'Sky the limit' for Welsh rugby league - Hibbard

Players from eight teams standing in a line with new trophy
Eight teams will compete for the Wales Rugby League Conference title [Wales Rugby League]

Richard Hibbard believes the "sky is the limit" for rugby league in Wales ahead of the new domestic season.

The new campaign kicks off this weekend with a new title sponsor, new trophy and fresh optimism.

It is all part of a clear aim to grow the sport under former British and Irish Lions hooker Hibbard, recently appointed the new chief executive of Wales Rugby League (WRL).

It is 13 years since the then-called Celtic Crusaders pulled out, firstly from Bridgend and then from Super League altogether.

Crusaders, now based in Colwyn Bay, continue to compete in third tier of the British game , there is an ambition for south Wales to once again host a top team.

Hibbard believes that begins with growing the conference to build the game from the grassroots up, a failing of the previous Celtic Crusaders experiment.

"I guess there was a feeling that when the Crusaders were formed, there was nothing underpinning it," said Hibbard, who was once part of the St Helens academy.

"The game grows from the bottom up by getting the community game in good health and right now, the sky is the limit.

"We can't just look at four-year fixes for the national team ahead of a World Cup.

"Now is the time for rugby league in Wales. It's such an athletic and exciting game to watch in the sun that we have a real chance to build this league.

"It's fantastic to see how many kids are now coming along to play. That will help look after the future of the senior game."

Rather than rival rugby union in Wales, Hibbard believes he embodies the mutual enjoyment for both, having begun playing for Aberavon Fighting Irish and coming close to going professional before signing for Swansea in the 15-a-side code.

Many of the players for the eight teams in the Welsh conference appear for their local union side during winter.

However, there is also a sense that the game could benefit from the slump in Welsh rugby union fortunes.

Richard Hibbard
Richard Hibbard won 38 caps for Wales at rugby union [Getty Images]

The format

Eight teams will play eight games over successive Saturdays between 1 June and 27 July.

They play each other once as well as one randomly selected reverse fixture.

The top four sides qualify for the semi-finals before the Grand Final at the Gnoll in Neath on 18 August.

  • Aberavon Fighting Irish

  • Bridgend Blue Bulls

  • Cynon Valley Cavaliers

  • Rhondda Outlaws

  • South Wales Jets

  • South Wales Saints

  • Swansea Rams

  • Torfaen Tigers

Backed by title sponsor JES Group, there is a new trophy that was forged at the Tata steelworks in Port Talbot.

For the first time, the conference is underpinned by similar competitions at under-13s, 14s and 16s.

Defending champions

Ben Flower
Ben Flower appeared in five Super League Grand Finals with Wigan [Welsh Rugby League]

South Wales Jets have grown from a charity social team to becoming Welsh champions in the space of four years.

Now based in Penallta, near Ystrad Mynach, they will once again be the team to beat having pulled off a major coup with recruitment of former Wales and Wigan prop Ben Flower as head coach.

"The Jets have set a benchmark last season and we now have a target on our heads. Every team will come at us like it's their cup final," said Flower.

"But it's great to see other teams have recruited well because we want this league to be competitive. We don't want big wins, we want to be in a battle."

Next year they will join the Southern Conference - the fourth tier of the British game - but remain committed to the Welsh competition.

The challengers

Bridgend Blue Bulls are the traditional powerhouse of rugby league in south Wales having won the title 10 times in the previous 20 years - more than any other team.

But they have not lifted the trophy since 2021 and will have their credentials tested on the opening weekend when they face the defending champions Jets.

“Everyone wants to get this club back to where we were, not just competing but winning," said half-back Llewelyn Hawks.

“This year especially, there’s a good buy-in at the Bulls and the commitment is there.

“We’ve really got a good mix of experienced boys who know what it’s like to win it and a great group of youngsters coming through who want to get their hands on that trophy.”

Aberavon Fighting Irish will also expect to be in the play-off mix having lost both of the last two Grand Finals.

The newcomers

Swansea Rams are entering the senior competition for the first time after building as a junior club in recent years.

In what will be the first WRL Men’s League clash in the Swansea area for 18 years, the Rams will host Cynon Valley Cavaliers at Loughor RFC on the opening weekend.

"We don't know yet what to expect from the league, but no-one will know much about us because we are so new and hopefully we can catch a few teams by surprise," said 19-year-old wing Lewis Harrison.

"We've got a lot of lads who play together for Mumbles RFC during the winter and some old heads in the team, we can hopefully hold our own."

One to watch

Cobi Green and teammate at Rochdale Hornets
Cobi Green (left) came through the age-grade ranks at Bradford Bulls [Rex Features]

Bradford Bulls academy product Cobi Green has returned to Wales and has been snapped up by South Wales Jets.

The half-back has represented Wales at the World Cup 9s and has also had stints at Coventry Bears, Swinton Lions and, most recently, Rochdale Hornets.