Eleven years ago today (Friday), we witnessed Gareth Thomas’s rugby league debut, playing for Crusaders against Catalans Dragons at the Racecourse Ground in Wrexham.
The then 35-year old, with a century of Wales RU caps behind him, had a baptism of fire in Super League and, playing alongside now current Wales captain Elliot Kear, had to retire from his debut after just half an hour, the Crusaders going on to win 14-6.
However he went on to become a star in his two years at the club, won four Wales caps at the end of 2010, scoring three tries, including one on his debut against Italy, and captaining the side to a famous European Championship title win over France in Albi.
This Sunday, we are set to see the start of another rugby league career for a well-decorated Welsh rugby union star, as Gavin Henson is expected to make his West Wales Raiders debut in the Betfred Challenge Cup First Round, as they host Widnes Vikings at Stebonheath Park (kick-off 12.45pm) in a match that will be screened live on BBC Sport (online only).
The match signifies the return of rugby league to Wales, a full 54 weeks after the last game in the country, which was a Wheelchair Rugby League double header in Wrexham.
Henson, at 39 years old, is four years more senior than Thomas when he made his rugby league debut, and should he become Wales’ 100th male 13-a-side cross-code international, he’ll be the oldest known player to make his debut for the Wales men’s side in rugby league – Thomas being the current second oldest, just a matter of six days younger than Paul Sterling when he made his Wales debut aged 36 years 2 months and 17 days.
“He’ll definitely be playing on Sunday,” said Raiders head coach Aaron Wood. “He’ll be playing in the number six. He’s a world-class player and knows his body and where he’s at.
“I wouldn’t put him in if he didn’t think he was ready. He’s a fast learner and he looks better and better every week. What better way to test yourself than Widnes? It’s a challenge for everyone.”
Captaining the side at number 7 will be Rangi Chase, and at 34-years old, he and Henson will be one of, if not the oldest half-back pairing in rugby league. Chase was Super League Man of Steel in 2011 and, after switching his allegiance from New Zealand, played for England in the 2013 World Cup.
The Raiders have a few more interesting signings, some of whom are returning to rugby league in Wales after previously starring for South Wales Scorpions.
Former Scorpions captain and Wales international Joe Burke joins the squad, as does another former Scorpion in Wales Student international and Commonwealth Championship bronze medallist Marcus Webb who has spent time in the Championship with Hunslet and Swinton.
Returning to League after playing for Bridgend Ravens rugby union club are Jamie Murphy and Tom Morgan. Murphy played for Crusaders in Super League, actually alongside Gareth Thomas, and made the full Welsh squad in 2015. He has since become a full Germany international in the 15-man game. Mike Connor is another welcome return to RL after playing and working in rugby union. All three also played for South Wales Scorpions in the past.
In addition to Henson, a few other players have crossed over from rugby union. Scott Gibson returns to rugby league after over a decade. Playing for Celtic Crusaders and Wales at U16 level in 2009, he then concentrated on union, playing regularly in the Welsh Premiership for sides like Neath, Llandovery and Cardiff, which led to him making an appearance for Cardiff Blues in 2018.
Then there’s Morgan Allen, a regular in the Ospreys side from 2010-15 before spending two seasons at the Scarlets, then one at the Dragons. He’s more recently been the captain at Cardiff RFC.
In addition, former Wales U16 international Ieuan Badham returns to the Raiders from Hull FC after previously playing for the West Wales outfit as a junior player.
It will make for an interesting season once again in Llanelli, and it all kicks off in the world’s most famous knockout rugby league competition, live and free online on Sunday.