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The forthcoming August Bank Holiday weekend will be a milestone for Rugby League in the principality, as on Saturday August 27th, the magnificent Millennium Stadium will, at least for the foreseeable future, host its last Rugby League Challenge Cup Final when Hull FC face Leeds Rhinos.
Over recent years, hundreds of thousands of rugby league followers from around the world have savoured, and grown to love, Cardiff?s unique atmosphere on big sporting occasions, and it is fair to say many will lament the decision to return this prestigious fixture to its traditional Wembley home.
There has been an explosion of Rugby League activity across Wales over recent times. Seven open age (senior) teams now compete in the highly rated TotalRL.com Welsh Conference Premier Division and up to 1,000 youngsters, from the age of seven years, regularly compete in a range of tournaments and rugby league festivals, making it Wales? fastest growing team sport.
Moreover, the recently formed Celtic Crusaders, based at Bridgend`s Brewery Field, have been admitted to National League Two for the 2006 season, and the semi- pro outfit, made up primarily of home grown Welsh talent has designs on Super League action within five years.
To commemorate the last Challenge Cup Final to be held in Wales, and to celebrate the growth of rugby league in the area, one Welsh based club, Aberavon Fighting Irish, based on Aberavon Beach (Port Talbot) are staging a programme of rugby league related events over the cup final weekend, aimed at Welsh based enthusiasts as well as groups visiting the principality for the Hull v Leeds main event.
On the eve of the cup final, the club are holding a Welcome to Wales evening, complete with a Castlemaine XXXX promotion, complimentary traditional Welsh fare including cawl and Welsh cakes and entertainment from a male voice choir and the hilarious Ianto Price and his performing sheep. Admission to the event is FREE and the customary warm Fighting Irish welcome awaits visiting rugby league fans, for the action which starts at 7pm.
On Sunday, following the Cup Final the club is staging its annual Scott McCrorie Memorial Rugby League nine-a-side (under 18s) Tournament. Scott McCrorie was an outstanding up and coming rugby league talent, who played for the club and who tragically passed away following a short illness, only one month after representing the Wales under-16 national team in 2004. The club is committed to honouring Scott`s memory and any visiting teams at this age group would be most welcome to enter a team in this competition.
Alongside the Memorial 9s the club is also staging a festival of rugby for Welsh based sides and any visiting teams from the traditional Rugby League heartlands who may be in the area for the Cup Final. Already confirmed are Pilkington Recs at under-15 level and Folly Lane at under-13s.
Entry to the festival is also free, and the organisers can arrange games at all age levels for visiting teams. All participants will receive a commemorative medal and following the festival, Aberavon Fighting Irish are staging their annual awards presentation evening for all their junior teams, with live music from popular local duo Ben & Andy, to which a cordial invitation is also extended to those in Wales for the Cup Final weekend.
In launching the programme of activities, the club`s president, and former Warrington and Great Britain international Mike Nicholas said:
?The growth of rugby league activity in Wales over the past three years has been nothing short of remarkable, and this latest venture by Aberavon Fighting Irish is further testimony to the progress that has been made.
Over 20 clubs from the north of England have already been hosted by my home club and without exception can testify for superb hospitality and a great rugby league environment. Together with some of the former greats of the game, I will be attending the programme of events, and I would urge any visiting supporters, in Wales for the cup final weekend, to join us for what promises to be great fun.?