League relaunches mission to convert Wales

Rugby League
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At the end of next month, the game will again tackle its Everest - or should that be its Snowdon? - of establishing pro- fessional rugby league in Wales.

The announcement yesterday that a side based in south Wales has been accepted into the Second Division for the coming season is the latest in a series of attempts that goes back to 1907.

The last try ended ignominiously in 1985, when Bridgend, the bedraggled remnants of the Cardiff Blue Dragons club, which had kicked off with such high hopes four years earlier, went quietly into oblivion, winding up with crowds of 173, 187 and 148.

Mike Nicholas, who played briefly for Cardiff and is now the driving force behind this latest assault on the citadel, believes that circumstances are very different more than a decade later.

As manager of a successful and charismatic Welsh national rugby league side, he has seen entrenched hostility to the code break down.

"People are now willing to assess the game on its athletic merits," he said. "There is a different climate now."

But that climate, he fears, will not last forever and the time to strike is now. "We can't afford to delay. We aren't setting up in opposition to rugby union, but the fact is that rugby union will be a lot more organised 15 months down the road. We have a window of opportunity now."

Even though the new club has little more than six weeks to prepare for its opening match, against the reigning Second Division champions, Hull Kingston Rovers, on 31 March, the Rugby League has concurred with that sense of urgency.

"We are impressed by the enthusiasm of Mike Nicholas and his colleagues," said the League's chief executive, Maurice Lindsay. "By entering at Division Two level we feel they are taking a sensible first step towards Super League.

"We will do everything we possibly can to assist them, but we were impressed to note that the consortium did not ask for any financial assistance."

Nicholas says that the new club had budgeted for zero gates in its first season, but, beyond that, he is unapologetically ambitious.

"We have been assured by the League that a fast-tracking facility exists for ourselves and Newcastle, when we have shown we are viable," he said.

The question of where the players will come from to fuel such ambitions is not a straightforward one. The Blue Dragons, for instance, had an impressive roster of well-known rugby union players, many of them past their best, and were not good enough to make progress or attract crowds.

"There are a lot more players in Wales with experience of League now," Nicholas said. That includes former League players, like Jonathan Griffiths and Jonathan Davies, who have gone home, as well as Heineken League players who have represented the Welsh Student side.

Nicholas talks of hiring players from rugby union clubs and attracting those capable of playing both for the new club and for Aberavon, where it will initially be based, at rugby union.

He will still need, however, to sign up a nucleus of experienced players for key positions - and that will not be cheap.

There are a number of other decisions to be made. Clive Griffiths, Nicholas' henchman with the Welsh side, would be an inevitable first choice as coach, although he might prefer to stay in the north-west.

Nicholas is in negotiation for the use of another ground in the Cardiff/Newport area and he believes it is important that the team should be known as South Wales, rather than bearing the name of an individual town or city.

But South Wales what? The Druids or the Vikings have been suggested. "But if British Steel wanted to put in a few million, we would happily become the South Wales Steelers," Nicholas added.

The game will hope that the latest structure to be erected in the Principality will be as durable as that name suggests.