by the demise of rugby union franchise Celtic Warriors, whose previous backer, Leighton Samuel, has turned his attention to the 13-man game.

"Leighton has been tremendous," said Nicholas, who will be the new club's representative on the RFL Council.

"He didn't have an easy time in rugby union and now he's gone in another direction. But he's always supported rugby league."

Nicholas denies that the new club will be a threat to rugby union in the 15-a-side's heartland, claiming both games can live side by side.

"We're not competing against them," he said. "It's played at a different time of the year, we're offering a different option.

"If you're not among the 100 elite contracts, you're virtually on the breadline in Wales so it's another career pathway.

"And what you find is that, once people try the game, they're converted because they are allowed to express themselves. Instead of having defined roles they are allowed to what comes naturally, running and passing."

Nicholas is receiving strong support from Mark Rowley, the former Pontypridd, Cardiff and Wales forward who has taken over as chairman of Wales Rugby League.

Inevitably, the club has also turned to Australia for help, signing up a host of overseas players to complement the local talent.

John Dixon, who gave up his job on the coaching staff of Brisbane Broncos to become a Wales pioneer, is currently back home recovering from prostate cancer.

He is expected back next week, in time for the run-up to the Crusaders' opening Northern Rail Cup match at Hemel Hempstead on February 12, and in the meantime, coaching is being taken by another former Wales and Warrington international, Kevin Ellis, and Australian conditioner Anthony Seibold.

"John Dixon has brought several players from the Brisbane comp," said Nicholas. "Primarily it's about developing our own players - 80% of them are Welsh-born - but we need a bit of shape so we need the help of a few Aussies."

The Crusaders' aim this year is promotion to LHF National League One at the first attempt but first they play round-robin matches against Hemel Hempstead, London Skolars and St Albans in the League Cup.

The competition, now in its fifth season, includes relegated Super League clubs Widnes and Leigh, as well as the Crusaders and five amateur teams from National League Three. Group matches will be played until the League gets under way at Easter, with the quarter-finals in May and the final held at Bloomfield Road, Blackpool, for the second successive year.

Hull KR will be the first club to defend the trophy, having failed to follow up their knockout success by gaining promotion to Super League.

Clubs are playing for a prize fund of ?76,500, with ?12,500 going to the winners.