Jeff Dickinson-Fox reviews the campaign which saw Melbourne Storm crowned premiers in 2017.
3 days ago
The climax to the best Conference National season to date had a Grand Final that graced it, Celtic Colts upsetting the form book with a comprehensive win over a Bramley side that had beaten them three times in the regular season and in the play offs.
It capped a remarkable journey and story for the Crusaders who, in their debut season, were crowned champions, their story perhaps the most significant and uplifting of the National League Grand Final extravaganza afternoon.
With 14 of their 17 born in the Principality and an average age of 22, the Colts' success - allied to that of the Welsh under 18's in the Euro Championships recently - gives even greater credence to the club's Super League viability and, more importantly, sustainability.
There was much to admire about the way the Celts applied themselves, their pack - superbly led by skipper Geriant Davies and Ben Flower - taking the game to the league leaders, halves Aled James and Lloyd White dominating and in centre Lee Williams, who appropriately claimed the final try in the closing minute, they had the classiest, top performer.
His further reward could well be as a surprise inclusion in John Dixon's Welsh squad to face England at the Keepmoat but he was struggling to take in the initial enormity of ultimate success, as well as his David Oxley medal.
"I'm speechless and so excited, it's what we've worked for all season, we won the most important one against them" he said.
"We ran the basics so well in training this week and carried it through, this is massive for the Crusaders and Welsh rugby league."
"The try at the end just topped it off for me, it's been a terrific season and a wonderful adventure."
Celtic coach Dan Clements crowned a wonderful week after being named 'Coach of the Year' by steering his side to such an exhilarating win.
"It was a really good game and what we worked on came off" he commented. "Lee was a cut above anyone else on the field and Lloyd was pretty good but it was an all round team effort, I've got to take my hat off to the forwards, they were outstanding."
"The whole aim of this team was to give young Welsh blokes the chance to play rugby league at a consistent basis; we've surprised a few people and ourselves a little bit and it's gone from strength to strength."
"The head coach (John Dixon) said at the start of the season that he didn't mind if we didn't win a game as long as we got a team out every week and kids enthused about playing the sport, so we've got to be happy about how it's finished."
The result was heartbreaking for the Buffaloes, who for the second season running went into the decider as favourites but came up short, losing their third grand final in four seasons.
There was no lack of effort with Mark Butterill and skipper Jon Nicholls tireless but their aspirations were undermined when losing exciting centre Daniel Caston a quarter of the way through which necessitated a back line re-shuffle.
Buffaloes were quickly on the front foot, Lee Williams knocking on the kick off and twice the Yorkshiremen forced scrums on the Colts 20.
An interception and relieving penalty raised the early siege, but an Ashley Griffiths knock on and Paul Drake chip over which forced a drop out maintained the early Bramley pressure.
Tony Williams was busy in midfield and Caston a highly productive outlet but Celtic began their inexorable first half hold when John Richardson was unable to hold a pass and Gary Williams tidied up.
With their first concerted attack, Jamie I'Anson - whose early charges were prominent and damaging - and Flower made good ground, James and Elliot Kear nearly getting Griffiths in at the corner.
The ball came right and James' cross kick was taken by Chris Vitalini but Matt Mulholland did superbly to hold him out.
Flower put a big hit on Richard Leese and Paul Drake sent the ball out on the full, Davies having a charge and then being held down in the tackle by Graham Harrison, Lloyd White kicking the opening points from 20 metres out after 15 minutes.
Celtic were given a test on their own goal line, I'Anson holding out Danny O'Connor, and from Tony Williams' cross field kick, Griffiths broke clear only for Shaun Flynn to take him into touch on the Celtic twenty in a fine passage of play.
From the scrum, Drake and Nicholls worked Mullholland space but Richardson was rolled into touch in goal as he tried to twist over.
After that let off, Lee Williams made a superb midfield break and excellent hands between Phil Cushion, Phillipe Gardent and James saw White go over for the opening try, his conversion from out wide just slipping by.
Nicholls combining with Mulholland and a fine flick pass from Richardson nearly sent Flynn in, White just knocking the ball down but from the scrum Mulholland cleverly sucked in the cover and allowed Conference National 'Player of the Year' Richardson to go over out wide, Drake missing the conversion.
Lee Williams got across to put Richardson into touch from the re-start but five minutes before the break Celtic increased their lead.
Gareth Thirsk lost possession on his own quarter, James produced the telling pass for Phil Cushion and Chris Vitalini to send Gary Williams over to make it 10-4.
Five minutes after the interval the Colts were in again, albeit with an element of fortune.
James and Lee Williams were again prominent in the build up, White put in a chip for Greg Callow and after the ball had been pulled out as he went for the line, White - the nephew of Phil Ford - followed up to touchdown.
To rub salt into the Buffaloes wound, he than added the touchline conversion.
Thirsk and Butterill, backed up by Harrison's darts, attempted to get the Buffaloes decent field position but missing touch with a penalty and too much spilt possession saw them lack a cutting edge
Butterill was guilty of holding down I'Anson for White to extend the lead with a penalty just before the hour.
Danny Johnson and Nicholls gave Andy McGann a run and Celtic scrambled superbly to defend back to back sets on their own line with Tony Williams an ever increasing threat.
As Celtic expectation and Bramley frustration increased, a challenge on Flower sparked an altercation which saw Harrison and Cushion sin binned, White kicking the resulting penalty.
In the last minute, White's long kick forced Shaun Flynn to put the ball out on his own line and from the scrum Lee Williams crowned a terrific personal and team afternoon by powering through two tired defenders, White's goal giving him 18 of his side's points.
Bramley coach Paul Cook was understandably dejected by the way events unfolded. "You work hard for nine or ten months and it all comes down to one game" he said. "We probably saved our worst performance for the final."
"They had good go-forward, got over the advantage line and deserved to win; we tried hard but the main change in the game was when we lost Dan, if our six and seven who'd served us so well together all season could have stayed together, it might have been different."
"We've been here before and we'll go again, I'm committed for the long haul."
GAME BREAKER - Lloyd White's 75th minute penalty to make it 20-4 ensured that the silverware would be heading West at the end of a terrific contest.
GAME STAR - Wannabe Welsh full international Lee Williams enhanced his claims with a majestic all round display - destined to be one for the Super League.
TOP TACKLE - Greg Callow produced a game turning tackle on his opposite number to force John Richardson into touch with nine minutes left.
BUFFALOES: 1) Shaun Flynn, 2) Andy McGann, 3) Dan Caston, 4) Matt Mulholland, 5) John Richardson, 6) Paul Drake, 7) Tony Williams, 8) Richard Leese, 9) Graham Harrison, 10) Mark Butterill, 11) Danny O'Connor, 12) Danny Johnson, 13) Jon Nicholls (c); Subs (all used): 14) Scott Pendlebury, 15) Shaun Gilmour, 16) Gareth Thirsk, 17) Chris Gardner
Tries: Richardson (29)
Goals: Drake 0/1
CRUSADERS: 1) Elliot Kear, 2) Ashley Griffiths, 3) Gary Williams, 4) Lee Williams, 5) Greg Callow, 6) Lloyd White, 7)Aled James, 8) Jamie I'Anson, 9) Tom Burnell, 15) Geriant Davies, 11) Ben Flower, 12) Mark Wool, 13) Chris Vitalini; Subs (all used): 14) Gil Dudson, 10) Philippe Gardent, 16) Barrie Phillips, 17) Phil Cushion
Tries: White (24, 45), G. Williams (35), L.Williams (79)
Goals: White 5/7
Men of the match: BUFFALOES - Mark Butterill CRUSADERS - Lee Williams
Penalty count: 10-8
GLDO Forced: 2-1
Half time: 4-10
Referee: Matthew Thomason