Rugby League in Wrexham and indeed North Wales will turn 25 years old on the weekend of the Big Welsh Derby which sees South Wales Scorpions take on North Wales Crusaders at Cardiff Arms Park on Sunday 10th May (kick-off 3pm).
The first ever Rugby League match to be played in North Wales was on Saturday 12th May 1990 when Wrexham Raiders hosted Nantwich and Crewe, with the visitors winning 52-24.
Two clubs in North Wales formed at that time, Wrexham, run by Andrew and Peter Varley, and the Colwyn Bay-based North Wales Coasters, where one of the organisers was future Wales Rugby League board member Gerard Keenan. Both sides competed in the Chester Nines in the summer of 1990, which was won by Aberavon, a side that starred future WRL chairman Danny Sheehy.
That open age incarnation of the Raiders lasted less than one season but they lived on as a junior side for a few years producing players like Owain and Iwan Brown who went on to play for North Wales Crusaders and Hefin O’Hare who played for Huddersfield Giants. The latter two also became full Wales internationals. The current incarnation of the club, Wrexham Bradley Raiders, were formed in 2011 and have a healthy junior and open age set up.
North Wales Coasters ran until 1997 and then were revived as Rhyl Coasters in 2004 competing in leagues based in the North West of England and developing players like Rhys Williams who is now Wales all-time top try scorer. They disbanded in 2010, the year that the old Celtic Crusaders moved to Wrexham from Bridgend, but a new side, Prestatyn and Rhyl Panthers, were formed in their place in 2012, competing alongside the Raiders and other sides like Dee Valley Dragons, Conwy Celts and Flintshire Falcons in a North Wales Conference league.
Wales Rugby League president Mike Nicholas, who has been instrumental in the progress of junior Rugby League in North Wales recently has given credit to everyone involved in the last 25 years.
“Sunday 10th May should be celebrated as a landmark event for Rugby League in North Wales,” he said. “Everybody should be congratulated on their efforts to pioneer the game in the north of the principality and the hard work put in was just a precursor to the progress being made today.
“It’s quite a coincidence that this anniversary collides with the Big Welsh Derby. The whole day looks like its celebrating the development of Rugby League in Wales which is a really good thing.”
Gerard Keenan has many memories of how Rugby League started in North Wales and is delighted with its position now.
“I was with the North Wales Coasters when we played our first two games soon after against Wrexham and then against Nantwich and Crewe,” he said. “The Coasters remained in the North West Counties league for seven years with our penultimate season in 1996 being our most successful season coming third after winning 20 out of 24 games.
“It was a time when we were ploughing a lonely furrow in North Wales and it’s so good to see the progress which has been made more recently.”
Jamie Thomas, chief executive of North Wales Crusaders, who were formed out of the ashes of the old Crusaders in 2011, said: “Many people mistakenly believe that Rugby League began in North Wales with the arrival of the Crusaders Super League team and then the continuation of the new entity of North Wales Crusaders.
“However this anniversary shows the sport has long had an association with the region and whilst has had sporadic bursts rather than sustained success, it still demonstrates there has always been a core of support ready to work hard at spreading the word of this great game.
“North Wales is a perfect environment for Rugby League to thrive and we continue to work hard to support the game at all levels. After some stop and start bursts let’s hope Rugby League is here to stay and it’ll be uninterrupted service through to the 50th anniversary in 2040.”