Celtic delight as Super League comes to Wales

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The Independent Online

Super League will come to south Wales for the first time and return to the rather more familiar surroundings of Salford under the new blueprint for the competition.

The Celtic Crusaders, based in Bridgend, were named yesterday as one of the new clubs admitted to the division for the next three years as it expands to 14 members.

The Crusaders and Salford are added to the existing 12 clubs after a Rugby Football League panel assessed a total of 19 licence applications. They have got the nod ahead of candidates from the game's heartlands – Leigh, Featherstone, Halifax and Widnes – plus the French side Toulouse.

In opting for Salford and Celtics, the panel, headed by the League's executive chairman, Richard Lewis, and chief executive, Nigel Wood, has put its faith in potential, rather than what is actually on the ground at the moment.

Crowds in Bridgend are still modest, despite a successful season in National League One, but the club and the League believe they will shoot up once the likes of Leeds and St Helens are regular visitors.

"This gives the Welsh public the opportunity to see top-class rugby league on a week-by-week basis, which is something that has never happened before," said the club's president and dual union and league international, Jonathan Davies.

Part of the rationale behind the Crusaders' admission is that they will be able to attract more Welsh rugby union players and reduce their current dependence on Australian imports. That did nothing to placate one of the unsuccessful applicants, however, with Leigh's chief executive, Allan Rowley, describing himself as "thoroughly disgusted" with the decision after facing a Crusaders side with 10 overseas players recently.

The deepest disappointment, though, is at Widnes, who must have been desperately close, with their new stadium and convincing new administration, to winning a licence.

Recent history appears to have counted against them. "They have made some significant improvements, but it only eight months since the club was liquidated," Wood said.

The new chairman responsible for those improvements, Steve O'Connor, made no secret of his bitter disappointment yesterday, but reiterated that he is there for the long haul – and another application in 2012. "It is important that our fans are reassured that I am fully committed to the club," O'Connor said.

Down the East Lancashire Road at Salford, the mood was one of celebration. The City Reds, relegated last season, have earned their return on the promise of a new ground, in which they hope to be playing in 2010, and an aspiration to become the regional club for the Manchester conurbation.

The Salford coach, Shaun McRae, said: "We're back where we belong and I'm just so happy for everyone who has put so much into our bid. Our chairman, John Wilkinson, has been at the helm for 26 years and has made such personal sacrifices, so I'm delighted for him."

All applicants, including the existing Super League clubs, went through a detailed process of assessment. Of the 12 incumbents, the most relieved must be Wakefield, with a ground – Belle Vue – described as "limited and old-fashioned" and plans for a replacement only at an early stage.

However, they are in a Challenge Cup semi-final against Hull this weekend and are candidates for a play-off place.

A decision to exclude them would have been a huge call, but they and others are on notice that they need to make tangible progress if they are to be safe in three years' time, when the whole process takes place again.

Right time to expand from heartland, says Davies

Better late than never. That was the consensus across Wales after the historic decision by the Rugby League to award the Celtic Crusaders a Super League licence yesterday. Wales, for so long, has appeared to be the obvious country to place a professional rugby league side and it finally happened as the game's power brokers made another effort to expand the game out of its northern heartland.

The Principality, after all, has provided rugby league with some of its truly stellar names over the years. Billy Boston, David Watkins and Jonathan Davies are just a few.

They were treated like rugby pariahs after turning their backs on their country and rugby union. But times have changed and the news was welcomed with excitement. "We missed the boat in both 1995 and 1998 when a Super League side could have been placed down here, but this decision more than makes up for it," said Davies, a Wales dual-code legend and Crusaders president.

"Now, more of an infrastructure is in place, with teams at all levels in Wales from schoolboys upwards, which wasn't the case 10 years ago. When teams like Wigan, St Helens and the like have visited Wales for one-off Super League games, they've always been well attended."

The Crusaders do have a fighting chance, with their rivals in the professional sports market, such as rugby union and football, played in the winter.

The club need to boost their fan base and strengthen their squad if they are to be even also-rans in Super League. Iestyn Harris, the Wales dual-code star, who is out of contract with the Bradford Bulls at the end of this season, has already been linked with a player-coach role with the Crusaders.

John Dixon, the Crusaders' Aussie coach, said: "It's an enormous day for the club. We started here three years ago thinking pigs might fly. Well, we have achieved what we set out to. The hard work starts now."

Edward Roberts

Into the Valleys: League's short-lived ventures

1907 Merthyr and Ebbw Vale join the Northern Union, but all the Welsh clubs fold by First World War.

1908 Wales play their first international, against New Zealand at Aberdare on New Year's Day, winning 9-8

1926 Pontypridd enter Rugby League and last just one season.

1950 Cardiff enter League but they also last only one season.

1975 Wales national team revived for the World Cup.

1981 Cardiff Blue Dragons in League until 1984, when they move to Bridgend for one season.

1996 South Wales, based in Cardiff, have one season in Second Division.

2000 Wales reach the World Cup semi-finals for second tournament in succession.

2006 Celtic Crusaders established in Bridgend.

2008 Win a Super League licence for three years, starting in 2009.

The new elite: Super League 2009

BRADFORD

CASTLEFORD

CATALAN DRAGONS

CELTIC CRUSADERS

HARLEQUINS RL

HUDDERSFIELD

HULL

HULL K R

LEEDS

ST HELENS

SALFORD

WAKEFIELD

WARRINGTON

WIGAN

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