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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 May 2007, 09:25 GMT 10:25 UK
Rugby league's Welsh crusade
By Julian Shea

Celtic Crusaders logo

All 12 Super League clubs will visit Cardiff this weekend to play an entire round of matches at the Millennium Stadium.

By 2009, the trip to south Wales could become a regular occurrence if the top flight grants the region one of its two expansion franchises.

National League Two side Celtic Crusaders are the current standard bearers for rugby league in the Principality.

They hope the attention and interest generated by Millennium Magic will boost their case for a Super League place.

"I think we're in a very realistic position to challenge for a Super League franchise," Gerald McCarthy, the club's operations manager, told BBC Sport.

"Traditionally it's a northern game, but Super League's expanded to France and London so the next sensible step seems to be Wales."

Our support comes from all over the region, from people who support their own union side but also follow us

Gerald McCarthy,
Operations manager,
Celtic Crusaders

While the region is traditionally a heartland of rugby union, it also has a 100-year history of rugby league, although the sport has struggled to get a permanent foothold.

Now the Crusaders are flying the flag for league in Wales.

Based at Brewery Field in Bridgend, they may only be in their second season but they boast a strong infrastructure, substantial financial resources and blossoming support base.

"The last attempt at rugby league around here was about 15 years ago, when the Dragons moved here from Cardiff to play at Bridgend football ground, but they went into demise," said McCarthy.

"Two years ago, the Celtic Warriors lost their rugby union franchise and we saw an opportunity to reintroduce league to the area.

Brewery Field
Britain's top sides could be making regular trips to Brewery Field

"Leighton Samuel is our main investor. He's a philanthropist who was chairman of the Warriors. When that disappeared, he decided to set up a rugby league club.

"We've got a squad of 30 players, eight of whom are full-time and five of whom are products of last year's academy."

As well as having financial clout and unearthing some of their own talent, the Crusaders are, perhaps more importantly, pulling in the crowds.

"On Easter Bank Holiday weekend, we had a crowd of 2,800. That was the biggest crowd in National League One or Two that weekend," said McCarthy.

"We're not competing against rugby union, as our season starts as theirs finishes.

The Millennium Magic weekend is a great showcase for any sport. It will enable potential Welsh supporters to see rugby league at the highest level

Gerald McCarthy

"Our support comes from all over the region, from people who support their own union side but also follow us. We're not a Bridgend side, we're a south Wales side."

The Crusaders hope they gain a few new fans on Friday, when they host Oldham in a match to celebrate the centenary of rugby league in Wales.

Oldham were the first Northern Union visitors to Wales 100 years ago, when they beat Merthyr Tydfil 25-6.

The Crusaders hope plenty of visitors to Cardiff for the weekend will find time to make the short trip to Bridgend on Friday night to join in their celebrations.

"We're only 20 minutes from Cardiff, it's a direct train link and there's a bus station right by the ground," said McCarthy.

"The Millennium Magic weekend is a great showcase for any sport. It will enable potential Welsh supporters to see rugby league at the highest level."

Playing Brisbane Broncos was the Crusaders' biggest game so far. Photo by Ian Lovell.
Brisbane's Darren Lockyer tackles Crusader Luke Young

Four wins from their opening four league games this season suggest the Crusaders do not just talk a good game, they play one, too.

That is partly down to head coach John Dixon.

A man with a proven pedigree and a packed contacts book, he has also had a big impact off the pitch as well as on it.

After all, it was the Australian who played an integral role in arranging the biggest day in the club's history in February - a prestigious friendly against Brisbane Broncos.

Looking for a game prior to their World Club Challenge clash with St Helens, the NRL champions headed for Bridgend, where they won 32-6.

"John's a former assistant coach at the Broncos, and a good friend of their head coach Wayne Bennett," said McCarthy.

"When it was announced they wanted a warm-up game, it seemed the natural thing to do.

"It was a good advert for the club and a statement that we're here to stay."

Judging by their efforts so far, the Crusaders do indeed look like becoming a permanent fixture.



SEE ALSO
Lockyer pleased with warm-up win
15 Feb 07 |  Rugby League
Crusaders recruit youthful trio
23 Jan 07 |  National League
Crusaders' Dixon up for NL2 award
15 Dec 06 |  Rugby League
Crusaders set up Broncos friendly
23 Nov 06 |  Rugby League
Dixon back in Crusaders' saddle
04 Feb 06 |  Rugby League
Welsh side join pro league ranks
22 Jun 05 |  Rugby League


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