By Sean Hayes | 07/03/17
Rochdale Hornets have come a long way since they made the long trip to Hemel Stags on Sunday 26th June 2016, where they defeated the hosts 60-6 at Pennine Way.
On the surface there isn’t anything special about that League One fixture last season, other than it was piece in the club’s title winning puzzle, however it was also Josh Crowley’s first appearance after lacing up his boots once again.
After playing 81 consecutive games since joining the Roughyeds in 2013, Crowley reportedly called time on his career at the start of the 2016 season only to join up with Hornets midway through the campaign.
He went on to help Rochdale to a famous Promotion Final win in France before re-signing with the club for a further year, and he feels that he is reaping the rewards of having a full pre-season under his belt.
“When I first came in last year, the first four or five games I was coming off the bench and only playing 40 minutes or so,” commented Crowley.
“I was kind of sharing the position a little bit and Alan (Kilshaw) has turned around this year and given me a starting jersey and said that’s your position to lose.
“I’m a bit more comfortable knowing that I am playing with the same lads every week. It’s helped playing with (Lewis) Palfrey a lot because I have played with him in the past.
“Last year I felt like I was stepping on people’s toes a little bit, but I feel like I can definitely kick on now and build.”
In his last appearance for the club he came up with a man of the match performance in their shock 10-9 win away to Featherstone Rovers.
He feels their opponents may have underestimated Rochdale going into the contest and also commended the resilience of his team mates who refused to give in despite a number of factors being against them.
“Maybe they underestimated us a little bit and we were up for it after back-to-back losses.
“Everything seemed to be against us on the day, but I think the never say die attitude of the lads got us home.
“I’ve never played with a team like this. Most of the teams I have played with, when everything is against you like it was at the weekend you’d see a few player’s head drop and they would give up.
“I can honestly say that out of everyone in our team there’s not one person I thought would give up, we were all battling together for the win.”
The game was won by a two-pointer from Palfrey, however it was Crowley who drew the penalty after making a break down the left edge with just two minutes to play.
He was focused on keeping possession rather than looking for options in support and when the penalty was awarded he had no doubts that his halfback would make it count with the boot.
“I think of myself as a bit of a flair player and I always like to try things, and normally I would try to throw a pass or put a kick through,” he admitted.
“All that was going through my head though was to keep hold of the ball no matter what, and we were thinking if we get close enough go for the drop-goal and get the draw.
“I just wanted to get as close to the try line as I could and take the tackle, rather than trying to do something with it.
“I was happy when we got the penalty for it. I’ve played with Palfrey for years and he is probably the best kicker I have ever played with.
“He’s very composed which helps, and I had all the confidence in the world that he would knock it over.”
It was a much changed team to the one which featured against Halifax a week earlier, with Jack Holmes and Jack Francis making their first appearances in 2017 and Sam Wilde coming in on dual registration.
There was also a debut for Australian hooker Jay Lowein, who made the switch from Coventry Bears in the off-season, and Crowley feels their performances show there is depth within this year’s squad.
“It helped the likes of Samir (Tahraoui) and (Chris) Riley having a rest and if you look at Jack Holmes who’s come in I think he was by far the best player on the pitch against Featherstone.
“The first four games it was near enough the same team, so to bring Jack Holmes and Jack Francis in who both had brilliant games it creates competition for places.
“I’ve been in teams where players think they are guaranteed a place at you don’t get the best out of them.
“Jay also came in and I think he led us around the field really well which obviously gives Alan a headache, but I like that there is competition for places.”
March presents the back rower with a personal battle against his former club though, as Hornets host Oldham in the first meeting since their 24-12 Law Cup triumph at Bower Fold.
He feels that could serve as motivation for the visitors, while remaining confident that they can secure the two league points with a win.
“It could probably go against us a little bit because I think they will be fired up because they will be smarting at the fact they got beat,” continued the 25-year-old.
“I’m quietly confident but I’m trying not to think about it too much because sometimes the nerves can get the better of me if I hype a game up too much.
“Even though I decided to leave Oldham rather than being let go I still feel like I’ve got a few things to prove.
“The main thing for me though is to not make any mistakes because the Oldham players will be straight on me as soon as I do.
“At the same time I’m a confidence player and after the first few carries the nerves will go out the window and I’ll be fine.”
After picking up three wins from their opening five fixtures, Rochdale sit in fifth place going into this derby clash and will be delighted with their start to Championship life.
Crowley isn’t resting on his laurels though, instead he wants their expectations to raise for this season as they look to continue pulling off upsets.
“I said to the lads after the Featherstone win that there’s not many teams that could have the start that we’ve had after only just being promoted from League 1.
“We’ve already set our standards pretty high anyway but personally I think the bar needs to be higher now that we have those wins under our belts.
“I was originally targeting the likes of Oldham and Sheffield, no disrespect to those teams but I thought they were the games we could really have a go at trying to pick up the two points.
“Now, we’ve beat Bradford and Featherstone away, run Hull KR close and probably should have beaten Halifax so we are right up there.
“We’ve probably had the toughest start that we could have had and I don’t feel that we are at all out of our comfort zone.
“I’m confident that we can kick on and have a good year.”
Tickets are available from £5 for this hugely anticipated derby clash, with pre-match dining also available with prices starting at £20. For more information visit www.hornetsrugbyleague.co.uk or call 01706 648 004.