Celtic Crusaders hope to make a Super League splash
Crusaders players enjoying a rollercoaster ride at Oakwood theme park
ENGAGE SUPER LEAGUE - Crusaders v Leeds Rhinos Venue: Racecourse Ground Date: Friday, 29 January Kick-off: 2000 GMT Coverage: Full commentary on BBC 5 live sports extra, BBC Radio Leeds FM & online. Live on Sky Sports 1 Super League Show: 1300 GMT, Sunday, 31 January, BBC One and online
By Peter Shuttleworth
Crusaders' first Super League season was akin to a rollercoaster ride . . . minus the smiles.
A winter of discontent followed last year's debut season of struggle, leaving the Crusaders written off as the no-hopers of Super League XV.
The consistency in management and ownership this time will reflect to the players out on the pitch as they had a struggle last year. When you have that security in a club, players feel secure to play well
Crusaders assistant coach Iestyn Harris
Well-documented visa issues and off-the-field uncertainty meant the long-awaited Welsh breakthrough into rugby league's big time was not quite the celebration everyone had hoped for, as Crusaders finished bottom.
Then a traumatic takeover and subsequent "nightmare" move from south to north Wales meant Welsh rugby league's crusade was quickly turning into a crisis.
But, as the Crusaders prepare for their Super League opener with Leeds Rhinos at Wrexham, at least it cannot get any worse for former Welsh Rugby League star Iestyn Harris and his Crusaders coaching colleagues.
"The club has been in the public eye ever since winning their Super League franchise and have endured a lot of negative press," said Crusaders assistant coach Harris.
"It started from visa issues at the start of the season when some of the players were stuck in Australia. And the difficult start didn't get much better."
The 13-man code invading fierce union territory caused a stir in south Wales, leaving established league hotbeds such as Widnes, Featherstone Rovers and Halifax furious as the Rugby Football League overlooked them to expand the frontiers of the game.
"It was always going to be difficult starting a new rugby league franchise, especially in the current financial climate in a country dominated by rugby union and football," said Harris.
"Rugby League has always struggled to capture the imagination of the Welsh people and I think people were quite happy for it to fail."
But the Crusaders' future was secured when North Wales businessman Geoff Moss took over the club from Leighton Samuel.
And the Wrexham Football Club chief moved the club from Bridgend, via Newport, to the Racecourse Ground, nearer to rugby league's heartland.
Experienced former Great Britain coach Brian Noble, a coach who won the Super League and World Club Championship three times at Bradford Bulls, has replaced departing boss John Dixon.
He has replaced the infamous 'Crusaders Six,' the half-a-dozen Australians deported due to the visa saga, with Super League experience, and, for once, there is a serene air of calm around the fledging franchise.
Noble out to restore Crusaders reputation
"The owners in Wrexham have given that security for the first time and this season you will see a very settled team," said Harris.
"The move means logistically you can get better crowds as it's in the north.
"The players have had the upheaval of moving north and it has been tremendously testing, especially for ones with families. If a players' private life isn't right then it's difficult to get your professional life.
"The squad is stronger than it was last year and the young Welsh players are 12 months further down the road for their development.
"But, with the visa problems and ownership issues, the squad have a very tight-knit spirit. They are very comfortable with each other as they have learned to rely on each other.
"That is unique in a group so the team spirit is already there. We haven't had to develop that, and that is something every successful team needs.
"The consistency in management and ownership this time will reflect to the players out on the pitch as they had a struggle last year.
"When you have that security in a club, players feel secure to play well.
"So we are confident that those players who didn't play as well as they could in 2009 due to the uncertainty will perform in 2010 as they are more secure in their home life."
Wales' league crusade is important to Harris, the Welsh superstar stand-off who graced two World Cup semi-finals with his beloved nation.
The Welsh fought hard to win a Super League franchise to honour the impact of Billy Boston, Keiron Cunningham and Jonathan Davies on league's history so Harris will not let the Crusaders fade without a fight.
"We can't let it fade and I don't think I will fade away now," he said. "There is a lot of determined people involved with a will to succeed.
"The franchise is up for renewal in 2011 and our aim by then is to a top-eight club.
"But, at the moment, we're a little bit under the radar and have been written off. I always believe it is better to be underestimated than overestimated."
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