'I didn't know what league was' – Grace's rise to the World Cup
A try on his debut in a local derby, coming within minutes of a Grand Final, and selection for his country for a World Cup – it’s been quite a first season for St Helens wing Regan Grace.
The 20-year-old from Port Talbot plays the code that not many people from his area know and love, however.
“I wanted to play for Wales in rugby union growing up, as I didn’t know what league was,” he told BBC Sport Wales.
“The first time I saw Wales play rugby league was the 2013 World Cup.”
The former Ospreys academy player and Carmarthen Quins youngster was named in John Kear’s 24-man Wales squad for the forthcoming Rugby League World Cup, and says the 13-a-side code could be missing an untapped market in the union heartlands, where he grew up.
In an interview with BBC Radio Merseyside last season, Grace said: “If league is not in the deep roots of South Wales, where all the great rugby players are, they’re going to miss opportunities to find people.
“They need to experience it and have a game themselves. They need to stick it on TV or see a Wigan v Saints derby, because they’d be hooked for the rest of their lives.”
‘The league players were fitter’
After a breakthrough campaign that saw him score on his debut in a huge Easter derby against Wigan and narrowly miss out on the Super League Grand Final, things have gone quite well for Grace.
But how did a boy from the Valleys of South Wales, bred on union, come to venture north and play league professionally?
“I first found out about rugby league in summer time. I’d been playing rugby union all my life and I never knew what rugby league was. Then I saw a poster about rugby league,” Grace added to BBC Radio Merseyside.
“I’d be off rugby because the summer was the off season. Me and my friend went down to our local club – Neath Port Talbot Steelers – and we tried to sign up, but we were too young.
“They said we couldn’t play but we could train. We found it quite hard because the league players were fitter. While we were off and not playing rugby union, we would play rugby league and we preferred it.”
Going from Port Talbot to St Helens required a bit of persuasion, before he managed to sign for the Super League club.
“I got to a point where I didn’t get any interest from any Super League clubs when I was 16, which knocked me a bit, so I went back to union,” he told BBC Radio Merseyside.
“Somebody at my union club put word around and asked a few clubs if they were interested. One sent two scouts to watch one of my games and they liked me and my teammate, Calvin Wellington. They signed us for a year and we’ve been here ever since.”
Grace was nominated for the Super League Young Player of the Year award for his efforts last season and kept his place in the first team despite head coach, and former Wales international, Keiron Cunningham being replaced by Justin Holbrook.
“Hopefully I can get even more experience and we can get off to a good start next year – not like this season where we started a bit slow – so we can compete for the top four,” he told BBC Sport Wales.
“We sorted ourselves out and found the strong points, then started enjoying playing rugby again because it was getting frustrating and nobody was enjoying it.”
Emulating Euro 2016 success
Wales face Papua New Guinea in their first World Cup game on Saturday, 28 October and have further group games against Fiji and Ireland.
Grace has drawn parallels with the success of the Wales football team’s run at Euro 2016.
He continued: “In the last few years we’ve been building our side and we’ve been unbeaten for a while. We’ve prepared well for it and we’re going to be contenders.
“Like the Wales football team last year, the fact that people underestimate you, that can work for you in a way and you can shock people.”