PHIL Joy believes Oldham will go from strength to strength as the Championship season unfolds thanks to quality coaching, a collective willingness to learn from mistakes and a team spirit which he says is second to none.
In the first four of 30 second-tier games that will determine whether Roughyeds consolidate at that level or make a quick return to League One, local lad Joy has shown that he for one can hack it with the big boys.
Oldham’s go-forward prop isn’t on his own. And with Scott Naylor, Lee Spencer and Peter Carey there to push them in the right direction, he says the squad has grown in confidence and self-belief from how it has performed against London Broncos, Leigh Centurions, Dewsbury Rams and Featherstone Rovers.
Speaking ahead of Sunday’s visit of leaders Bradford Bulls to Bower Fold (3pm), Joy said: “We were bitterly disappointed last week because we felt we could, and perhaps should, have won at Featherstone.
“We had a great start in beating Dewsbury, but a very poor one at Featherstone. We can’t put our finger on why. Maybe, as Scott said, we showed them too much respect early on.
“But the main thing is, we’ll learn from that going into the Bradford game. We have a togetherness within the squad that allows us, as a group, to examine what’s going wrong and to put it right together.
“You saw that when we hit a mid-season bad patch last year. We were being written off. But we got our heads together with the coaches, tweaked a few things and won 14 games in a row to seal promotion.
“We’ve learned a lot already this season, and we’re still learning. Even though we’ve only won one out of four, we’ve been more competitive than some people would have given us credit for. We’re not afraid to say we’ve a lot to learn. We know that. But we are learning fast, so things can only get better.
“I would say the jump from League One to Championship rugby is bigger than the difference between playing full-time and part-time opponents. That’s how I’ve found it anyway.
“The difference in speed and physicality between the divisions is enormous. And in the Championship you can’t switch off even momentarily or you get punished.
“That’s what happened at Featherstone when we went 10-0 down in as many minutes.
“As for this weekend, they don’t come much tougher than Bradford. But all the lads are up for it and if we play to the best of our ability there’s no reason why we can’t come away with a positive result.
“Win or lose, though, we are starting to feel we will comfortably stay up and perhaps cause a few surprises along the way.
“Team spirit is excellent and that will count for a lot too.”
The Bulls’ remarkable fightback against Leigh Centurions last week, when they drew 32-32 after trailing 32-4, means they come to Stalybridge as the only unbeaten side in the competition.
They won only one of their last five league games last year to finish second to Leigh in the regular Championship season — their first after relegation from Super League.
In the Super 8s they fared better than the other three Championship sides, getting to within 80 minutes of a Super League return only to lose 24-16 to Wakefield Trinity Wildcats in the aptly-called ‘Million Pound’ game.
Nine of the players who figured in that game were also on duty last Sunday against Leigh, including the 2015 Championship player of the year, stand-off Lee Gaskell.
New signings this year include centre Kris Welham from Hull KR and New Zealand-born props Mitch Clark (22) and Epalahame Lauaki (32), formerly of Hull FC, Wigan Warriors and Manly Sea Eagles in the NRL.
It’s more than 12 years since Naylor played in the great Bradford teams that monopolised the sport’s honours board about that time, but Sunday is sure to stir memories for the Oldham boss, who played in 128 Super League games for them, including two Grand Finals at Old Trafford.
He was also a Bull in Challenge Cup finals at Murrayfield, Twickenham and the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, while Wembley was being rebuilt.