The Slow Death of the Celtic Crusaders
There was some excitement several years ago regarding rugby league in south Wales. This new team had emerged from the rubble of Bridgend RFC, home to one of the great fallen clubs of Welsh rugby history. Over time, this entity known as the Celtic Crusaders, went from being a rugby league infant in 2005, to a noisy teenager knocking on the door of Super League opportunity in the space of a mere 3 years. However, the Crusaders, unsurprisingly for such a short space of time, never quite showed their worth on the field. In 2008 the Crusaders were more than competitive for their division (National League One) but they never showed themselves to be the best in their division. Yet courtesy of the Super League taking up a franchise system for teams involved in the tournament, coupled with a long held desire to affirm the position of rugby league deep inside Wales’ union heartlands, the Crusaders were handed their shot at the top flight, Super League rugby was parachuted into south east Wales.
But it didn’t take long for the players to realise that many pieces of their Super League puzzle were missing from the box. Money and a fan base ultimately stood out as being key components that were lacking in the business model, not to mention that the then home of the Crusaders, Bridgend’s Brewery Field, while possibly being suitable for a Welsh Premiership Club in unions semi-professional ranks, was nowhere near the grade required for the audiences provided by Super League, home was simply an embarrassment to the team, and the competition.
So a move to Newport was suggested, but failed. Had it of gone through, it would have been disastrous. Newport’s Rodney Parade ground, already hosting two full time teams in the Newport Gwent Dragons and Newport RFC, would never have sustained a third team, either in terms of willing paying fans, or in the grounds ability to cope with so much rugby. So a move to Wrexham came, way up north, to the good ol’ safe harbour of the rugby league aficionado; though one wonders what the loyal fan base that grew up around the team in Bridgend thought of all this? Wrexham itself seemed a bizarre choice for a rugby league team to get in bed with, given the constantly precarious state of the clubs finances. Wrexham AFC, a team with history, once equipped with high quality professionals and kitted out with an excellent stadium, find themselves in constant financial difficulties, predominantly it must be stated, because not enough people turn up to watch them play, producing next to no gate revenue Why then, talk another club to an area where professional sport is clearly under supported?
There are many questions which can and should be asked of the enterprise. But the sad state of affairs today is that with the announcement of the Crusaders pulling out of the Super League, it is as good a sign as any that the club itself is looking close to requiring life support. With the lack of revenue and status, what fans that have stuck with the club will have less of a product to watch, both in terms of players as the current squad will be unsustainable, and in terms of the quality of opposition on display. For a club with no money, what little income there was will now melt away, sports fans in Wrexham have shown that they do not back a team on the slide, look to the round ball ground sharers for a glimpse of the future.
But what really went wrong here? One must point to the franchise system above all things. The Crusaders were not ready for Super League. They should have played another two to three seasons in the first division, top it, and then apply. The desire for Super League was ambitious and rushed, and ultimately damaging for the south Wales rugby league project. But once the club started bouncing around south Wales and then up to the north, it was doomed. Perhaps the club owners thought, ‘it’s a Welsh club, so Welsh people will come and watch’. Incorrect, this was a Bridgend club, with Bridgend fans, and Bridgend fans have also been shown to be unwilling parties to following clubs that don’t play in Bridgend, and no one will blame them for that.
For this project to work in the future, the club must stay where it belongs, build up as a team and through its fan base over time, and finally it must earn its place at the top table, rather than buy their way in. The Crusaders will now, in a matter of seasons, be wound up, and the experiment will be over. Or at least the experiment will be on hiatus. One hopes that enterprises such as the South Wales Scorpions don’t suffer too much from the loss of the Crusaders from Super League. Here is another team, building up, slowly, and we can hope that in time it might earn its place. But the lessons must be learnt. Getting into the Super League might be the prize, but if it is reached before the team, facilities and fans are ready, it will only be a short matter of time before another Welsh rugby league club stares at deaths door.