Wales might have lost all three of their group games at the men’s World Cup, but there is a positive feeling about the sport’s development there at the end of 2022.
Although John Kear’s side were beaten by Cook Islands, Tonga and Papua New Guinea, they put up a fight in all three contests and were the most competitive of the European sides knocked out at the first hurdle.
While their wait for a World Cup win continues – their last was in the 2000 quarter-finals – there has been progress on and off the pitch.
Kear was proud of the fact that half of his 24-man squad were born in Wales, a contrast to several other nations that were packed with heritage players.
That was even without two of their most prominent Welsh-born players of recent times, in Super League duo Gil Dudson and Lloyd White.
And Wales Rugby League have now revealed that their participation levels are at an all-time high, with 2,313 registered players. That figure should comfortably keep them third in Europe for participant numbers, behind England and France.
Salford Red Devils link up
Part of that is being attributed to the work done to create a player pathway, which includes the Wales RL National Development Academy being partnered with Super League club Salford Red Devils.
The Red Devils signed six Welsh players in 2022, and had more than 20 others participating in the Salford REDS Elite Programme, which is for 14-18 year olds. One of those players, Joseph Coope-Franklin, made his Super League debut towards the end of the year.
Coope-Franklin, 21, hails from Oakdale in Caerphilly and was part of the Scarlets academy system but moved north to study at the University of Central Lancashire, when he linked up with Salford’s reserve set up.
Youngsters can study and play rugby league on a full time college course at Coleg y Cymoedd, with the potential to be picked up on a professional deal by Salford.
Coope-Franklin, Jake Lee and Ieuan Roberts were the first three players to make the move, and they were followed by four more earlier this year.
Hooker Finn Yates, second-row Scott Pritchard, half-back Billy Walkley and prop Connor Lacey all penned deals with Salford from the programme, and were presented to fans at first team match back in March.
Wales’ record try-scorer Rhys Williams is still part of the Devils first-team squad too, and Wales RL say “players can now see a genuine pathway to men’s and women’s Super League, and the men’s and women’s elite international sides.”
WRL chairman Brian Juliff said: “The return to playing rugby league in Wales since the Covid issues has been very encouraging. It’s good to see community clubs engaging across the age groups and genders to bring the game to a wider public than ever before.
“We value all participants and, with the next Rugby League World Cup in France in 2025, we are keen to increase our player pool and elite player pathways across all participating platforms.”
Wales also featured in the Wheelchair and PDRL World Cups, as well as taking part in the recent Masters World Cup festival. The participation figures don’t include school sides, 64 of which are playing in the Champions Schools this season.
The 14 active community clubs who played in the WRL-organised leagues throughout Wales fielded 50 sides, playing 130 club matches.
WRL general manager Mark Jones added: “After a huge increase in participation in Wales and a World Cup that has gripped the nation, our emphasis is now turning the interest into sustainable pathways and ensuring there is a World Cup Legacy.
“The Rugby League World Cup in all of its formats has highlighted how inclusive and diverse rugby league is in Wales.”