AGAINST all the odds, the future for rugby league in Wales is brighter than ever before.
That is the opinion of the sport’s development officer in South Wales, former Gateshead Thunder forward Stuart Singleton.
Rugby union going open was heralded in many quarters as the death of the 13-man code in Wales, as the supply of players “going north” dried up overnight and even reversed with the likes of Jonathan Davies, Scott Gibbs, Allan Bateman, Kevin Ellis, Rowland Phillips and Scott Quinnell returning to their union roots.
More recently, dyed-in-the-wool league players like Iestyn Harris and Anthony Sullivan have been among the top league names switching to cash-rich union.
That paints a bleak picture for the 13-man code in Wales and leaves national coach Neil Kelly with a shallow pool from which to choose – superstar hooker Keiron Cunningham and a collection of journeymen, in fact.
But Singleton believes the future is far, far brighter thanks to the new national league structure agreed by rugby league clubs this month.
“The new structure means that if we can develop the game and develop a club from the grass-roots up, there is now a route up the pyramid – all the way to Super League,” he said.
The new pyramid – agreed unanimously by the 31 professional clubs and to be rolled out over the next two years – will see:
* Super League to remain at 12 clubs;
* The current 19-team Northern Ford Premiership to be split into two divisions, National Leagues One and Two, from 2003;
* Amateur teams to form a 10-team National League Three;
* The pioneering Summer Conference to form a 10-team National League Four.
Crucially, there will be relegation and promotion between the divisions, minimum criteria permitting.
And that is where Cardiff Demons come in. The 30-strong Summer Conference is currently split into six regional divisions and, in their debut season, the Cardiff side finished 10th in the final “collated” league table.
If they were to maintain or improve on that position over the next two summers – and meet ground criteria – they could be part of the inaugural National League Four.
“If we can build on the success of this summer and increase further the number of junior players at club and school level, than the infrastructure will be there,” said Singleton.
“It is far better, surely, to build ourselves from the bottom up rather than parachute a Super League franchise in, as has been suggested in the past. That would have no links with the community and no infrastructure to support it.
“This way, the sport grows organically. Summer rugby league takes away a lot of the clashes with rugby union and players have a simple choice of which sport to play.
“We have no problem if they choose to play union. We are simply giving players the opportunity to play league if they want to, and on the evidence of this summer those that have tasted league have thoroughly it and are coming back for more.
“We now have players who are cutting short the start and finish of their union seasons to play a full summer of league, rather than the other way around.”
Apart from the open-age players with the Cardiff club – who were able to put out two senior teams on occasions this summer – both the Demons and Cynon Valley Cougars have thriving under-13 and under-15 set-ups and aim to extend that to other age groups next summer.
The sport in Wales is also booming at student level – where University of Wales Institute Cardiff have been the most successful university side in Britain in recent years – and Singleton is also coaching in dozens of primary and secondary schools throughout Cardiff and the Valleys.
“It is gathering pace all the time,” said Singleton, “and if it continues to develop then hopefully Neil Kelly will have a whole squad of home-grown rugby league players to choose from at the top level. That has to be the ultimate aim.”
* Cardiff Demons, in their inaugural season, finish third in the tough Central South Division and 10th overall in the Rugby League Conference.
* Welsh amateur representative side hosts RLC Lionhearts and beats Scotland amateurs at Hull.
* Welsh under-13 and under-15 sides win home and away against South of England.
* Uwic win Busa Cup final for third time in four years, and reach premiership finals and first and second-team level.
* Welsh Students reach semi-finals of Europa Cup in Tartarstan.
* Welsh Rugby League governing body re-formed to oversee the sport’s development.