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When two codes collide

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

Crusaders players Geraint Davies, Chris Beasley and Jordan James
The Celtic Crusaders prepare for the battle of the Welsh rugby codes

By Peter Shuttleworth

Is Wales big enough for the both of them? Rugby league and rugby union, that is.

Wales' first top-flight rugby league team makes its big-time bow on Friday against the Leeds Rhinos.

But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Celtic Crusaders' Super League opener against the defending champions has been overshadowed by their union nemesis.

In a week when the country's rugby union heroes, the emotional barometer of the nation, begin the defence of their Six Nations Grand Slam title, the Crusaders were always going to struggle to capture the wider public's attention.

The Crusaders' task is to convince the union hotbed of south Wales to accept, embrace and support their rugby relatives from league. It's a tough mission, make no mistake.

Iestyn Harris with the Super League trophy
Union might be a little fearful of the new kid in town but as codes they are closer in playing style than ever

Former dual code international Iestyn Harris
Trying to find room in the Welsh sporting psyche in Six Nations week may well be more difficult than winning the three-year Super League franchise in the first place.

The Bridgend-based franchise was raised from the ashes of a defunct rugby union region when the Celtic Warriors were sacrificed by the Welsh Rugby Union when they slimmed down from five to four regions in 2005.

Now the club scorned by union has been reborn and is ready to go toe-to-toe with their maker in the battle of the codes - so can the rugby rivals co-exist?

"Wales is a hotbed for rugby, albeit union," said Welsh dual-code star Iestyn Harris.

"But I know from my time playing union in Wales, there is a lot of interest in rugby league, so maybe awarding a Welsh club a Super League franchise is not as bold a move as you might think.

"Union might be a little fearful of the new kid in town but as codes they are closer in playing style than ever and I think there is a huge amount of respect for league among union fans and players.

"Super League is an exciting spectacle, it's fast and furious and not as technical as union so if Welsh fans would give it a chance, they'd love it.

"The Crusaders are riding the crest of a wave and will get a bit of sympathy from the Welsh public early on but that will waver if 12 months down the line, they are not competitive - the public will lose any interest as they can be fickle."

RFL bosses are renowned for their innovative marketing tactics and dynamic ideas.

WRU chief executive Roger Lewis
Union and league have been uneasy bedfellows in Wales for the best part of 100 years

WRU chief executive Roger Lewis
And they have certainly been shrewd in scheduling the Crusaders' fixtures with very few home matches going head-to-head with either club or country union games.

Their highly-anticipated Brewery Field showdowns with Super League giants Wigan, Warrington, Bradford and Leeds have been, astutely, reserved for the sparse sporting wasteland of the summer.

Harris said: "Fans might want to watch the great names like Wigan, St Helens, Leeds and Bradford when there's nothing else on - and want more."

But Roger Lewis, the Welsh Rugby Union's chief executive, points out: "All sporting bodies are looking at how they schedule and structure their sporting activity to maximise the appeal and experience.

"For example, few Welsh football clubs will go head-to-head with international rugby games at the Millennium Stadium.

"Like on the field the best team wins, off the field the best commercial team wins.

"All sports are competing for players and people's leisure time these days, no-one can be complacent and rugby union must ensure that our sport is more attractive than the others."

606: DEBATE
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Wales boast the third oldest rugby league national team and has produced legends of the sport like Billy Boston, Gus Risman and Jim Sullivan, not to mention Clive Sullivan, David Watkins and Jonathan Davies.

And Lewis adds: "Union and league have been uneasy bedfellows in Wales for the best part of 100 years but bedfellows nevertheless and the codes are closer now than they have been before."

In fact, Warren Gatland's Wales union team won their second Grand Slam in four seasons with philosophies straight out of the rugby league textbook.

Their defensive lines, dummy-runner strategy, quick ball recycling and fitness levels are foundations on which the 13-man game is built.

Much of that is credited to Shaun Edwards, Gatland's right-hand man, who enjoyed a hugely successful league career before crossing the code divide to coach in union at Wasps and now Wales.

"Probably the emphasis on defence came over from rugby league," acknowledges Edwards.

"The physical aspect to dominate your opponent is the same in both codes.

Shaun Edwards
Wales assistant coach Shaun Edwards is a league man in union
"A lot of Welsh rugby union players went up north to play league because they were great rugby players and I think rugby is rugby."

And Six Nations winning coach Gatland reveals: "We've had the Crusaders coaches come in and have a look how we do and I wouldn't mind having a look at the way they prepare."

Wales' union full-back star Lee Byrne, who hails from the Crusaders' base of Bridgend, has played league and he hopes the rivalry will improve both codes in Wales.

"Now youngsters can have a choice to play league or union and that is not a bad thing," he said.

"It will improve standards across the codes and, of course, if a guy doesn't make it in one code, he could always try the other."

Welsh sport in the 21st century has achieved things few ever believed possible: FA Cup finals staged at the Millennium Stadium, a 2009 Ashes test in Cardiff, the 2010 Ryder Cup in Newport and a Welsh Super League franchise.

"This isn't an argument between rugby union and rugby league," concluded WRU chief Lewis.

"Modern-day Wales should be big enough to embrace all sports as we want our children to grow up in an all-sports environment."

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see also
Leeds v Celtic Crusaders
04 Feb 09 |  Rugby League
Harris excited by Welsh Crusaders
04 Feb 09 |  Celtic Crusaders
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
Welsh rugby league's Crusade
22 Jul 08 |  Rugby League
Crusaders & Salford win licences
22 Jul 08 |  Rugby League
Welsh side join pro league ranks
22 Jun 05 |  Rugby League
WRU axe falls on Warriors
01 Jun 04 |  Welsh


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