Jeff Dickinson-Fox reviews the campaign which saw Melbourne Storm crowned premiers in 2017.
4 days ago
Celtic Crusaders travel to London Skolars this Sunday in the fourth of their six Northern Rail Cup group matches.
Group Six opened up last weekend after the Crusaders' hard-fought 26-22 win over Super League promotion contenders Leigh Centurions, and they know that a victory over the Skolars at the New River Stadium will take them one step further to that vital second place spot.
The Crusaders have beaten London five times out of five in their short history so far, but Operations Manager Gerald McCarthy knows that this will count for nothing on the day.
"We weren't expected to win last week at Leigh but we did," said McCarthy. "The bookies had even given us a 28-point start but we overcame the odds and beat a team who were in Super League only a couple of years ago. This week it's the Skolars who have been given a similar start on the coupons so we must make sure that we don't slip up."
The ideal situation for the Crusaders on Sunday would be a win in London and a defeat by more than 12 points for Leigh at home to Widnes. This would put the Crusaders five points ahead of Leigh in the Northern Rail Cup Group Six table and would mean that a win for the Welsh side against the Centurions on Sunday March 18th at the Brewery Field would put them in the last 16 at the expense of the cup holders.
Welsh international Anthony Blackwood, who has scored three tries in the last two games for the Crusaders, is unavailable for Sunday's match as he is still recovering from knocks after the intense match at Leigh. Darren Mapp and Neale Wyatt, who both missed last week's victory are also still on the injury list and won't be on the field in London.
Coach John Dixon has named a squad of 21 to travel to London on Sunday with Craig Richards, Rob Toshack, Geraint Davies, Owen Lewis and Lee Jones all added.
Pontypridd-born Lewis is expected to replace the injured Blackwood at centre and make his professional debut on Sunday.
Lewis performed well for Valley Cougars last year in the Welsh Conference Premier, won three Welsh under 19 caps and has also played for Great Britain under 18s, coming on as substitute for them last week when they beat their French counterparts 24-11 in Dewsbury.
Lee Jones also returns to the squad. Formerly with Aberavon Fighting Irish, Jones made five appearances for the Crusaders last season and also came on as substitute against Brisbane Broncos at the Brewery Field in February.
Coach John Dixon said: "We have some good young kids in our system. Both Owen and Lee have worked really hard and deserve their places in the squad."
Skolars' coach Latham Tawhai insists that his side's torrid Northern Rail Cup campaign will do them good in the long-term. London are bottom of the Northern Rail Cup group following three consecutive defeats and no bonus points. They lost 44-28 to the Crusaders in their first meeting of the season two weeks ago.
Tawhai said: "If you're going to test yourself you want to do that against the best rather than the teams you're perhaps more likely to win against.
"We're developing into a group that want to challenge ourselves and you get confidence when you've competed against some of the best teams in National League One."
Steve Green and Joe Price could both make their return for the Skolars having last played for the club in 2004.
Dixon adds: "London are a much-improved side this year. Latham's got them to play footy with plenty of shape about them. It's a difficult game for us."
There are still a few places remaining on the Celtic Crusaders Supporters Club coaches to London on Sunday. Cost of travel is just