As the seasons roll on, rugby league continues to look for ways to expand and increase its footprint in the world of sport.
Expansion for what traditionally has been a regional sport in the north of England has certainly not been easy.
Over the years we’ve seen the rise and fall of a number of expansionist clubs; Paris St Germain, the Crusaders and the fluctuation in fortunes of London Broncos to name a few at the top level of our game.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll now find the likes of Coventry Bears, London Skolars, North Wales Crusaders and Hemel Stags (who have recently withdrawn) struggling on the field to match their northern rivals in Betfred League 1, the RFL’s lowest professional competition.
Inherently, lack of success on the field for such clubs translates to low levels of coverage
or exposure within the sport, but there is one club that has been grabbing plenty of headlines at this level, but for all the wrong reasons.
Following the rebranding and relocation of South Wales Scorpions, a rugby league team was born on the Welsh coast in Llanelli, branded as the West Wales Raiders ahead of the 2018 season.
However, in an attempt to reignite rugby league, a sport with a long but chequered history in Wales, in the region, life for the Raiders couldn’t have got off to a worse start.
They went through the entire League 1 season winless last season, enduring heavy defeats every week, including a record 144-0 thrashing against York City Knights, and conceded over 2100 points across the campaign, with an average score line of 81- 6 against them.
Such statistics don’t make for pretty reading and prompted criticism by many to suggest that rugby league in west Wales is simply a lost cause.
However, in all cases of such negativity, struggling clubs look initially to an inspiring leader who believes the cause is just and success if possible. West Wales may just have found that someone with the desire and experience to turn the fortunes of this apparently ‘doomed’ club around.
Kim Williams, an Australian born and raised coach, has taken what could be described as a huge gamble; uprooting his life in the Southern Hemisphere to embrace his Welsh family roots and take over as head coach of the Raiders.
Now based with his wife in Llanelli, Williams is just a month away from starting West Wales’ second season in League 1 and has been busy putting things in place to ensure there is no repeat of last year.
With an impressive CV in Australian rugby league, as a former High-Performance Manager at NRL club Melbourne Storm and a premiership winner as head coach of second tier Mackay Cutters, Williams elected to leave his most recent post at Central Queensland Capras to embark on this new venture.
Vocally proud of his Welsh heritage, Williams revealed that the instigation for the move was all his, with a clear overarching desire to grow the game in Wales from the very grass roots up.
“I made the initial approach to the Raiders. I follow the UK competitions quite closely and read an article on their struggles last year but what I was attracted to was the ties they have with school, university and college programmes in Wales and I thought they had the fundamentals in place to potentially be a successful club,” he said.
Having spent years helping clubs progress in Australia in areas where the game perhaps comes second to other sports, such as Perth and Victoria, the new Raiders boss knows exactly what is takes to build foundations of a club and put huge importance on a complete overhaul in culture, to drive higher standards after a tough first season.
“I have a strong background in development and similar experiences within clubs that are struggling a bit and need direction, so I saw it as an opportunity to make some change and a bit of a difference here,” he explained.
“I think the immediate change needed was the culture, particularly around training. As the year went on last year and things started to get tough there was quite a rapid drop off in training attendance and you can’t win games at this level if you don’t have a team training regularly.”
Whilst looking at a succession plan in Llanelli for years in the future, the importance on some significant short-term success on the field for the Raiders was not lost on the former Capras boss, who highlighted the club’s need to recruit as vital in helping protect some of the club’s up and coming youngsters.
“We needed to recruit. We have a nucleus of good young kids that were perhaps thrown in a little too early out of necessity last year.
“They are all the better now for that experience, but we needed to bring in a bit of experience and I think we’ve done that reasonably well and have a pretty solid squad to start the season.
“We’ve put things in place to see a definite improvement. Time will tell what those improvements will be, but we’ve certainly taken steps to becoming more competitive next year,” he added.
To hear the new Raiders coach’s views on expanding the game and supporting the grass roots growth in Welsh rugby league, keep an eye out of the second segment of the interview later this week.
Author: Tom Alderson