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Page last updated at 14:55 GMT, Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Crusaders season preview 2011

By Peter Shuttleworth
BBC Sport Wales

Iestyn Harris
Iestyn Harris is keen to develop Welsh talent to help him in the Wales job

Iestyn Harris is well versed in the pressures of being Welsh rugby's saviour. Ten years ago it was union. Now it is league.

Harris will be in familiar surroundings when he takes his position in the Millennium Stadium dug-out for Sunday's Super League opener with Salford City Reds, his first game as Crusaders coach.

It was just next door in the old Cardiff Arms Park where, in 2001, Harris completed his high-profile £2m cross-code move from league to union, from Leeds to Cardiff, from comfort zone to unknown.

And his first visit to Cardiff was one that brought into sharp focus the difficulty in the tactical transition between the 13-man and 15-man game.

Harris had helped Wales' rugby league bravehearts to back-to-back World Cup semi-finals.

But his Welsh debut against Argentina, after just 200 minutes of union action, proved that, while the ball was the same shape, this was a whole different game.

He was weighed down by the burden of an expectant union-obsessed nation in desperate need of an instant hero to fill that coveted Welsh number 10 jersey.

And, while he had the will, Harris did not have the immediate union skill.

A decade on, Harris is back in Cardiff at the start of another rescue mission.

The ball looks the same, as does the pitch and the posts. But this is the code in which Harris, who tasted World Club Championship, Super League and Challenge Cup glory as a player, is comfortable.

The potential consequences of this assignment are more severe for a proud Welsh sport but, if anyone in Welsh rugby league has the golden touch, it is Harris.

Harris was part of the coaching staff as Brian Noble's Crusaders, bottom in 2009, astonishingly defied the odds to reach the play-offs in 2010.

And Harris hopes to maintain those standards in what is a pivotal season for both the Welsh franchise and Welsh rugby league as a whole.

Their three-year Super League franchise expires at the end of the season as the country that gave the game Keiron Cunningham, Jonathan Davies, Dai Watkins and Billy Boston nervously wonders about the future of rugby league in Wales.

The Rugby Football League controversially awarded Crusaders the chance to help expand the game's frontiers in 2009. But high-profile visa issues, relocation upheaval, financial turmoil and administration have dogged the club's short stay in the top flight.

Crusaders have not done it the easy way, but neither has Harris.

Rhys Williams
New loan signing Rhys Williams has already played under Harris with Wales

So Welsh rugby league hopes that this is a match made in heaven as the men from the Racecourse Ground face their first hurdle of making up a four-point deduction imposed for breaching insolvency rules.

The former Great Britain stand-off is still only 34 but, just as with his playing career, he has started coaching early.

And he has already restored pride to a Welsh national team that had dropped off the radar, guiding his country to successive European Cup victories and subsequent qualification to the 2011 Four Nations tournament.

But Harris is not just plotting Wales' return to the top table of international rugby league.

He now has the even greater challenge of keeping Crusaders at the top of the domestic game.

Experience has been acquired in the form of Wakefield forwards Paul Johnson and Richard Moore, as well as former Great Britain winger Stuart Reardon, his old Bradford team-mate.

And the pack will be further strengthened by Kiwi second row Hep Cahill from Melbourne Storm.

But essentially, the new coach has put his faith in young Welsh talent, Jamie Murphy, from South Wales Scorpions, having been joined by their latest loan signing, young Warrington winger Rhys Williams.

Developing Welsh youngsters will be a double-benefit to Harris when he selects his Welsh squad for this autumn's Four Nations showpiece against England, Australia and New Zealand.

But, while ups and downs are guaranteed this season in Wrexham, Harris developed broad shoulders the last time he worked regularly in Wales.

And, having vowed to work tirelessly for a happy ending for both him and a Welsh rugby code that needs saving, he might need them again.

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see also
Super League form guide 2011
09 Feb 11 |  Super League
Thomas' field of dreams
09 Feb 11 |  Crusaders
Crusaders faith in Welsh talent
04 Feb 11 |  Crusaders
Crusaders trio suffer visa delays
01 Feb 11 |  Crusaders
Crusaders seal prop Moore signing
27 Dec 10 |  Crusaders
New company takes over Crusaders
04 Jan 11 |  North East Wales
Crusaders suffer points deduction
10 Dec 10 |  Crusaders
Crusaders secure Reardon signing
09 Nov 10 |  Crusaders
Crusaders sign Wildcats' Johnson
08 Oct 10 |  Crusaders
Harris praises Welsh Euro heroes
23 Oct 10 |  Rugby League
Millennium Magic to start season
13 Aug 10 |  Rugby League
Super League Show
17 Feb 08 |  Rugby League

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