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A Noble effort by the Crusaders

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George Riley George Riley | 14:47 UK time, Friday, 25 June 2010

I've been the butt of a few wind-ups in my time - in fact, it's quite a common occurrence. So when I emerged from the 5 live sports extra studio after three hours of athletics chat with decathlete Dean Macey on Sunday and received a text telling me champions Leeds Rhinos had lost 32-26 at home to Crusaders I wrote it off as inane banter. More fool me.

A few days later, I was chatting to Brian Noble, the coach who has transformed the Welsh side from Super League whipping boys to real play-off contenders.

"That win at Leeds was absolutely awesome," said Noble, whose side are now within touching distance of an historic top-eight berth - and with a game in hand. "We knew we had a chance, but to go to Headingley and do what we did was very special. It ranks right up there with some of the best results of my club coaching career."

You cannot underestimate what Noble has done for Crusaders. In the same way that the former Great Britain coach brought Wigan back from the brink during the darkest days of their history after his shock move to the Warriors in 2006, the man with the Super League Midas touch is now making waves in Wales.

Crusaders were only founded when Noble made that Wigan move four years ago. The bad news for Crusaders fans - and for Welsh rugby - is that I don't think Noble will stick around beyond the end of this season. More on that in a moment. First, how on earth did the Welshmen go to the home of the champions and turn them over?

"No one gave us a chance and we actually matched them punch for punch," asked Noble. "Our players need to realise what they can do if they have that belief and commitment. We can compete with anybody."

Has a lack of self-belief been a problem? Clearly the coach is a winner but have the players perhaps not believed they are fit to share a pitch with the likes of Wigan, St Helens, Warrington and Leeds?

"I'd agree to an extent," continued Noble. "That's where we came up short at the start of the year. We were a bit up ourselves and we kept getting beaten.

"That Leeds result is a sign of how far Welsh rugby has come. We only had three Welsh guys in the team at the weekend but there are four or five knocking on the door. We can't overexpose them but we have to give them a taste. As long as we can create a profile for Welsh rugby league alongside what we have with union then there's plenty of room for both."

brian_noble_gett595.jpg
Brian Noble classes Crusaders' win over Leeds Rhinos as one of the best of his career

The Rugby Football League will be breathing easier, too. An unsuccessful Super League baptism in 2009 triggered the predictable knockers of the controversial call to grant the Welsh club a licence ahead of the likes of Widnes and Leigh.

The sale of the club to Wrexham-based businessman Geoff Moss in December 2009 and the subsequent relocation to North Wales from Bridgend, along with the recruitment of Noble, coaches Iestyn Harris and Jon Sharp, seem to have nipped those early alarm bells in the bud.

Most importantly, the players are now enjoying not getting stuffed every week. "The boys are buzzing, it's the best they have ever had it here," Noble told me. "I can't shut them up at the moment, they're all getting a bit giddy. We need to get rid of the giddy kippers. You'll know that saying coming from Leeds, George!"

So if Noble can keep his team's feet on the ground, can they make history and reach the end of season play-offs?

"I'd like to think so, yeah," reflected Noble. "The problem is that when we raise our expectations we come unstuck. If we do the tough stuff right we go OK, so I'm working game by game just telling them to do x and do y.

"If we're in the play-off mix in five games' time, I'll be ringing you up saying 'you need to be talking about us on 5 live, we're going OK here!'. We know we are the only people who can create a bit of history and we've already erased the painful memories of last year. This is a new start."

I reckon I should probably expect that call.

"You take us lightly at your peril," added Noble. "We snuck up on people at the start of the season as we had a little more than people gave us credit for. Now teams think 'if we don't show up against this mob they'll get us'. Rugby league is an honest game and we've recognised now that if we compete we have a chance to win."

On the pitch, Noble continues to be buoyed by what he sees from 35-year-old union convert Gareth Thomas. Noble rang me when he first had Thomas at Crusaders training and was purring at his new recruit, telling me he would be a superstar. Does he still think so?

gareth_t_gett595.jpg
Thomas joined Crusaders in March on a 18-month deal

"Absolutely," answered Noble. "He has been massive for our club. What he has done in such a short space of time is a reflection of how good a union player he was. He is a leader of men and has very quickly become a dearly loved member of our team and I think he's been fabulous. He says he wishes he had come to league 10 years ago. I do, too."

Two key issues then to resolve with Noble. His own future and the potential threat to our great game posed by the vuvuzela craze sweeping through football's World Cup in South Africa. Harlequins this week became the first Super League side to ban the horns from their ground.

"I'll take the big question first," Noble joked. "We have to make sure the vuvuzela doesn't creep in to our game! If those horns blared throughout the game we would miss all the dour comments from the terraces, like 'forward!' and 'gerremonside!'. Our humour needs to come through."

On his own future, Noble is less committal. But just by speaking to him and through my understanding of the restraints he is working under in Wrexham, juxtaposed with his own sky-high ambitions for what he can do with the team, I sense a frustrated man.

I believe the Crusaders hierarchy will have to work hard to keep hold of Noble beyond this season. It is a time when so many Super League clubs are either searching for coaches or heading into the final year of a contract with their current one. "Wherever I am next year, I will bring a lot of talent and enthusiasm, I'm sure," Noble insisted.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Quite incredible how the Crusaders have turned around. I was a supporter of the RFL's decision to expand the Super League into Wales, but I very much doubted they would survive after the debacle last year.

    Well done to Brian and the Crusaders team, hopefully he stays and continues building the team into an even bigger success.

  • Comment number 2.

    It was a gamble the RFL made going to Wrexham and it is working. North Wales, a sporting wilderness at the top level of sport, have a game to learn about and then follow as fans. People have been turning up to watch and some Welsh boys are making it into the side too.
    The problem will be the next few years. Keeping the momentum with attendances and success on the field.
    Overall a big well done to all involved. Especially to the North Welsh folk for embracing a largely new game for them.

  • Comment number 3.

    I'm happy that the Crusaders have come on the way they have. It would be a real turn up for the books - and one in the eye for the skeptics - if they made the top eight. Hopefully a consistently competitive team, especially at home, will attract a regular following in Wrexham which, after the initial curiosity, appears to have settled at a pretty low figure. I suppose that is to be expected given that RL is new to the area but even so, it must be a bit worrying for those involved in the sport. A few more wins at home and continued promotion may help the cause, not to mention a few more Welsh players in the side! But that will come in time, I'm sure. Meanwhile, I hope the success continues.

  • Comment number 4.

    great to see the welsh showing the tykes how to play real rugby. keep kicking those hairy northern arses, boys.

  • Comment number 5.

    gotta to love it when you write a blog bigging up a team and they get whipped in their next match!

  • Comment number 6.

    LOL! I have no idea what happened to them against Wakey. To allow that scoreline anywhere is bad but to allow it at home when trying to get together some kind of consistent local support is seriously wrong. I'm quite sure if it had been a bunch of Welsh lads playing, there would not have been a nil on the scoreboard. The Aussies presumably fancied a game off.

  • Comment number 7.

    Couldn't be further from the truth there SaintDi. If Crusaders had won the lottery they still couldn't have bought a try on SUnday. Every bounce and fluke went against them, and when they were in a position to score, execution let them down and they turned the ball over. Just one'o'them days I'm afraid.

  • Comment number 8.

    George, even if it is your job, what on earth is a Rhinos fan doing schmoozing with the ex-Bulls manager...SHAME ON YOU!!

  • Comment number 9.

    crowds still falling 1122 against quinns

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

 

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