Points-machine Paul Crook has warned that Oldham’s big-game introduction to Betfred League 1 at Whitehaven on Sunday (3pm) will be tougher than expected.
Signed by Roughyeds to kick goals, boot opponents to death and dictate tactics, midfield maestro Crook, 31, has inside knowledge, having starred for the Cumbrians last season in a half-back double-act with his ex-Rochdale ally Steve Roper.
They helped to steer ‘Haven to a second-place League 1 finish, followed by narrow defeat at Barrow in the promotion final.
They then went their separate ways . . . stand-off Crook to Oldham, replacing Scott Leatherbarrow, and scrum-half Roper to North Wales Crusaders.
Now, in his first ‘serious’ game of 2018, Crook will go back to the Recreation Ground where his four goals helped the Cumbrians to a thrilling 21-20 extra-time triumph against York City Knights in their last home game of 2017.
He played in 27 of ‘Haven’s 28 games in all competitions last year, accumulating 225 points along the way.
He also learned, from the inside, why they are hard to beat at the ground they affectionately call ‘The Recre’.
He said: “A lot of teams go there with trepidation and that makes ‘Haven even more determined to make it uncomfortable for them.
“They’re a big set of lads and they like to get in your face. It’s always like that. But there’s another factor at this time of year and that’s the pitch. At best, it’s going to be heavy going, which will make it even tougher.
“I know the pitch inside out so that should help when it comes to putting boot to ball, but we have to prepare for the forwards to slog it out. It won’t be a quick game. It will be a real slog.
“There couldn’t be a better start to League 1 though because it will test our credentials to do well this year. It will be good to get it out of the way early and to see what it tells us.
“It’s nice to go back to a place where you’ve had good times and met some nice people, but once the game starts it becomes like any other.”
Betfred have installed Oldham as second favourites behind Bradford Bulls to win League 1 outright with Whitehaven in third place.
Head coach Scott Naylor isn’t fazed by the weight of expectation.
He said: “I like starting off with a game like this. If we win it will be a great start; If we lose, it won’t be the end of the world because it’s the first game.
“We’ve been looking forward to it and talking about it for ages. It’s among the top three or four challenges we’ll face all season, so we can use it as a guide to prospects.”
Of his 21 contracted players, only Ben Davies (back) and club captain Gareth Owen (foot) are unavailable, although Owen has reached a key milestone on his long rehab journey by starting normal training.
Naylor will pick from 19 plus dual-registration players from Salford.
‘Haven boss Carl Forster’s big decision surrounds PNG pair Jesse Joe Parker and Dion Aiye, who have only just arrived in West Cumbria after being holed up in Brisbane waiting for visas.
Forster will check their general fitness, especially Aiye who contracted pneumonia while in Australia.