Wales Dragonhearts celebrate 30 years

Wales Rugby League’s community international side, which has been known as “Wales Dragonhearts” since 2009, celebrates 30 years today since their first-ever international match.

The “Wales Amateurs” as they were known back in 1994 were coached by Danny Sheehy, with Clive Griffiths, who was Wales men’s side head coach at the time, there as an advisor, and they took on “England Amateurs” (now known as England Lions) on Sunday 27th March 1994 at Morfa Stadium in Swansea. On that occasion, England won 14-10 with two of the Wales side, their captain David Williams, plus Jason Lee, eventually winning full Welsh caps.

Since then, over 400 community players in Wales have pulled on the shirt, and a further 25 players who turned out for the side since 1994 have gone on to win full Wales men’s side caps. These include current men’s side captain Elliot Kear, fellow Super League star Gil Dudson, the combined Wales RL sides’ most capped player Christiaan Roets and the Dragonhearts’ most capped player Paul Emannuelli.

In addition, some players have gone on to make their name in other sports. Gerwyn Price played once for the Dragonhearts in 2013, a few years before becoming World Darts champion, whilst Paul Whapham, the current CEO of Hockey Wales, played alongside Richard Hibbard, who went on to win 38 caps for Wales in rugby union and three for the British and Irish Lions, in 2003.

A “Welsh Clubs XIII” was first conceived as far back as 1909 when players from the inaugural Welsh domestic competition was selected. They faced and beat the touring Kangaroos 14-13 in Merthyr Tydfil. Then in 1950, a “South Wales XIII” which was a side again selected from local Welsh clubs, who played in a domestic league at the time, took on Wigan, and then a touring Italy side. Wales Amateurs were formed and they played foreign opposition for the first time in 1990 when Moscow Spartak toured.

The side was renamed “Wales A” as we entered a new millennium, and in 1999, following the development of similar sides in Scotland and Ireland, a Celtic Cup was organised, that Wales won. In 2002, England Lionhearts joined the party and a Four Nations was created, with Wales winning the first five tournaments (the 2002 is pictured below), and eventually eight titles in the 12 years that the competition ran.

The Wales Dragonhearts name was officially launched on June 13, 2009 on a memorable day in Bridgend, which saw them beat England Lionhearts 42-4 in a curtain-raiser match before Celtic Crusaders beat Wigan Warriors in Super League. That side was coached by Mike Healy, who played in the 1994 international and was one of a number of players who returned to coach the side after their playing career.

The Four Nations tournament was scrapped after the 2013 edition but another Celtic Cup was played a year later, and since 2016, the Dragonhearts have either toured a developing European nation or welcomed sides to Wales, playing matches against the likes of Malta, Lithuania, Serbia and Germany.

Sadly, we have lost three Dragonhearts international players long before their time, in Paul Morgan, Scott Bessant and Dale Tucker.

The founding Wales side from 1994, as well as many other Wales Amateur and Student players from three decades ago, are having a reunion this Saturday in Cardiff. Their coach from 1994, Danny Sheehy and captain David Williams are both looking forward to seeing everyone again.

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Sheehy said. “I’m hugely looking forward to meeting up with all those who can make it, plus of course my old mucker, Clive Griffiths.

“For the first match, we actually canvassed the British Amateur Rugby League Association (BARLA) and its member clubs for any expat Welshmen and we were surprised by the interest. It was this that unearthed Jason Lee who went on to sign for Warrington and play for Wales against Australia.

“However, preparations were difficult as you’d expect with limited budget and players having to travel mainly to South Wales for any squad sessions. However we had some historical knowledge to draw on – We had organised a Wales Amateurs v Wales Students a few years earlier and held a North Vs South trial that was held at Eirias Park in Colwyn Bay. Anyone from the North of England was directed to the North Wales team. The few training sessions were aided by the South Wales players accommodating the North Wales lads.

“I was always optimistic about the future of the game in Wales and I stayed involved at both Student and WRL level until 2012. I think that match 30 years ago laid the foundations with players like Jason Lee, Dave Williams and Ioan Bebb to name a few, going on to higher things.”

Williams adds: “Thirty years on and it’s great that some of the boys that played in that game will get together again this weekend where we will have a mixture of student and amateur internationals, rubbing shoulders and reminiscing about the good old days.

“If I remember rightly, the England team we took on had just come back from an unbeaten run of games and had toured South Africa. The weather on the day, was absolutely atrocious with driving rain and horrible winds for the full 80 minutes of the game. We were unable to warm up properly on the pitch due to the conditions, and having to do the warm-up and have the team photo underneath the stand (pictured at the top of the page).

“It’s been great to see that the Amateur game of rugby league has still carried on for a number of years and still is today with some of those amateur and student players going on to play professional rugby league.

“A little bird tells me that the certain Mr Clive Griffiths is 70 years old in a couple months, so this Saturday could be an early 70th birthday celebration and we will all be there to wish him well.”

Learn about that Wales side from 1994 below…

1. Ioan Bebb (Cardiff Sea Eagles)
2. James Aven (Cardiff Sea Eagles)
3. Paul Cousins (Cardiff Institute)
4. Martin Daly (Cardiff Sea Eagles)
5. Jason Lee (Dudley Hill)
6. Mike Healy (Aberavon RL)
7. David Malcolm (Cardiff Sea Eagles)
8. Andrew Davies (Aberavon RL)
9. John Daley (Woolston Rovers)
10. Barry Picton (Cardiff Institute)
11. Norman Dawkin (Aberavon RL)
12. Mark Isherwood (Cardiff Institute)
13. Dave Williams (Cardiff Sea Eagles)
14. David Gray (North Wales Coasters)
15. Shaun Kindley (Leigh Miners Rangers)
16. Nick Romanello (North Gower RL)
17. Kevin Taylor (Aberavon RL)