One reason that Northern Union didn’t take off immediately in Wales is that the English Rugby Football Union turned a blind eye to Welsh clubs paying their players (an act known as shamateurism) otherwise they knew that rugby union would be lost in Wales which would put a huge dent in the international game.
At the time, the Welsh didn’t care which game they played as both games had the same rules but it was obviously far easier to carry on playing against Welsh clubs and to pay their players. Had the RFU not turned a blind eye then it is rumoured that Wales would have turned to Northern Union like a shot.
The turning point was the Arthur Gould incident in 1897. The Welsh rugby international had a testimonial awarded to him in the previous year and was awarded the deeds to his house (but no actual money). The RFU declared Gould a professional and then banned all clubs and players from playing against him. In February 1897 the Welsh Rugby Union withdrew from the rugby union international board and were ready to join up with the Northern Union. But by August a “compromise” was reached as the RFU also knew that they could lose the south-west England clubs to Northern Union if this happened. After that, as mentioned before, they took a blind eye to payments until top player Dai Jones publicly walked out on Aberdare to rejoin his native Treherbert because he wasn’t getting enough money. Half of the Aberdare committee were banned and formed Merthyr and later Aberdare Northern Union clubs.
The Welsh Rugby League side has a wonderful history and actually beat England by a matter of weeks by staging the world’s first ever international match. The game was against New Zealand in Aberdare on January 1st 1908 and Wales won 9-8. Wales went on to beat England in their second game, winning 35-18 in Tonypandy on April 24th 1908. Another of Wales’ biggest achievement in the early years was beating Australia 14-13 in Merthyr on January 16th 1909 with a team made up of entirely Welsh-based players. A month later, the Merthyr club followed that up by also beating the touring Australians, this time 15-13 was the score.
While the club game didn’t take off in Wales 100 years ago, mainly due to travel costs that the clubs had to endure coupled with prejudice from anti-expansionists from the north of England, the international game flourished. Wales has produced hundreds of rugby league players who went north for the first 100 years of rugby league including current Crusaders President Jonathan Davies. The Welsh international side has won four European Championship titles and reached the semi-finals of two of the four World Cups that they have entered.
Now as travel is easier, promotion of the game is better, the infrastructure is there with game being played on a regular basis in the Rugby League Conference Premier as well as by juniors and in schools (over 1,000 Welsh-born players played rugby league in Wales in 2008) and the Welsh public enjoy watching Super League on a regular basis thanks to Sky Sports’ coverage, the time has never been more right for Super League in Wales.