In the latest of our new preview series for the 2022 season, Getting To Know, Josh takes an in-depth look at our final visitors to Cougar Park this year, the North Wales Crusaders.
2022 SEASON SO FAR
After falling short in the play-offs last season, the North Wales Crusaders have left no room for error so far in 2022.
Beginning the season with three straight victories in the Challenge Cup, only a spirited defeat to Sheffield in Round 5 of the prestigious competition prevented them for qualification to the 1895 Cup and a mouth-watering tie against Hull FC.
With the road to Tottenham reaching its end, focus turned to the League 1 season and a push for promotion has so far returned eight victories from eight.
An end-to-end high scoring victory away at Rochdale kicked off the season and put Anthony Murray’s side on the front foot.
History would follow as their first home game would double up as the first ever game played by Cornwall.
Another high scoring game followed, with the scoreboard being more lobsided in North Wales favour, and the week after came a routine away victory over the London Skolars.
They would be made to work for their next two wins, a low scoring away win at Swinton would precede a comeback that saw them snatch victory from the jaws of defeat against the Midlands Hurricanes.
A club record 84-4 victory over the West Wales Raiders in the Big Welsh Derby and a 46-0 away thrashing of Doncaster kept North Wales top of the division.
The scoreboard didn’t reflect their dominance in a 30-16 win against Oldham, but the season threatened to derail in June with three straight defeats.
A heavy loss in the top of the table meeting with the Cougars was followed with a loss away at Hunslet and another home defeat at the hands of Doncaster.
But they regrouped and have roared back into second place with seven straight victories head into today’s game.
Comeback victory against London Skolars kickstarted the second half of their campaign with comfortable away wins over the Hurricanes and West Wales breathing new life into the Crusaders.
The comeback trail continued as they came from behind in two consecutive weeks to see off Hunslet and Oldham as the play-off race continued.
And they head into Cougar Park this afternoon on the back of an away win at Cornwall and holding off the Hornets in Colwyn Bay last weekend despite finishing the game with just 12-men on the field.
With his Crusaders legacy already cemented, Anthony Murray will be looking to guide the club to the Championship this season.
The reigning Betfred League 1 Coach of the Year, Anthony has overseen a transformation of the club since returning for a second spell in charge.
He will be expectant that the club and squad he has moulded into his own image will be good to go in his absence next year.
That is because ‘Muzza’ announced he will be stepping down as coach for a second team upon the conclusion of this season.
And he will be hoping to end his long and successful time with the Colwyn Bay based outfit promoted with the Cougars as they now have all eyes focused on a strong finish heading into the end of season play-offs.
Murray’s involvement with Crusaders began back in 2014, taking over from Clive Griffiths as head coach midway through the campaign.
With a change in the Championship’s structure meaning five teams were relegated that year, North Wales’ stay in the second tier was short-lived, but Murray guided the club to the League 1 play-offs and iPro Sport Cup success in 2015.
Despite significant changes on the field with a number of senior players leaving the club in 2016, the Welsh side were competitive and made the League 1 Shield final, losing out at Newcastle.
Murray opted for a new challenge at Gloucestershire All Golds at the end of that season, with Mike Grady taking over, but he returned to the Crusaders early in 2018 and has been with the club ever since.
In his first full season back in the charge, the Crusaders narrowly missed out on the League 1 play-offs by just three points under Murray’s guidance, as he made the shortlist for coach of the year.
The 44-year-old built a new-look squad ahead of 2020 and North Wales started the campaign positively, only for it to be stopped early because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the long wait was worth it as Crusaders clinched third place in League 1 last term and made the play-offs for the first team since 2015, with Murray named the league coach of the year.
This season has thus far been a successful one once more.
The Crusaders currently sit second as Anthony has again delivered with a team made up of his trusted loyal players and smart recruitment from the community game.
2022 SQUAD: Pat Ah Van; Liam Aspin; Chris Barratt; Brad Billsborough; Owen Blackwood; Brad Brennan; Reece Briers; Alex Eckley; Matthew Fletcher; Jordan Gibson; Dec Gregory; Aaron Hall; Benn Hardcastle; Callum Hazzard; Jack Holmes; Jack Houghton; Calum Hughes; Tommy Johnson; Dec Kay; Rob Massam; Ben Moores; Dante Morley-Samuels; Paul Nash; Pat Rainford; Matt Reid; Gav Rodden; Ramon Silva; Alex Smith; Jono Smith; Harry Swarbrick; Scott Turner
RETAINED FROM 2021: Pat Ah Van; Chris Barratt; Brad Billsborough; Brad Brennan; Alex Eckley; Jordan Gibson; Callum Hazzard; Jack Holmes; Jack Houghton; Tommy Johnson; Rob Massam; Dante Morley-Samuels; Matt Reid; Gav Rodden; Jono Smith
TRANSFERS IN: Harry Swarbrick (Barrow Raiders); Dec Kay (Unattached); Paul Nash (Swinton Lions); Reece Briers (Warrington Wolves); Owen Blackwood (St Helens); Liam Aspin (Waterhead Warriors); Matthew Fletcher (Oldham RLFC); Pat Rainford (Leigh East); Calum Hughes (Ince Rose Bridge); Scott Turner (Unattached); Ben Moores (Rochdale Hornets); Benn Hardcastle (Midlands Hurricanes)
LOANS IN: Aaron Hall (Dewsbury Rams); Ramon Silva (Wigan Warriors); Dec Gregory (Widnes Vikings); Alex Smith (Dewsbury Rams)
TRANSFERS OUT: Dave Eccleston (Whitehaven); Ethan Kelly (Barrow Raiders); Jack Cottington (Thatto Heath Crusaders); Karl Ashall (Retired); Kieran Sherratt (Retired); Warren Thompson (Retired)
ONE TO WATCH
If you look up the word legend in a dictionary and in a small corner of Colwyn Bay, you will probably find a picture of Tommy Johnson.
A member of the reformed Crusaders inaugural side in 2012, the full-back has remained a constant with the club throughout their eleven-season existence so far.
North Wales club captain, record appearance holder, record points scorer, record goal kicker, and record holder of most points in a season twice over, there’s not much that Johnson hasn’t achieved over the past decade representing the phoenix club.
The chant from the Crusaders faithful rings “We’ve got the best kicker in the league” and they might not be far wrong when it is sung loud and proud.
Last September’s win against the London Skolars saw him record his 1,500th point in North Wales colours, proving that Tommy Johnson is as potent an attacking threat as they come in League One.
Tommy Johnson joined North Wales Crusaders as a 20-year-old back in 2012 and he’s never looked back.
Now in his eleventh season with the Colwyn Bay club, Johnson has been through a lot with them, but his dedication has been rewarded with a couple of personal milestones he can be more than proud of.
A product of the academy system at St Helens, he made his debut in the Crusaders first competitive game against Barrow Raiders in 2012, coming off the bench in his side’s 26-24 defeat.
Since then, he has been ever present at fullback and put in consistently solid performances to become a legend of the Crusaders.
When he ran out against London Skolars at the start of March last year he regained his place at the top of the club’s all-time appearance chart, appearing in what was his 169th game for the club.
Having missed the entire 2019 season with a knee injury, Johnson’s now-retired teammate Jonny Walker temporarily took that record, before Johnson’s return to full fitness.
Returning to the sport following injury and Covid, he picked up exactly where he left of last season.
Again becoming a mainstay within the side, he inspired the team to a sensational winning run alongside fellow stalwart Rob Massam as North Wales defied all expectation to finish third before falling short in the play-offs.
He will be looking to go one step further and get promoted in 2022 after another superb year that sees the Crusaders in second place heading into the final two games.
The divisions third top points scorer and goal kicker, he continues to break records, needing only 6 points to break his own points in a season record heading into Sunday.
PREVIOUS MEETINGS (LAST FIVE MEETINGS ONLY)
4th June 2022: North Wales Crusaders 12-56 Keighley Cougars
18th September 2021: North Wales Crusaders 14-28 Keighley Cougars
5th September 2021: Keighley Cougars 34-14 North Wales Crusaders
4th July 2021: North Wales Crusaders 34-28 Keighley Cougars
30th June 2019: North Wales Crusaders 14-6 Keighley Cougars
By Joshua Chapman