Welsh rugby league try to tempt union players to switch codes

Former Wales captain Lloyd White believes the revamped rugby league structure in Wales can tempt plenty of new players from rugby union.

The newly-titled JES Group Rugby League Conference kicks off across Wales this weekend in a major step forward for the 13-man code.

With a new sponsor and a fresh trophy, the eight-club tournament will also feature a new location for the Grand Final - The Gnoll in Neath, a club recently rejected by the Welsh Rugby Union as a member of their own new tier, Super Rygbi Cymru.

That would appear a shrewd decision by Wales Rugby League, an organisation who have had various attempts, over the years, at threatening the dominance of the 15-a-side game.

Few are as well positioned as White to judge whether this latest bid for elbow room might succeed.

The 35-year-old played rugby union for Cardiff Youth - alongside the likes of Sam Warburton - until this nephew of former Great Britain star Phil Ford steered himself towards rugby league.

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White enjoyed a hugely successful career that included a six-year spell with Widnes, but has now turned to coaching and will be helping mastermind the efforts of South Wales Jets alongside another former Wales international, Ben Flower.

“This is a good time to be revamping rugby league in Wales and I think we can attract a lot of new followers and new players,” says White, whose Jets team are based at Penallta RFC, near Caerphilly.

“There are only eight teams and we play each other only once - either home or away - with one extra home game, so it’s a fairly short summer season.

“That means it’s very suited to rugby union players who can transfer over to league for a short summer season and I’d be very surprised if we didn’t attract a large number.

“At the Jets, we have already got a number of union players on board from clubs like Penallta, Nelson and the Cardiff area.

“It’s a long time until the winter rugby union season, so this is a chance to stay fresh, learn new skills, and keep your fitness.

“I don’t want to comment too much about what is going on rugby union in Wales at present, but there’s no doubt this tournament at this particular time, represents an opportunity for us and we need to try and take it.”

The Jets will go into the new season on Saturday as the defending champions, but they start that defence at home to Bridgend Blue Bulls, the most successful club in the 20-year-history of the league.

Elsewhere on the opening weekend, Swansea Rams host Cynon Valley Cavaliers and South Wales Saints entertain Rhondda Outlaws.

The other two clubs - the Torfaen Tigers and Aberavon Fighting Irish - start their campaigns a week later.

“The improvement in the Jets players in the last few weeks has been massive and we’re really looking forward to the start of the season,” adds White.

“I have to admit I don’t know a great deal about the strength of the other clubs, but we know it’s going to be a competitive league.”

As well as providing an alternative to rugby union, White is hopeful the refreshed league can stimulate interest in the sport more broadly in Wales and particularly provide a pathway for future internationals.

Traditionally, the Wales team have mostly relied on players with Welsh ties from Super League or Championship clubs, but a domestic route could provide a wider playing base.

“That is something we have spoken about - providing a route for players to eventually play for Wales,” added White.

“That’s obviously not going to happen overnight, but in time if players are good enough to go through the levels then there is no reason why we couldn’t provide the Wales international players of the future.”

Welsh bookmakers Dragon Bet make the South Wales Jets 4/6 favourites to win the JES Group Rugby League Conference title again this season.

The Bridgend Blue Bulls are second favourites at 11/4.

Then, come Aberavon Fighting Irish at 5/1, the Rhondda Outlaws (8/1), Cynon Valley Cavaliers (12/1), Swansea Rams (16/1) and outsiders South Wales Saints at 25/1.