Hunslet’s Fraser Stroud could be forgiven for feeling in familiar company when the Betfred League One outfit entertain Salford Red Devils Reserves tonight in their second pre-season friendly.
The mercurial Welsh halfback, who has been at the South Leeds Stadium for over a year after switching from West Wales Raiders, could be facing several players from his homeland when the game kicks off at 8.00pm.
Salford launched, two years ago, a productive partnership with the Wales Rugby League and Coleg Y Cymoedd, which hosts Wales RL’s National Development Academy. And two promising graduates from that innovative Academy – Billy Walkley and Joe Coope-Franklin – have been awarded first-team squad shirt numbers by the Red Devils ahead of the 2023 Super League season.
Coope-Franklin, a 21-year-old centre from Oakdale, in Caerphilly, made his first team debut in the last fixture of 2022. Walkley, an 18-year-old half-back or fullback, who is also from Caerphilly, is a former Aber Valley Wolves junior; the Wales Under 17s and Under 19s international, who featured in last year’s European Championships, was named in the Wales Rugby League Team of the Year for 2022.
Walkley and Coope-Franklin are, in addition to playing in Salford’s Reserves side, studying and playing at the University of Central Lancashire.
Mark Jones, WRL general manager and head of the National Development Academy, said: “When we originally set up the tri-partnership with Coleg Y Cymoedd, Salford Red Devils and Wales Rugby League, our aspirations were to build a stronger base of players for our international pathways.
“The fantastic news is that in such a short space of time, Joe and Billy are signing full-time Super League contracts with Salford, and that has surpassed all of our targets. We would like to thank all the staff from Salford, Coleg Y Cymoedd and Wales Rugby League who have worked tirelessly to make this partnership a success.
“However, most of the credit must go to Billy and Joe, who have fully committed themselves on and off the field to ensure that they succeeded. They deserve all the success that is coming to them. This amazing news is proof that dreams do come true. We now look forward to more of our players that are in Salford Reserves and the REDS programme breaking through to Super League.”
Other Salford players who have gravitated through the Welsh National Development Academy, and could feature against Hunslet, include Fin Yates, Mason Phillips, Jacob Lee and Rhys Davies, while the experienced Rhys Williams is also on the Red Devils’ register.
The route north, meanwhile, used to be so very different. Salford themselves recruited heavily from Welsh rugby union in the days when turning to Rugby League could – and invariably did – lead to players being ostracised, notable signings including legendary figures such as Gus Risman and David Watkins. Hunslet, similarly, regularly raided the Valleys and, if the Welsh lads in action tomorrow take time to look towards the city of Leeds, they may be able to make out the poplar trees that are all that remain of the famous Parkside ground – a stadium at which talented Welshmen like Oliver Morris, Les White, Jack Evans, Les and Dickie Williams, John Griffiths, Cliff Williams and Phil Morgan paraded their talents to great effect in Hunslet’s cause.
Admission is just £10 (£5 concessions and under 21s) while Under 16s will be admitted free if accompanied by an adult, for whom entry will be £5 under the recently launched initiative supported by Tricel Leeds.