Let the great experiment begin! I must admit, I was a little bit surprised that Celtic Crusaders were admitted into Super League with the first round of licences, but clearly the RFL have decided that now is the right time to bring in a Welsh team. Now they’ve been given the opportunity to compete with the big boys, it is up to them to show that they are up to the task and that they can increase the profile of Rugby League in Wales.
The preparation of the Crusaders side has been haphazard to say the least. Admittedly they couldn’t have forecast that Quins would have to call off their friendly, but only arranging a single friendly before the season (in the period with the worst waeather and worst pitch conditions) does seem a little risky. Add to that the fact that some of their Australian players have only just been granted their visas and it’s hard not to think that this side will begin the season a tad undercooked.
Of course, being an expansion team means that the Crusaders are going to have to deal with a different set of pressures beyond simple on-field performance levels. First of all, they will be under constant scrutiny for their attendances. I’ve no idea what to expect for this, but I would guess that anything over 5,000 as an average this season would be a pleasant surprise. Secondly, they will need to be shown making advancements for the development of the game in Wales, which means that there will be pressure to bring through quality locals into the side. Given that it took Harlequins 25 years to produce Super League level talent (admittedly they didn’t even really try for the first 15 years or so) I would say that having one or two Welshmen as regular squad members should be seen as successful first steps.
In case you haven’t guessed, I’m really not sure what to make of the Crusaders this year, or what realistic expectations are for them. I would guess that scraping into the playoffs should be the pinnacle of their aspirations, but I expect them to be spending most of the first season around the bottom of the table. I also fear them making a terrible start, which could prove terrible and kill any potential momentum. I think, like Catalans on their entry to Super League, they’ll just be happy to even be in Super League this season, use it to assess where they are, and start worrying about becoming challengers next season.
Pros: Well, they’re in Super League. It’s a start… honestly, anything that happens this season for the positive has to bee seen as a gain. They’ve also recruited fairly shrewdly, as Ste Tyrer and Matty Smith both seemed to be getting a bum deal waiting around on the bench at Saints.
Cons: Firstly, you have to wonder how players who admittedly were successful in the National Leagues will fare in Super League. Then you’ve got to worry about the lack of preseason games that the Crusaders have had (Quins cancelled their one scheduled game). Add to that the fact that several of their Australian players are only getting into the country just now (one week before their first game) and you kind of have a recipe for a disastrous start to the season.
Coach: John Dixon has done a pretty stellar job with the Crusaders in the lower leagues. Now he just needs to show an ability to bring the best out of his players in the more intense environment of Super League.
Captain: Jace Van Dijk leads the Crusaders from halfback.
Key Man: You would have to think that Van Dijk is really going to have to raise his game if the Crusaders are to make an impact this season. He will have some competition as well, as Matty Smith should bring some Super League experience to the Crusaders as an old head on young shoulders.
Young ‘un: Ben Flower will probably have to deal with being the token Welsh guy in the squad for a while. Look for him to get a fair bit of game time this year as he tries to establish himself as a Super League-quality forward. If he does, it will be a massive boost to the Crusaders.
Wild Card: Basically, all the players who came up with the Crusaders from National League One last season have a point to prove. Some of them have Super League experience already, some of them don’t. If any of them don’t prove to be up to the tast, don’t doubt for a second that the Crusaders will be willing to let them go.
Gains: Ryan O’Hara, Lincoln Withers, Mark Bryant, Adam Peek, Marshall Chalk, Matty Smith, Peter Lupton, Ste Tyrer, Jason Chan,
As you would expect, a fair number of proven Super League and NRL, even if they are lacking the out-and-out quality of some teams. Matty Smith and Ste Tyrer should benefit from extra game time here.
Losses: Ian Webster, Aaron Summers, Jamie I’Anson, Paul Ballard, Gareth Dean, Philippe Gardent, Neale Wyatt
A fair number of players who have been solid contributors to the Crusaders’ cause over the last few season, but not an awful lot of Super League-quality there.