WHATEVER HAPPENS to Oldham Rugby League Club’s promotion aspirations in the next few weeks, coach Scott Naylor can look back on his first season in charge and reflect on a job well done.
With his tried and trusted No 2 Lee Spencer by his side, the former Bradford Bulls and England star introduced a new culture to the Whitebank dressing room and provided the Roughyeds faithful with a young, fit and talented squad which had a first-class work ethic.
He brought in mainly young players straight from reserve or academy rugby and he pinned his faith in the ability of his former Salford City Reds coaching colleague Spencer to nurture and develop them into a fighting force that would go neck-and-neck for the Championship One title with red-hot bookies’ favourites North Wales Crusaders.
Of the nine clubs in the division, Roughyeds were first to finish their 16-match programme – 12 wins, one draw, three defeats, 41 points.
They lost their first two home games to Rochdale and Oxford, but their one and only defeat on the road was a narrow 22-20 loss against their top-two rivals, North Wales.
Naylor’s nippers, average age 22 and many of them playing senior rugby for the first time, boasted the best away record in the division.
Thanks to the bonus-point system, they were the only club out of the nine to pick up at least a point from every game they played.
And in their two-club scrap for the title and automatic promotion, they out-scored the Welsh side 48-32 on aggregate over the home-and-away fixtures at Wrexham in June and at Whitebank in July.
After losing two of their first three games – a slow start that looks highly likely to condemn them to the play-offs – they lost only one of their next 13 outings in a remarkable run of consistency which augurs well for the anticipated battles that lie ahead.
Spencer said: “Scott has done a fantastic job in his first appointment as overall boss. It took a few games for the boys to gel, but people don’t realise how young and inexperienced most of the players are and how hard we have worked to turn them into a winning team.
“The boys learned a lot from their early mistakes and that’s because they are young and eager to listen to their coaches, unlike a lot of older players in rugby league who think they know best.”
Many of the squad’s shining lights are at the younger end – centre or second-row Josh Crowley (21), second-row Danny Langtree (22), prop Phil Joy (21), loose-forward Liam Thompson (21), utility forward Michael Ward (22), hooker Adam Files (20), full-back Richard Lepori (21), centre Jon Ford (19).
With a fresh-faced squad like that, most coaches would go for an old head to handle the rudder at half-back, but Naylor’s choice for such a key role was 23-year-old former Salford and Whitehaven man Lewis Palfrey, whom he also trusted with the additional burden of captaincy.
As an accomplished goalkicker, a captain who leads by example and a half-back who is smart enough to make the right decisions at the right time, Palfrey is a key figure, perhaps the key figure, in anything Roughyeds can achieve during a crucial September.
If they finish second, as seems highly likely, they will have a bye on Sunday, September 8 and will probably play London Skolars or Rochdale Hornets at Whitebank on Sunday, September 15 for the right to go straight through to the final at Leigh Sports Village on Sunday, September 29.
It makes for a fascinating end to the season.