There is no doubt that after the opening five rounds of Betfred League 1 the fortunes of West Wales Crusaders have been very different so far in 2019.
Despite not yet picking up a win from their fixtures, the competitive nature and huge improvements on the field have been plain for all to see.
A couple of runaway score lines to competition heavy weights Hunslet and Newcastle have certainly been no where near the scale of some of the records defeats inflicted on the Welsh side last year, with the Raiders going close to challenging for their maiden results on a number of occasions.
After coming off the back of a narrow 30-16 defeat to Whitehaven last time out, RL News caught up with West Wales’ head coach Kim Williams, who has been at the centre of all the good things coming out of a club clearly on the upturn.
Although clearly disappointed not to have notched up the club’s first win since reforming at the end of the 2017 season, Williams was extremely upbeat about the strides taken by the players.
“I think we’ve definitely progressed on last year and there has been a significant improvement in the score lines but obviously we’re still waiting for our first win and that’s the ultimate goal at the moment, but we always expected small steps,” he said.
“We’ve had a pretty bad run of injuries early on and we’re only just starting to get somewhere near our full squad on the paddock and I think last time out against Whitehaven was probably out best performance of the season, particularly in the second half, which is a product of having the majority of our top squad available.
We still have three or four that would still be pushing for our top 17 so there’s still some improvement there but overall I’m happy that we’re improving but I’m not going to be completely satisfied until we get that first win and hopefully we can string a few together as the season progresses.”
With somewhere near his strongest squad now available, the Australian said it was hugely important to focus on the positives of what they players have produced so far whilst putting strong focus on key areas for improvement in the minor details of the game if the squad are to gain their first win of 2019.
“It’s encouraging for me as a coach and the players. We don’t ever want to be happy coming off the field after a loss, but we’ve certainly been able to find the positives in most of those losses and that’s our focus at the moment,” he said.
“We recognise our errors and areas for improvement from each game, which is important as well, but I think as a club at the moment it is really important that our focus is on performance and not results and the performances have been a lot better than last year.
“I think we struggle to compete for the whole 80 minutes. Against Whitehaven we were up 6-4 and then let in four pretty quick tries in succession and we’ve gone back over the video and are lacking in our attention to detail,” he admitted.
“We have a tendency to do the little things well for parts of the game but when we fall away from those, we concede points and quite quickly. It’s really been the focus for me since day one and it’s been a pretty steep learning curve for a lot of these players.
“We’re still a pretty young squad and they’re still learning how important the little things in the game are and how much attention to detail counts so the ongoing battle for me as a coach is for that to hit home.
“Things like are ruck defence, marker work and our wrestle are the bread and butter of the game in defence and if we get those wrong we get punished and so we focus on those in training and repeatedly in our video sessions and I feel as though the penny is starting to drop and we just need to be more consistent in those areas to get the result we’re after,” he added.
It may sound like a basic focus on the field to experienced rugby league players and fans alike, but Williams was keen to point out the young and inexperienced nature of a lot of the squad he inherited from last year, who are slowly building into a competitive side in an area of Wales where the 13 a side game has a very limited footprint, and was extremely positive about the overall progress made so far to instil a sustainable culture in the club.
“We have a lot of players here whose knowledge of the game and of what it takes to compete at this level was at a pretty low base to start with,” he explained.
“I brought in some experience and I think that is starting to rub off on the younger players and I think the players have come some way along that steep learning curve and I think learning those important aspects of the game are as important as anything for our development.
“The guys who were here last year say it’s a completely different feeling this year. Our culture is what needed to change, and I think it has. Our numbers at training continue to be excellent, we hardly ever dip below 20 and you need that to build a club and I think the guys now enjoy training, it’s a learning environment for them and they keep coming back because of that.”
“The other thing is it’s a great bunch of guys, they all get on well and there’s no egos around the place which is something we demanded from the coaching staff through the whole club. We’re all in this together and I think everyone’s on board.
“We’ve still got some way to go in terms of the culture and that will eventually lead to results on the field but it’s certainly on the way up there’s no doubt about that.”
After a week off the Raiders are back in action against Keighley Cougars before a huge local derby in a fortnight against North Wales Crusaders, who are the only other League 1 side without a win this season.
Looking ahead to the next couple of fixtures, Williams highlighted this as an important period for the club. Although keen to keep the focus of the players on one game at a time, he was certainly looking forward to a big clash against their local rivals, which has the potential to be a big sporting event for rugby league in Wales.
“The next month is pretty big for us. We’ve got two games against Keighley and then (North Wales) Crusaders so we’ve put a lot of time into our preparation for those games in terms of studying the opposition and getting guys back on the paddock from injuries,” he said.
“From a coaching point of view it’s a really important month, from the players the focus is on the immediate game ahead so I want to keep them focused on that in front our home crowd, but for us and the Crusaders the Welsh derby is a big one on the calendar and I want to make it a big event.
“I love the rivalries wherever I’ve been in the game and I think they’ve added to whatever competition I’ve coached in so we’ll get through the next game and then have a two week build up into the Crusaders game and we’ll certainly be looking forward to playing them and I’m sure they feel the same way as well.”
Aside from West Wales strides forward on the field, and important focus for Williams has been embedding the Raiders in the local community and spreading the word of rugby league through Wales, which is a potential hot bed of future talent.
Creating a community feel to the club is clearly something the former Central Queensland Capras coach is passionate about, and he explained the positive involvements the club have had so far.
“I think we’ve done pretty well in the community engagement side of things. Just last week we announced a partnership the Llamau charity which targets ending homelessness and supports young people and women who are homeless and so we are really proud to link up with them and we’d be looking to link up with another charity ideally,” he explained.
“We’re helping them raise their profile but it’s also an opportunity for us to embed into the community so that is going well.
“We’ve continued our work in schools, colleges and universities in the local area as well. Some colleges have been getting some really outstanding results and Swansea University have finished second in their respective competitions as well.”
“We’ve got some meetings coming up with some other targeted colleges and schools and we just want to keep working in that area as I think it’s key to our sustainability and so far I’m very proud about what we’ve achieved in those areas,” he added.
Author – Tom Alderson