IF THE barometer of a team’s mental toughness is how well or how poorly it responds to a setback, Oldham Rugby League fans can look ahead with confidence to the rest of the season.
From chairman to programme seller, the club was at its lowest ebb for a long time at the end of April when former coach Tony Benson brought his Oxford team of ex-Roughyeds to Whitebank in the Kingstone Press Championship One promotion race and returned home to the leafy lanes of middle England with an 18-16 win and three precious league points.
That loss could easily have been the catalyst for a mid-season slump, but coach Scott Naylor and his players picked themselves up, dusted themselves down and made it a merry month of May by winning each of their two games in that month – 30-12 at Hemel Stags in Hertfordshire and 54-16 against Gateshead Thunder at Whitebank.
A maximum six points lifted them back into the top four, only one point and two points respectively behind third-placed Oxford and second-placed Hemel, but with a game in hand.
Significantly, only leaders North Wales Crusaders have a better defensive record and a higher for-and-against points difference than Naylor’s young guns, who are building a reputation for possessing some of the brightest and best young players in the division.
Some of them, like Phil Joy, Danny Langtree, Kenny Hughes and Michael Ward, are products of the club’s youth policy and have come up through the second team.
Others, such as Richard Lepori, skipper Lewis Palfrey, Josh Crowley, Liam Thompson and Adam Files have arrived this season as new signings or, as in Files’s case, on long-term loan from link club Salford City Reds.
With an average of 21, they are starting to make people sit up and take note.
Said Naylor: “They are all making huge forward strides and are developing as we always thought they would. With the exceptions of Palfrey and Ward, they are all in their first season of senior, open-age rugby.”
Livewire hooker Files, the club’s top try scorer with eight, has scored at least one try in each of the Roughyeds’ last half a dozen games and went in for two in the most recent win against Gateshead.
Hughes, another hooker, proved himself to be a complete all-round footballer by replacing the injured Danny Whitmore in the key pivotal role of half-back in the early stages of the Gateshead game, and coming up with a top-drawer performance to earn top marks from the boss.
Naylor explained: “We were12-0 down and he came off the bench into a new role for him and turned things round. How good is that? I always said he was a half-back. He might believe me now.”
Now comes the big test. After only two games in April and two in May, Oldham face matches on eight successive weekends, including five in June – three of them away against the so far unbeaten league leaders North Wales Crusaders in Wrexham, South Wales Scorpions in Neath and Gateshead Thunder on Tyneside.
The two games at Whitebank are against London Skolars on June 2 and Hemel Stags on June 23, both kicking off at 3pm.