Old pals' act ensures a warm welcome for Broncos in Wales

Celtic Crusaders coach John Dixon is plotting the downfall of familiar foes tonight, writes Dave Hadfield
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The Independent Online

The Celtic Crusaders have their coach's connections to thank for what threatens to be the most unforgettable evening of their rugby league careers.

The National League Two club play host tonight to what, if it was run by a lager company, would be advertised as probably the best rugby league side in the world.

The Brisbane Broncos - Darren Lockyer and full supporting cast - are in Bridgend on their way to the World Club Challenge against St Helens next Friday.

"The Broncos are arguably the most professional club in world sport. They wanted to play a warm-up game and they said 'Hang on, we know a bloke in Wales'," says the Crusaders coach John Dixon.

"It didn't take us long to say yes." Dixon spent 10 years with the Broncos in various roles, including youth development manager and reserve-grade coach.

When the Crusaders were founded last season, he was the man they put in charge of their aspiration to be a Super League franchise. That is still the plan, although Dixon admits that there is a long way to go.

The Crusaders, with a nucleus of former Broncos juniors, finished third in NL2 in their inaugural season and suffered the heartbreak of losing their chance of promotion when they were beaten by Swinton in golden point extra time at Brewery Field.

"We were very, very close," says Dixon, who sees real signs of progress in the club's second year. "The biggest single difference this time is the improvement in our locally-based players."

Another important difference is the heightened profile of the club. "Last year, nobody in Wales had heard of us. They have now. We had a double-page spread in Wales on Sunday in the middle of the Six Nations."

Dixon hopes that will be reflected in tonight's attendance. In their first season, the Crusaders averaged 671 and their last home game, against Widnes in the Northern Rail Cup last Friday, inspired just 452 to battle their way through South Wales snowdrifts. Tonight should be different.

"There are some staunch rugby league supporters in Wales and it's great for them. There are enough rugby union people as well who know who Darren Lockyer is and will want to see him play," Dixon says.

He is aware of the danger, of course, that the Crusaders may be put to the sword. By the end, they could be ruing the fact that their coach remains so pally with his old employers.

Dixon is adamant that this risk is outweighed by the advantages. "The benefits in terms of raising the profile of rugby league in Wales are enormous.

"There are young Welsh players who can push their claims for World Cup places. If they get there, they can say 'We've played against Darren Lockyer'."