A passionate performance against one of the best sides in world rugby league on Jonathan Davies’ 60th birthday this week served as a reminder that Wales can still play.
The Welsh gave highly-fancied Tonga a real scare, taking and holding a first-half lead against Kristian Woolf’s powerful side of NRL stars, before the gulf in class and fitness became apparent and John Kear’s men ended up proud losers once more.
The halcyon 90s days of Davies and World Cup semi-finals have felt forever lost to Welsh rugby fans, with even head coach Kear admitting that one tournament win this year would be an incredible achievement. That may still happen, although it would require another huge effort as Wales round off their campaign against Papua New Guinea next week after losses to Tonga and Cook Islands.
But what is for sure is that there remains plenty of fire in the Welsh rugby league belly.
So could this World Cup trigger a rebuild of the 13-man game for this proud rugby nation? Kear obviously hopes so, as does dual-code great Iestyn Harris, who hopped from league to union and then back again, during his own glittering career.
And, speaking exclusively to The Sportsman, Harris outlined his hopes that the right eyes have been watching these spirited Welsh World Cup displays.
“Wales have done exceptionally well and shown a lot of fight,” says the 46-year old, who won 25 caps as a union international in between his trophy-heavy league stints at Leeds Rhinos and rivals Bradford Bulls. “You could see the gulf in class with Tonga, but Wales made up for that with heart and passion. Wales have so many part-time players that they were bound to find it more difficult the longer it went on.”
So how does Welsh rugby league set about using this World Cup as a springboard for growth, rather than simply a life experience for its players taking part – many of whom were back at work the following morning?
“I think the difficulty is the player pool which is getting smaller and smaller,” Harris adds. “Until we can grow the player pool it is very difficult to see where that competitive Wales side is going to come from.
“The million dollar question is how are we going to create that next batch of Welsh heroes to play for the rugby league side? And I’m not quite sure what the answer is.”
HARRIS COACHED CRUSADERS IN SUPER LEAGUE IN 2011
Wales do not currently have a club side in the Betfred Super League, and haven’t done since Crusaders RL were granted a three-year licence to compete in the top tier from 2009 to 2011. Harris was head coach in that final year, having worked as assistant to the great Brian Noble before that. The club withdrew and disbanded in 2011 after three difficult seasons, to be succeeded by North Wales Crusaders lower down the pyramid.
Crusaders finished third in League 1 this season, behind the two promoted sides, Keighley Cougars and Swinton Lions. The other Welsh side, West Wales Raiders, finished bottom.
And Harris feels the absence of a top-flight rugby league club in Wales has massively restricted the development of new talent.
“Crusaders dropped out of Super League a long time ago and a lot of the players who were in that system are of retirement age now, so where is the new batch of players going to come from? I still think there is a place for a Super League side in Wales. I still think there is a lot of momentum and interest in rugby league in Wales. If we had a Super League side that was structured right and the foundations were built on then it could be a success, but we have missed the boat on it so many times can you get another opportunity to make it happen?”
Ironically the new era of “reimagining rugby league”, which has seen global management group IMG charged with giving the sport a complete rethink, is sending the sport back towards licensing in a bid to create some stability and growth. And Harris hopes that could help the game in Wales re-establish itself on the national and international stage.
“I don’t think the glory days have gone forever. We are creating a new era, with IMG looking to grow the game, and upping the salary cap could entice players from rugby union, which has had its troubles too. So why can’t we get the good Welsh rugby union players to convert over to rugby league again? I don’t see why we can’t do that. But what is the scouting system and who is looking at that? I’m not sure the Super League clubs are because there is some brilliant talent in Wales.”
Kear is more cautious than Harris, and believes past glories are unlikely to be rekindled, but agrees that new stars must be born at grassroots level.
“Gone are the days of us signing elite rugby union talent because of the money now in their game or supposedly in their game,” he remarked pointedly after his side’s defeat to Tonga. “We have got to grow our own and that is what we are doing. Twelve out of our squad of 24 are Welsh-grown and others we have brought through the system.
“So it is working, but we need to stay with it and we are not far away. We are improving and getting better and that was a Welsh performance full of pride and passion.”
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