One final push for Noble and his last Crusade

After his unfancied side's run to the play-offs, the former Great Britain coach is leaving. He tells Dave Hadfield about his move Down Under
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The Independent Online

Brian Noble is not a big fan of myths, legends and fairy tales, but one word that crops up a lot in his description of his first – and almost certainly last – year in north Wales is "fabulous."

Noble is the hard-headed Yorkshire pragmatist put in charge of Crusaders' adventure in Wrexham this season. Against all predictions, he has guided them into the Super League play-offs, in which they meet Huddersfield tomorrow. It was not an outcome he would have expected himself at the start of the year, when he could count signed-up players and items of training equipment on the fingers of one hand.

"To have achieved what we have from there, well, it's absolutely fabulous," he says. Noble admits now that he was worried about the players he inherited from the Bridgend-based Celtic Crusaders, because he had heard worrying rumours of a drinking culture at the club.

"But they have been real professionals this year," he says. "And we have been able to bring in some pretty good players to lift them. Even then, we've had our share of adversity. Probably our best player, Michael Witt, has missed a big part of the season, as have Gareth Thomas and Gareth Raynor."

Witt and Thomas are injured, Raynor is serving a 15-month prison sentence for selling fake ink cartridges on eBay. The absence of those three has put added pressure on the other experienced players in Noble's squad, but he cites the mid-season recruitment of Clinton Schifkofske as a pivotal step. "He'd been away for two or three years in rugby union, but he's shown how he was one of the very best in the NRL. He's never in a game that he doesn't believe he can win. He's just got a fabulous attitude."

Noble has also unearthed a diamond in the Kiwi second-rower Weller Hauraki, who has been scattering defences with his wide running in the latter stages of the regular season. "He's world-class," says Noble, who is considering tipping off the New Zealand coach about his form. "I might have to give Stephen Kearney a ring about him."

It is the presence of players like Hauraki, Schifkofske, the unpredictable Jarrod Sammut and Mark Bryant, who has rediscovered his best form after a poor 2009, that Noble believes will prevent Crusaders falling into the trap that has caught other unexpected interlopers in the play-offs.

If you aren't careful, an overachieving side can slide into the mindset of thinking that they have already done enough. "It's not a danger for me, because I want to win every game and then win the next game, but I've seen it happen to other clubs," Noble says. "It's mental toughness that makes the difference at this stage of the season."

Noble's sides have always been strong in that department, whether he was presiding over the juggernaut that was Bradford or reconstructing Wigan. His teams have rarely been poetry in motion, but they have tended to get the job done. That has been another pleasant surprise about Crusaders. "We have played some fabulous rugby and the people of Wrexham have obviously enjoyed it."

Crusaders will take a few coach-loads of supporters to the Galpharm Stadium tomorrow; more significant has been the way their home support has held up, apart from a couple of poorly promoted fixtures back in south Wales. "We've got a hard core of around 4,500 and they're a fabulous hard core – noisy, vociferous and they love their rugby league.

"There's no doubt in my mind that rugby league has a big future here. They need to sort the finances out and still need a few players."

As time goes on, more of those players need to come from Wales, particularly from the Principality's other professional club, the South Wales Scorpions, who also reached their play-offs in the Championship 1.

"They have had two or three of their players training with us and players like Lloyd White and Gil Dudson have great futures."

All of which raises the question of why Noble will not be there to witness it. The season has been surprisingly successful, but right from its early stages it has been accompanied by rumours of him leaving – for Bradford, to rugby union or to Australia. Talk of a return to Odsal was always fanciful, but rugby union was a genuine possibility at one stage.

"I had a couple of conversations," says the former Great Britain coach, "but I still think I've got something to offer to rugby league." That, however, will be in Australia, rather than in England or Wales, with Noble joining his old Bulls boss, Matthew Elliot, at Penrith and fulfilling a life-time ambition to coach in the NRL.

Iestyn Harris is earmarked for promotion to head coach, taking over an operation which, in many ways, is thriving better than could have been reasonably expected.

"It's been hard work," Noble says. "But it's been fabulous."

How the play-offs work

Qualifying play-offs Winners advance to semi-final, losers play home game in preliminary semi-final. Highest-ranked team gains a "club call" whereby they have the right to choose whom they play in the semi-finals from the winners of the preliminary semis.

Today St Helens v Warrington

Sunday Wigan v Leeds

Elimination play-offs Winners play in preliminary semi-final, losers eliminated.

Tomorrow Huddlesfield v Crusaders, Hull FC v Hull KR

Preliminary semi-final play-offs:

18 Sept Highest-ranked qualifying play-offs loser v lowest-ranked elimination play-offs winner.

19 Sept Lowest-ranked qualifying play-offs loser v highest-ranked elimination play-offs winner

Semi-finals, 25 Sept Highest-ranked qualifying play-off winner v "club call" selected preliminary winner.

26 Sept Lowest-ranked qualifying play-off winner v other preliminary semi-final winner.

Final, 2 Oct Grand Final, Old Trafford.

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