SCOTT Naylor has underlined how much tougher it will be to win promotion from Betfred League 1 this year than when Oldham RLFC last did it in 2015.
Back then, in Naylor’s third year as head coach, they topped the table with 19 wins from 22 games and boasted the best defensive record in the division and the second best attacking stats.
Fast forward three years and the Roughyeds boss believes standards in the sport’s third tier have improved immeasurably.
“Even without Bradford Bulls it would be a lot tougher this time, but with Bradford in there as well it’s going to be tougher still,” said Naylor. “There’ll be a lot of games in which we’ve got to be at our best.”
One such toughie will be Sunday’s visit to the Vestacare Stadium (3pm) of rejuvenated York City Knights who, under the command of James Ford, have reached the last three play-off semi-finals.
Under new owners since December, 2016, they’ve made some relatively big signings during the winter off-season and, like Oldham, they’ve made no secret of their ambitions to climb out of League 1 this year.
On the day Roughyeds were kicking off the league campaign with their first win at Whitehaven in 17 years, the Knights put a shine on their armour by giving full-time Bradford a fright in a 22-20 home defeat in which the Bulls scraped home with a penalty goal from half-way after the final hooter had sounded.
A brilliant game, watched by a crowd of nearly 4,300, fuelled a belief in the Minster city that by signing former Super League men like the vastly-experienced Ben Cockayne and Graeme Horne, York can go all the way in 2018.
Between them they’ve played nearly 450 games in the elite competition and they were signed — Cockayne aged 34 and Horne 32 — to provide the Knights with the nous and the old heads to get them over the promotion line.
They were both in the starting line-up against the Bulls.
Cockayne was on the wing and Horne was in the front-row in a hugely-experienced squad that also included 33-year-old hooker Andy Ellis, formerly of London Broncos and Barrow; 33-year-old Tim Spears, captain and loose-forward; two dual-reg men from Hull KR, centre Will Oakes and half-back Matty Marsh; and, also from Hull KR, on-loan Aussie winger Kieren Moss, once of Penrith Panthers and Parramatta Eels.
Not finished there, Knights have since added to an impressive-looking squad with the arrival on loan from Huddersfield Giants of prop Colton Roche, who looks certain to make his debut at the Vestacare Stadium.
While still wearing L-plates, Roche spent a short time on loan at Oldham, but he has since passed his test with flying colours, playing for Ireland and doing enough with Bradford and Featherstone to earn a full-time deal at Huddersfield.
He also had a spell with Knights a few years back so he knows the club and they know him. Said boss Ford: “I’m looking forward to seeing his explosive carries and his intent in contact.”
Roughyeds know they’ll be in a battle which will be every bit as tough and competitive as those at Rochdale, where they won the Law Cup in a pre-season humdinger, and at Whitehaven where they got their League 1 programme off to a brilliant start with a 14-0 triumph.
“We’ve played really well this season so far, but I firmly believe we’ve still got more to offer,”
said Naylor, who has urged his side to turn the Vestacare Stadium into a fortress.
So far this season on that stadium’s new artificial pitch his boys have put more than 50 points on Keighley Cougars in a pre-season encounter and more than 40 on the amateurs of Featherstone Lions in a Challenge Cup tie.
York will be a hugely different sort of challenge which will act as a barometer of the Roughyeds’ prospects for the season and their hopes of achieving their promotion goal.
Naylor will have tough decisions to make in selection, but with men like full-back Kyran Johnson, half-back David Hewitt and second-row pair Danny Langtree and Danny Bridge in scintillating form, he will be quietly confident that Roughyeds can keep the pot boiling.