OLDHAM’S impressive Championship record at ‘Fortress’ Bower Fold will be given the sternest test so far when high-profile Leigh Centurions and their large following of fans visit the Stalybridge venue on Sunday (3pm kick-off).
There’s good reason why they top the division with ten wins and a draw from 12 games and for confirmation you’ve only to look at some of the stars who played in their 37-30 win against Batley Bulldogs last time out — Lee Smith, Rangi Chase, Micky Higham, Dayne Weston, Gareth Hock and Harrison Hansen.
Chase, whose future at LSV looks to be in the balance, won’t play this time, but the former Man of Steel has only made five appearances all told so his absence will not be as significant as might appear at first glance.
While Leigh are going flat out for promotion to Super League and acknowledge their season will be judged on how they fare in the end-of-season Middle 8s, Championship new boys Oldham, and their fans, will regard second-tier survival as a huge success in their first season up.
That doesn’t mean they won’t fancy their chances of avenging their 48-18 defeat at Leigh early in the season and seeing off the Centurions on home soil where they have already stunned Dewsbury Rams, Batley Bulldogs, Sheffield Eagles and Featherstone Rovers.
“We’re a better team now than when we went to Leigh,” said coach Scott Naylor. “To tackle them at home is a challenge my lads have earmarked as one to look forward to since the fixtures came out.”
Danny Grimshaw, Kenny Hughes, Gary Middlehurst and Joe Burke didn’t play in the defeat at Leigh, nor did Roughyeds have the services of dual-reg players, as they expect to have this time.
It’s time now for Burke to stand up and be counted. Since signing in early March, the Welshman has been unable to push his selection claims on a regular basis, mainly because he was ineligible for the Challenge Cup ties against Kells, Hull KR and Warrington Wolves.
All that’s behind him now and with Jack Spencer out for several weeks with a damaged hand, opportunity knocks for Newport-born Burke to show that Phil Joy isn’t the only big front-rower in Oldham colours with the strength, tenacity and consistency to impress on a regular basis.
With no props on the bench, Naylor’s men were hugely disadvantaged up front against Warrington, but Burke’s return will make a big difference.
Leigh, a side packed with high-profile players, several of them from overseas, may have Greg Worthington and Willie Tonga back in the centre after injury, while on-loan back-row man Brad Fash, from Hull, is expected to make his debut, possibly off the bench.
A big, experienced pack will be built around ex-Cronulla prop Dayne Weston; his fellow Aussie Reni Maitua, who won a Test cap against New Zealand in 2006; hooker Micky Higham, a £50,000 buy from Warrington; Harrison Hansen, whose CV includes 238 games for Wigan and international appearances for both New Zealand and Samoa; and former Great Britain and England man Gareth Hock.
Cory Paterson, another vastly experienced Aussie and one of three team leaders with Higham and Harrison, could also be in the squad.
Said coach Neil Jukes: “Oldham will be like every other team. They will come after us because of what we have done previously, but I’d like to think we have lost a bit of that arrogance we may have had at one time.
“Ultimately, we are top of the league and everybody wants to raise their game against us.”