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Page last updated at 08:07 GMT, Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Harris excited by Welsh Crusaders

Date: Friday, 6 February Kick-off: 2000 GMT Venue: Headingley
Coverage: Full commentary on BBC Radio Leeds FM, AM, DAB & online; BBC Radio Wales MW, BBC Radio Cymru and online and score updates on BBC Radio 5 Live and online

By Peter Shuttleworth

Iestyn Harris
Former Bradford captain Iestyn Harris represented Great Britain 15 times

Iestyn Harris says the Celtic Crusaders can revive Welsh rugby league as they prepare for their Super League debut.

The former Welsh captain says the game in the Wales slumped to an "all-time low" when the national side failed to qualify for last year's World Cup.

"Winning a Super League franchise couldn't have come at a better time for rugby league in Wales," said Harris.

But he warned: "It will take a long time for the Crusaders to become competitive so people must be patient."

The Crusaders begin life in the top flight with a game at Super League champions Leeds Rhinos on Friday.

The Bridgend-based club have only been in existence since 2005 but have made rapid strides.

The Crusaders won promotion from National League Two in their second season before they were one of 14 sides to be granted a three-year Super League licence last July.

"It is perhaps better late than never that a Welsh club have been awarded a Super League franchise," said Harris, who opted to join Featherstone Rovers as a player-coach instead of signing for the Crusaders.

Australia's Wendell Sailor scores the second try against Wales during their 2000 World Cup semi-final
It was very disappointing not to reach the World Cup last year and that, for me, signalled Welsh rugby league's lowest ebb

Iestyn Harris

"I feel it is also rightful recognition to Wales for all this nation has given rugby league over the years."

Wales has a rich rugby league heritage and has produced all-time greats Billy Boston, Gus Risman, Jim Sullivan, Clive Sullivan, Jonathan Davies, Scott Gibbs, Scott Quinnell and John Devereux.

Not to mention Harris and St Helens veteran Keiron Cunningham, voted the great player of the Super League era.

However, the talent has seemingly dried up and the national side have begun to struggle, failing to reach last year's World Cup after their memorable achievements in 1995 and 2000.

They reached the semi-finals on both occasions, giving Australia a big scare in 2000 by taking a 20-8 lead before eventually succumbing 46-22.

Wales had high hopes of playing in the 2008 tournament but missed out when they were beaten by Scotland over two legs in the final qualifier.

"It was very disappointing not to reach the World Cup last year and that, for me, signalled Welsh rugby league's lowest ebb," said Harris.

The Crusaders, coached by Australian John Dixon, are hoping to bring back the glory days following the decision to award them a franchise.

But they face the toughest possible start after being handed a trip to Headingley to take on the reigning Super League champions.

Their preparations have not been helped by the cancellation of their one and only friendly game and the visa problems which robbed them of eight players for much of pre-season.

But Dixon, who also coaches the Wales national team and is a former assistant to legendary Brisbane Broncos coach Wayne Bennett, remains upbeat.

So does Harris, a dual-code international who spent three years playing rugby union for Wales.

But the former Warrington, Leeds and Bradford Bulls half-back is desperate for the Crusaders to start developing their own top-class players.

Crusaders player Jordan James and coach John Dixon
The fact the Celtic Crusaders are in the Super League for at least three years can only be good for Welsh rugby league

Iestyn Harris
"The fact the Celtic Crusaders are in the Super League for at least three years can only be good for Welsh rugby league," said Harris.

"It will give the young lads in Wales a clear pathway through the system and another avenue if they don't want to play union."

The current Crusaders squad has more than its fair share of overseas players, particularly Australians.

Harris hopes that changes.

"I don't agree with flooding the team with Aussies, but it was probably inevitable because you could not get the local lads playing this standard in such a short space of time," he said.

"Hopefully over the next two or three years they can filter out the Aussies and get the Welsh lads through to make up a majority of the first-team to breathe new life into rugby league in Wales."

But Harris admits it will be hard work.

"Now the really hard work begins for the Crusaders," he said. "They've enjoyed a fairytale rise. Now it is time for realism and patience if the Crusaders and the Welsh national team want to be successful."

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see also
Leeds v Celtic Crusaders
04 Feb 09 |  Rugby League
Visa clearance boosts Crusaders
30 Jan 09 |  Celtic Crusaders
Quins cancel Crusaders friendly
27 Jan 09 |  Celtic Crusaders
Crusaders complete Chan signing
12 Jan 09 |  Celtic Crusaders
Crusaders lodge new stadium plan
11 Dec 08 |  Celtic Crusaders
Crusaders to start against Leeds
23 Nov 08 |  Rugby League
Crusaders & Salford win licences
22 Jul 08 |  Rugby League
England 74-0 Wales
10 Oct 08 |  Rugby League
Scotland 16-18 Wales
04 Nov 07 |  Rugby League
Featherstone secure Harris deal
18 Sep 08 |  Rugby League
Wales 14-21 Scotland
29 Oct 06 |  Rugby League
Harris retires from Britain duty
10 May 06 |  Rugby League
Aussies outlast valiant Wales
19 Nov 00 |  World Cup 2000

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