“I’ve always loved an underdog story and now I feel I’m part of one.”
Carl Forster is 80 minutes away from pulling off one of sport’s great upsets as his unfancied North Wales Crusaders gear up for an unlikely promotion bid to the Betfred Championship.
Flying the flag for rugby league in Wales, Crusaders have won on the road for the past three weeks of a thrilling playoff series they were not even expected to be in.
Finishing sixth, some 17 points off the title pace after a season played largely away from home, there is now just one road trip to Doncaster between Crusaders and a shot at the big time.
“It’s been a pretty unbelievable journey given everyone we have beaten so far did the double over us during the league season,” says the 31-year old player-coach from St Helens.
“I’ll always cheer the underdog in any sport and it has been strange to be that team,” Forster tells The Sportsman.
“The shackles have been off, there has been no pressure on us. Every game has been all about our opponents, all the attention and media focus has been on Workington, then Oldham, then Hunslet who hadn’t lost a League game at home. It played into our hands and allowed us to be fearless and enjoy the ride.”
And what a ride.
A season that started without a home, but with hope, without expectancy but with excitement. Crusaders were forced to play away from Colwyn Bay due to issues with the installation of a new pitch plus other booking clashes, having instead to play at venues including Chester Rugby Union some 40 miles away.
Forster, a former St Helens and Salford forward, was new in a job that saw him playing, coaching, picking the team and working full-time as an electrical engineer.
“When I took this job we sat down and didn’t even set any specific targets,” he says.
“When we knew how hard the season was going to be with the first six games away from home we just agreed to have a good crack at it and if we missed the playoffs then people would understand.
“Our first six games were away to the top six. We knew that if we didn’t start well it would be an uphill battle and we lost all six. We also lost both our half-backs, one was injured for six games and the other banned for five so we were playing props as halves and dragging in players from elsewhere on dual registration just to play for us at the weekend. We had more in the physio room than at training and you’ve seen the turnaround now at the back end of the season because we finally have a full team.
“It was really tough and probably the first time in my life I didn’t enjoy doing the role. But everything has come together at the right time, so a tough year has become a good year.”
Forster fell into coaching as a 24-year old at Whitehaven and relishes the role, having learned some valuable early lessons in leadership from growing up amongst legends at Knowsley Road.
“I’m a St Helens lad and achieved a boyhood dream to play for Saints. I didn’t realise it at the time as you take things for granted until they are gone.
“When I first came through Royce Simmons and Daniel Andersen were coaching and I did one day a week when I was at school. I played with Sean Long, Kieron Cunningham and Scully (Paul Sculthorpe). Then when I went full-time it was James Roby and James Graham. What a grounding.
“I love being player and coach. I did it at Whitehaven but I was only 24 then so was much more fearless and a bit wet behind the ears. Coming into the Crusaders was harder as I only knew three players. Everything was a learning curve, they had just lost a coach in Anthony Murray who had done such a good job and had a set routine so I felt up against it.“
Having finished 14 points ahead of North Wales, Doncaster will be big favourites on home soil in Sunday’s promotion final, a game that you can watch live and exclusively here on The Sportsman. But The Dons will not have ignored the performances of the Crusaders on the road.
Whatever happens, Forster believes this season has proved that there is a place for Wales at rugby league’s top table, as the sport enters a transitional period under the new governance of sport’s management company IMG.
“There is a place for a Welsh team in elite rugby league,” he says.
“Crusaders are trying ridiculously hard and the foundations are thriving. We are going into schools constantly but haven’t had the reward of home games this season. My lad is nine and went to a festival in Wales and the amount of kids who were playing at eight or nine who didn’t even have a team 12 months ago was crazy.
“I feel sorry for the club that we have only had two home games. The fan base is there but they have just had to move venues too many times over the last few years. If we can get consistent games in The Betfred Championship at Colwyn Bay then I really think it could thrive.”
You can watch Doncaster vs North Wales Crusaders LIVE at 3pm this Sunday on The Sportsman Rugby League YouTube Channel
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