Thatto Heath Crusaders remain top of the National Conference Premier League despite defeat to East Hull on Saturday. The side who were promoted back up from Division 1 had won six games on the bounce before the 15-10 defeat at the Sports club.
Thatto Heath have made an excellent start to the season, from thirteen games they have only lost four and are leading the Premier League on points difference, joint with Leigh Miners Rangers and Siddal.
In a division where teams are all taking points from each other regardless of league position and form, the Crusaders realise if they want to remain in first position they must ensure they beat opposition further down the table as well as sides in the top six.
Amazingly in 2009 they were relegated on 24 points which last season would have seen them finish just outside the play-offs. They took little time in recapturing premier status, they won the division 1 championship with ease. They finished eight points clear of 2nd place, Bradford Dudley Hill and were only beaten three times all season. In their last two games of the season they sent a real message to the fourteen teams above them, demolishing Thornhill Trojans 102-6 and Normanton Knights 78-16. They made it clear that their relegation was not a true reflection of their ability and that is showing so far this season.
Having not lost a home game in a record 20 months, Heath know if they obtain victory in the majority of their away fixtures, then success as a Premier League side is only months away. Club captain, Mark Beech said: “The initial target was to simply stay up this season. Having said that it is not impossible for us to win the title but I think a top two finish is paramount to our success this season. As players, we have had experience of the Premier League before and between us were confident at the start of the season that we could do well this year.”
Thatto club secretary Martin Eden believes, “After such a strong season last year, a top six finish is realistic, we have faced some tough opposition since returning the Premier League but we have shown real signs that we are a quality side. I think beating Siddal 38-20 at home and going to Skirlaugh and getting a win are really impressive results.”
Thatto Heath benefit from being the only National Conference side based in St.Helens therefore attracting quality players who wish to play at the highest level without turning professional. Mark Beech explained, “So far this season we have had around thirty different players playing in matches. The fact we have a good-balanced side with no ‘stand-out’ players has really helped us to galvanize our team and I think it’s a large part of why we are doing so well. Four of our key players, a full-back, stand- off, a prop and one of our second-rower’s went on tour with Lancashire a fortnight ago yet we still managed to win, it shows we have strength in depth.”
Their first game back in the Premier League was an away trip to West Hull, Beech described the game as, “a real reality check after being promoted and they are the toughest opposition we have come up against so far this season.” It reminded them that their ‘honeymoon’ period was over and they faced an up-hill challenge in order to make the play-offs if performances like that were to become a regular occurrence.
The tough opposition kept coming and despite winning their following three games after defeat to West Hull, they came unstuck against Leigh East and were brushed aside by the team that loose-forward, Beech claims, “are a real stumbling block for us, they knocked us out of the cup last season and made us look pretty ordinary at their place.”
Saturday’s defeat away at East Hull reiterates how sides are winning matches regardless of expectations in almost NRL fashion. So far when the Crusaders have visited Hull this season, both East and West, the form book has gone completely out of the window and they have failed to get the results. It was a narrow defeat last weekend, a slow start allowing the home side an eight point lead going into half-time, it was always going to hinder their chances away from home.
Ironically this Saturday sees Thatto Heath play West Hull at home. They will be looking for revenge after being despatched 36-18 at the start of the season and with things getting tighter at the top, victory here is crucial. A win could see them move two points clear and one step closer to that first place finish.