In the latest of a new series as a part of our match preview line-up, we will be looking at 5 players in the opposition line-up to look out for once they take to the field against the Cougars at the weekend.
We move on to the next edition of the ‘Ones To Watch’ series with Saturday’s opposition in the Betfred League 1 Qualifying Play-Off, the North Wales Crusaders.
Finishing the League One regular season as join top try-scorer with 22 alongside Tee Ritson of Barrow, Rob Massam still poses one of the divisions most dangerous attacking threats.
Now into the third year of his second spell with the Colwyn Bay outfit, he is the Crusaders record try-scorer and third highest appearance maker whilst also developing a reputation as a renowned PT away from the field.
His size, strength, and speed make Rob one of the divisions most recognisable but dangerous outside backs and one that will cause any side problems if given the opportunity to do so.
One of the original North Wales Crusaders, Massam signed with the club ahead of their inaugural season in 2012 after impressing in the trials held by the club in pre-season.
An amateur international with England, the transition to the semi-professional game was seamless for the winger as he instantly began terrorising defences in the third tier.
The clubs leading try scorer in both 2012 and 2013, he was a key figure in the double winning squad of the latter as the Crusaders were promoted as League One Champions and Northern Rail Bowl.
His performances at club level were rewarded as he was selected to be a member of the Wales squad at the 2013 Rugby League World Cup before impressing further once making the step up to the Championship at club level.
Despite relegation straight back to League One, Massam continued to rack up tries as the Crusaders won the iPro Sport Cup in 2015 before having promotion hopes ended in the play-offs at the hands of the Cougars.
Once financial troubles hit, he would make the difficult decision to move across the border and sign with the Rochdale Hornets, and in a two-year spell at Spotland he would score 25 tries in 33 appearances at Championship level before re-joining the Crusaders ahead of the 2019 season.
Despite the Covid pandemic and injury affecting his first two seasons back at the club, he has more than made up for lost time this season and with his try scoring feats to date is back on red hot form.
Back-rower Gav Rodden is now into his second season with Crusaders having made the step-up to the professional game ahead of the Covid cancelled 2020 campaign.
He made the step up from the amateur ranks with Crusaders ahead of 2020, joining the club from Wigan St Judes.
Having represented England Community Lions in a tour of New Zealand last year and featured for England in the 2018 Commonwealth Championship, it was no surprise that Rodden adapted to life at a higher level very quickly.
On his competitive debut for North Wales against amateurs Rochdale Mayfield in the Challenge Cup, Rodden bagged himself an impressive four tries in front of the BBC cameras, before adding another to his tally in the League 1 victory at London Skolars.
After a positive start to life in a Crusaders shirt, the coronavirus pandemic brought the 2020 season to a halt, but the back rower has extended his stay at the club by a further year at least.
Returning with the Crusaders in 2021, he has this season established himself as one of the division’s leading back-row forwards with a number of impressive outings that has led to him being a regular on both the scoresheet and in the Man of the Match awards list.
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 weekend’s game 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 tenth 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 the Cru’s record appearance maker and all-time leading points-scorer.
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.
The towering presence of Brad Brennan in the front row has become a familiar but formidable sight in the Crusaders pack over the past few seasons.
Bringing size and aggression whether it be starting or from the interchanges bench, Brennan has become a key member of the North Wales side since first arriving at the club three years ago.
And with over 50 appearances for his name to date for the Colwyn Bay outfit, the forward has continued to impress within the pack so far in the 2021 season.
A product of the Warrington Wolves academy after being signed from Wigan St Judes aged 16, Brennan would never make a first team appearance at the Halliwell Jones Stadium and made his professional debut in 2013 on dual registration at the Barrow Raiders.
Becoming a terrace favourite at the Raiders, he made the move to Craven Park permanent before departing for brief spells with both the York City Knights and Hunslet RL.
After his stay in Yorkshire, he returned to the Raiders in 2016 and would be a part of their 2017 promotion winning squad despite spending the majority of that season on loan at the Coventry Bears.
Barrow opted to not retain his services upon their return to the Championship, and Brennan would then sign with the Crusaders ahead of the 2018 season.
Since making the move across the border, he has become a regular within the side under Anthony Murray as well as also becoming a firm favourite amongst fans and teammates alike.
His towering presence will give a different but challenging sort of opponent to the Cougars pack this Saturday night.
PATRICK AH VAN
On the opposite wing to Rob Massam, the experience and talent of Patrick Ah Van adds a different dimension to Anthony Murray’s side.
A strong ball carrier out of yardage who has played the majority of his career at the very top of the game both here in the UK and back home in Australia, Ah Van offers the Crusaders a very potent attacking threat mixed with superb defensive capabilities.
The 33-year-old Samoa international has already shown that age is just a number as his veteran backline partnership along with Massam and Tommy Johnson is proving a key asset in the Crusaders attacking shape.
After developing in the Bartecard Cup competition in New Zealand, Ah Van made his breakthrough in 2006 as he debuted in the NRL for the New Zealand Warriors.
Coming in and out of the Warriors side, the winger would play in the NSW Cup competitions with the Auckland Vulcans when not selected for the NRL before moving to the UK ahead of the 2011 season when he signed for the Bradford Bulls.
During his sole season at Odsal, he firmly established himself as a favourite amongst the Bradford faithful before the financial difficulties that engulfed the club forced him to depart and make the move to the Widnes Vikings following their admission to the competition ahead of the 2012 campaign.
He would remain in Cheshire until 2019 during a seven-season spell that cemented him as a cult hero at the Vikings.
Ah Van would register 526 points in 123 appearances for the club and played his part in Widnes sides that reached the Challenge Cup semi-final in 2014.
His loyalty and hero status would be further secured in the 2019 season when Patrick played for free during their financial difficulties that resulted from their relegation from Super League the previous season.
A brief spell in France would follow before the winger made the decision to return to the UK and sign with the Crusaders for this season following the conclusion of the French Elite Championship season.
By Joshua Chapman