Crusaders Rugby League club’s assistant and current Welsh coach Iestyn Harris says that the whole squad is “counting down the days” before they face engage Super League champions Leeds Rhinos at The Racecourse in Wrexham in the Welsh side’s opening match of the season on Friday 29 January (kick-off 8pm).
Ticket sales at the Racecourse have been brisk in anticipation of this mouth watering fixture and Iestyn was looking forward to locking horns with a club who he has such a strong tie with.
“They don’t get much tougher do they,” said Harris “We played them in the opening fixture at Headingley last year. At least this year we have home advantage.”
Harris scored over 2,700 points in an illustrious rugby league career with his four-year spell at Leeds Rhinos being arguably his most successful era. Around half of those points were scored for the Rhinos as he became, at only 21 years old, the first Rhinos skipper in a decade to lead them to silverware when they lifted the Challenge Cup in 1999.
It was a win that kick-started Leeds’ revival as a club to make them the outfit that they are today. Harris is looking forward to facing his old club as much as any of his players.
“It’s exciting for me too with Leeds being my old club,” said the 33-year old. “But it’s a little different now being on the coaching side of things. For any player or coach who comes against the Champions, it’s a chance to measure yourself against the best so naturally as professionals, players want that challenge. They’ll be bringing a full side and they’ll be looking to get off to a good start but we’ll be ready and I think we’ve certainly got the players to cause them concern.”
The Crusaders move from their previous base in South Wales didn’t exactly give the coaching staff the ideal environment.
“Preparation for this opening game hasn’t been ideal but the guys have worked tremendously hard and there’s a great spirit in the camp. We’ve got together a good squad of players who are ready for the challenge. There’s a great buzz in the camp and around the town about the game and the players are looking forward to playing in front of a packed stadium. They can’t wait and are really up for it.”
“We broke up on December 23rd in South Wales and there were two or three days in the Christmas period where they worked hard as well. They just had ten days to up sticks and move up north which is difficult when you’ve got families and coupled with that we’ve had a lot of snow as well so it’s been interesting to say the least.
“But spirits have been high, they just got on with the job, which is a testament to the great bunch of lads and the professionalism they’ve shown. Everyone on the coaching staff has been impressed so far with what they’ve done. As we bring more players into the fold and add some quality to what’s already there, I think it’s very exciting times ahead at the Crusaders.”
Harris says that the players have been enjoying their new top class facilities in Wrexham and are working well with the football club.
“The facilities here are excellent,” he said. “There’s going to be some getting used to the fact that we’re working alongside the football club but Dean Saunders, their head coach has been really great with Brian Noble, Jon Sharp and myself and we’re getting to grips with the logistics of when and where we can train. The training pitch and gym are both fantastic so everything seems to be coming into place.”
Harris’ other role, as coach of the Welsh national side, gave him instant success in November. He led them to a European Cup Final win and because of that won the International Coach of the Year award.
He is happy to be working with a number of those players in the Crusaders squad, including skipper Jordan James, the player of the tournament in the European Cup. All the Welsh youngster will now be battling for a place in that elusive 17-man squad who will run out against Leeds Rhinos on January 29th.
“All of our Welsh players enjoyed the month’s worth of internationals, and for most of the guys who were involved with the Welsh set-up, certainly the younger guys, they’ll be looking at this year to develop themselves as individuals,” Harris summarises. “There are a lot of young guys in the Crusaders squad who haven’t played much Super League and their time with Wales has certainly given them the confidence to know they can become better players. Everyone wants to play against Leeds Rhinos at the end of the month and because of that, every player is working extremely hard. We can’t wait for January 29th.”
Tickets for Crusaders v Leeds Rhinos at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground on Friday January 29 at 8.00pm, priced from £7 for juniors and £15 for adults can be bought by going to www.crusadersrfl.com, calling 01978 262129 or by calling into the Wrexham FC club shop during office hours.