AS we count down to the start of Oldham Roughyeds' 2019 campaign, Roger Halstead assesses the strength of their squad and the chances of promotion

WITH three hugely-encouraging performances against Championship opposition in pre-season, Scott Naylor’s men have shown why the bookies have tipped them to win Betfred League 1 and promotion this season.

Former Great Britain legend Garry Schofield was the first to forecast big things for Oldham RLFC this year, and, since then, the bookies have said Roughyeds will be the team to beat in the sport’s third tier.

Naylor and his 24-man squad, though, will take all the pre-season hype with a pinch of salt.

They know they have a big job ahead of them after underachieving last year when they finished fifth out of 14, and only squeezed into the play-offs thanks to a better for-and-against points difference than Whitehaven.

It was their first season back in League 1 after spending 2016 and 2017 in the Championship and Naylor has since gone on record as saying in those two years League 1 had improved so much Roughyeds were perhaps caught on the hop in their expectations.

Due to reorganisation and the withdrawal of Hemel Stags there are only 11 teams in the competition this season. Bradford Bulls and York City Knights went up and no clubs came down so, in theory, it should be easier for ambitious clubs to win promotion.

Last year Naylor’s men seemed unable to come out on top in tight games, losing up to half a dozen narrowly, and it was felt a young squad perhaps lacked the nous and experience to defend a lead when there was little to choose between the sides.

With that in mind no fewer than nine new players have been recruited, including two hugely-experienced campaigners in full-back Richie Hawkyard and prop Scott Law, both from Keighley Cougars.

Hooker Jamie Greenwood, aged 20, and utility back Harry Maders, 19, represent the younger brigade, but the other five newcomers – winger Aaron Jones-Bishop, forwards Ben Calland and Emerson Whittel and half-backs Anthony Bowman and Adam Brook – have been on the circuit long enough to be streetwise at this level.

“We’ll certainly be more experienced this year, especially in the backs,” said Naylor, who was understandably highly encouraged by pre-season wins against Barrow Raiders (24-10) and Rochdale Hornets (24-8).

He was disappointed to go down narrowly at Swinton Lions (22-18) but took heart from the fact it was equal on tries scored – four apiece – and the Lions edged home only because they converted three of them to Oldham’s one.

Over the three games, all against teams from the higher division, new-look Roughyeds scored 13 tries and conceded only eight.

Four of the 13 were scored by centre Zack McComb, who has been in sizzling form while preparing for his second year at the club – a season in which Roughyeds expect to face stiff opposition from Newcastle Thunder and Workington Town in their pursuit of promotion to the Championship.

It all starts on Sunday week, February 17, when Workington come to the Vestacare Stadium (3pm) in a clash of two fancied sides.

Oldham go into battle with the following squad:

Liam Bent

A young second-row or loose-forward who has an astonishing engine which enables him to regularly top the tackle count.

Fans voted him their player of the year in 2018 – a fitting accolade for this Wigan-born former Salford Red Devils workaholic.

Anthony Bowman

One of Scott Naylor’s nine new signings, Bowman has previously been on the books of Wigan, Halifax and Keighley.

A talented handler, he can play in several positions, including half-back and back-row forward.

Danny Bridge

Local lad who shot to prominence with Rochdale Hornets before heading off to Australia to play in Queensland.

A strong and classy wide-running second-rower, he returned to sign for Oldham in 2018, but he will not be free to play until the end of April because of a nine-month ban following an incident involving the referee at Keighley last season.

Adam Brook

Another ex-Keighley half-back, the goalkicking Brook has joined Oldham on season-long loan from Halifax to provide Scott Naylor with more options in the pivotal region of his side.

Made his debut in the second half at Swinton Lions recently and is still waiting to play his first game at the Vestacare Stadium.

Ben Calland

Having played abroad and at Newcastle Thunder, the Wiganer had the distinction of scoring Oldham’s first try of the 2019 season when he crossed in the corner in a 24-10 win in a warm-up game at Barrow.

Another new signing, back-row man Ben is the younger brother of former Bradford Bulls and Rochdale Hornets centre Matt Calland, who also played at community club Oldham St Anne’s at the back end of his career.

Paul Crook

One of the squad’s elder statesmen, ‘Crookie’ joined Oldham at the start of last season from Rochdale, where he had been a club stalwart for six years.

A goalkicking half-back and prolific gatherer of points, he has now taken up a player-coach role, having joined Naylor and Peter Carey on the coaching panel. Currently out with a broken toe.

Ben Davies

Another experienced campaigner, this much-travelled front-row man has been at several clubs, some of them in Super League.

He came to Oldham from Whitehaven a couple of seasons ago and is currently playing catch-up in training after missing much of the close-season preparation work with a calf injury.

Jamie Greenwood

Looks likely to have a great first season at The Vestacare Stadium going off his pre-season performances.

Only 20, this former Huddersfield Giants scholar is a lively hooker, who scored the match-clinching try in the Law Cup win over derby rivals Rochdale Hornets.

Danny Grimshaw

Another player who has been round the block in a long career.

Left Roughyeds at the end of the 2017 Championship season to go to Hunslet, but after one season away he is back to give Naylor options in his selection of the back division.

Richie Hawkyard

A nephew of former Watersheddings fans’ favourite Colin Hawkyard, the 33-year-old full-back has already won the hearts and minds of Roughyeds fans with all-action displays in the so-called friendlies.

Signed this year from Keighley, he made his name at Swinton where he spent nine seasons, scoring 44 tries in 159 games.

Won the man-of-the-match award in the Law Cup, presented by the Oldham RL Heritage Trust.

Dave Hewitt

A typically cheeky little half-back, this product of the St Helens youth system is quick off a standing start and has a dangerous left foot.

In the absence of the injured Crook, he is currently the side’s goalkicking marksman with the ability to do the unexpected.

Jack Holmes

The 25-year-old centre was a key man in the 2015 promotion season, but moved to Rochdale midway through 2016.

Won promotion with Hornets, too, but was soon back at Oldham looking for more work and hopeful of making a centre spot his own in 2019.

Kyran Johnson

Quick over distance and elusive at close quarters, Johnson is at the peak of his career at the age of 24. Unlike practically every other member of the squad he has recently signed a new two-year deal.

As a full-back, he has the speed and grace to swallow up the metres on kick returns as he demonstrated so admirably in the narrow defeat at Swinton.

Aaron Jones-Bishop

A Jamaican international winger, the 29-year-old is the younger brother of Wakefield Trinity’s exciting centre Ben Jones-Bishop.

They both played twice for Jamaica last year in wins against Canada and the USA to gain automatic qualification to the 2021 World Cup. Aaron signed for Oldham from Doncaster and then celebrated by becoming a winner with his Caribbean country.

Phil Joy

A player who epitomises what Roughyeds are all about. The big prop is in his seventh season with his hometown club and never gives anything less than 100 per cent.

Played at Waterhead as a boy, but then had a couple of seasons in the then Oldham reserve side before breaking into the senior side in 2014 and never looking back.

Lee Kershaw

Still only 20, he is a strong-running winger from Wakefield Trinity, who is on loan for the year.

He knows where the line is and he knows how to defend, as fans saw last year when he first burst onto the Vestacare Stadium scene. Big things are expected of him in 2019.

Scott Law

Player of the year at Keighley in 2018, the ‘Law Man’ cuts a formidable figure with his red hair and ginger beard.

He’s a tough, craggy, experienced prop who is getting used to life at Oldham after nearly a decade at Cougar Park. Expected to be a front-row powerhouse in a new-look Oldham side.

Harry Maders

The local lad follows in the footsteps of his dad, Martin, and his granddad, Dennis, by signing for his hometown club.

A utility back, he played three trials as a winger before accepting Oldham terms and signing on the dotted line to fulfil a boyhood ambition. Aged 19, he is the youngest member of the squad.

Zack McComb

After signing from amateurs Siddal (Halifax) a little more than a year ago, the centre enjoyed a good first season at the club.

He has continued the good work with four tries in three pre-season games against Championship opposition to underscore the belief he will this year become a leading player at the club.

Luke Nelmes

Another hard man of the front-row. A native of Huddersfield, he played amateur rugby in the town before signing for Halifax and ultimately moving to Oldham before the start of last season.

His all-action, aggressive style quickly made him a fans’ favourite at the Vestacare.

Gareth Owen

The club captain and hooker is Oldham born and bred and still lives in the town, at Moorside.

Brought up at Waterhead, he moved to Salford Red Devils as a boy and played 30-odd Super League games before joining the club his family had supported all their lives.

“As a kid it was something I used to dream about,” he once said.

Jack Spencer

Son of the club’s former assistant coach, Lee ‘Spanner’ Spencer, Jack is the pack’s Mr Versatile. He can play prop, second-row or loose, and often does.

Another experienced campaigner, having seen service at Salford, Barrow, Halifax, and in France and Australia.

Emerson Whittel

Yet another player signed this year from Keighley, he is a second-row forward of some repute at this level.

He runs strongly, tackles hard and has a good pair of hands as he demonstrated when putting in Jack Holmes with a peach of a pass in the Law Cup victory over Rochdale.

Matty Wilkinson

With three hookers on the books there is going to be a real battle for game time, and Wilkinson will be right up there challenging.

He first joined Oldham on loan from Halifax, but he was quickly made a permanent member of the squad, having shown he is a fast and skilful operator from dummy half.