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Wales are hoping for their biggest international rugby league attendance in four years when they face Scotland in their first World Cup qualifying match at the Brewery Field in Bridgend on Sunday (kick-off 3pm).
The Dragons will be fielding Iestyn Harris for the first time since the 2000 World Cup semi-final defeat against Australia, after the Bradford Bulls stand-off agreed to cut his Miami family holiday short to play for Wales, while Lee Briers has returned from the Great Britain camp in Australia, in time to lead them out.
This double dose of excellent news had led to increased pre-match ticket sales which according to Welsh Development Officer Wayne Williams, has been the largest since 2002 when Wales faced New Zealand at the Millennium Stadium.
Williams said: ?We?ve sold hundreds through Celtic Crusaders via their club shop and we?ve also had a very large number of orders through our website. We?re hoping to have a big crowd here as we?ve been getting many enquiries over the phone ? some from people who have never been to a rugby league match before.?
This will be Wales? first match in their quest to reach the World Cup Finals in 2008. The second leg will be played in Scotland in twelve months time with the aggregate winners going straight through to the Finals. The runners-up will have to enter the play-offs and must win two further games to qualify so a good start for Wales this Sunday is essential.
The Welsh side is being coached by former Wales hooker Martin Hall, a star of the famous 1995 side that won the European Championships, reached the semi-finals of the World Cup and won the BBC Wales Sport Team of the Year.
Assisting him is the famous former Wales and Great Britain trio of Kevin Ellis, Allan Bateman and John Devereux. Devereux was the last Welshman to appear in a World Cup Final ? with Great Britain in 1992 at Wembley. The Lions lost that day 6-10 in a surprisingly close affair in front of a Rugby League World Cup record crowd of 73,631.
Devereux made his final appearance for Wales in the 2000 World Cup, again in the infamous Australia match where Wales led 20-14 at half-time before eventually succumbing to the World Champions, while Ellis and Bateman both made their swansongs against England in the semi-final of the 1995 tournament.
Ellis said: ?1995 was something special. First we won the European Championships by beating England in Cardiff, and France in Carcassonne in horrendous conditions. But for me, the most memorable match was against Western Samoa at the Vetch Field in the second game of the World Cup.
?We?d beaten France in Cardiff already and that was tough, but Samoa was the most difficult match I?ve ever played in. The team we had out was awesome ? we had Iestyn, Anthony Sullivan, Adrian Hadley, Jonathan Davies, Dai Young, Scott Quinnell to name just a few. There was a full house there - over 15,000 in the ground ? it was a great atmosphere.
?I feel we were robbed at Old Trafford in the semi-final though. There were two Martin Offiah tries that were never tries. If we?d have had video refs then they?d have never been tries and we may have won.
?Celtic Crusaders being in existence is a massive boost for Welsh Rugby League as it?s bringing through a new crop of players which is good for us.
?We were very unlucky over in France last year in the European Nations Cup Final but did well to reach that far. There?s a fantastic team spirit in the camp and we?ve got a really good squad of players and with Keiron and Iestyn in the camp, we can bring the good times back to Welsh Rugby League again.?
Wales squad: Anthony Blackwood (Celtic Crusaders), Lee Briers (Warrington, capt), Geraint Davies, Hywel Davies, Gareth Dean (all Celtic Crusaders), Damien Gibson (Halifax), Iestyn Harris (Bradford), Paul Highton (Salford), Adam Hughes (Leigh), Gary Hulse (Widnes), Aled James (Celtic Crusaders), Jordan James (Widnes), Richard Johnson (Celtic Crusaders), Phil Joseph (Hull KR), Mark Lennon (Manly), David Mills (Harlequins), Chris Morley (Swinton), Bryn Powell (Dewsbury), Gareth Price (Celtic Crusaders), Robert Roberts (Leigh), Ian Watson (Widnes).
Scotland squad: Jon Steel (Hull KR), Wade Liddell (Gateshead Thunder), Jamie Benn (Featherstone Rovers), Andy Brown (Fife Lions), Kevin Lang (Glasgow Bulls), Gareth Morton (Hull KR), Mick Nanyn (Widnes Vikings), Nick Surtees (St Albans Centurions), Ian Sinfield (Swinton Lions), Paul Jackson (Huddersfield Giants), Danny Brough (Castleford Tigers), Ian Henderson (Bradford Bulls), Ben Fisher (Hull KR), Neil Lowe (Doncaster Lakers), Spencer Miller (Whitehaven), Richard Fletcher (Castleford Tigers), Keir Bell (London Skolars), Dene Miller (St Albans Centurions), David McConnell (Rochdale Hornets), Iain Marsh (Batley Bulldogs).
by Ian Golden (Wales RL)