After a 2009 to forget, the appointment of Brian Noble is just the tonic Celtic needed to get back on track.
Prior to last season, the Crusaders hadn’t had to deal with much adversity. They exceeded expectations in their debut season, narrowly missing out on promotion from National League 2, which helped them establish themselves even further when they ran away with the league title in season two.
Their third season, in 2008, saw them become a force in National League 1 and of course win the Super League licence for 2009 which ultimately was the primary purpose Leighton Samuel helped form the club in the first place.
But having been granted their ticket to the top flight – amidst much grumbling in Widnes and Leigh, amongst other places – they ended up giving their critics plenty of ammunition to shoot them down.
A disappointing start – they had to wait until May for their first win, 30-24 away at Bradford, at the 12th attempt – and less than spectacular attendances were just the tip of the iceberg as rumours surfaced of possible financial problems, the sale of their Brewery Field and then the visagate scandal, which saw seven Crusaders players sent home to Australia due to visa irregularities.
But after the positive move to Newport to play at Rodney Parade, home of rugby union side Newport Gwent Dragons, an off-season of positivity in south Wales gained even further momentum with the news that Brian Noble, the most successful British coach of the modern era, will lead the club in 2010 alongside the experienced Jon Sharp and dual-code Welsh international Iestyn Harris.
Harris, for me, should have been the clubs marquee signing last season. He was the player they should have built the team around, as a recognisable face to both union and league fans in south Wales. His presence would have at least given them some credibility, rather than having two Australians running around in the middle.
He’s there now – if not as a player – and with him also recently appointed as the Welsh national coach, it will be in his best interests at international level to develop Welsh-born players with his new club side. Don’t be surprised if Harris doesn’t bring out his boots in 2010 either – he certainly looked like he could still play a bit when putting in a man of the match performance for Featherstone in their play-off win at Widnes last month.
Noble has now been handed the task of almost starting from scratch. He has a few key players, the likes of Lincoln Withers and Mark Bryant, in the ranks, but he’ll virtually need a brand new playmaking arm following the departures of Jace Van Dijk, Tony Duggan and Damien Quinn amongst others at the end of the season.
He was harshly done to at Wigan. He led them to two Challenge Cup semi-finals and to within 80 minutes of the Grand Final three times. His record at Bradford speaks for himself. Leighton Samuel couldn’t have found a coach with a better pedigree than Noble, and if his appointment doesn’t make people sit up and take notice, who knows what will.
The challenge that faces Noble now is where he can find players. Many clubs are at an advanced stage in their recruitment, and it will take some shrewd moves for Noble to build a squad capable of improving on this season, which must surely be the short term aim. Anything better than bottom place in season two will be a success for the Crusaders. As we are often told, fans only want to see a winning side, so if the rugby league gospel is to be spread well and truly in south Wales, Noble’s going to have to get some wins under his belts if the Crusaders want to keep the turnstiles ticking in Newport.
Names being linked with Celtic so far are the less than spectacular list of released Hull players – including Tommy Lee, Jamie Thackray and Paul King – but it remains to be seen what deals they have under their belts. Previously, the Crusaders have announced the bulk of their squad in one-go, so perhaps that is where they are going again this season.
They could do worse than searching the Championship for Super League standard players. There are some very good players dotted about in the part-time wilderness, with some probably with SL release clauses in their contract.
Either way, Noble’s not one to shirk a challenge and nor is he one to escape the limelight. He’ll be hoping that he, and Celtic, are in the limelight for all the right reasons next season.