THATTO Heath Crusaders have capped a remarkable year back in the top flight by winning the National Conference Premier Division Grand Final.

Heath defeated table toppers and holders Siddal 16-12 in the final at Widnes to seal a wonderful season for that team and the club as a whole.

The Close Street trophy cabinet is bulging with trophies from the successful under 18s and North West Men’s League but the top prize in the amateur game is the icing on the cake.

Thatto fell 8-0 behind after a try from Ross White and two Gareth Blackburn goals.

But they fought back, knuckled down in defence and a try from double Grand Final winner Sean Leicester, converted by Dan Birkett, got them back in the game.

Just after the break powerhouse prop Matty Norton picked up a loose ball to drive over, goaled by Birkett, to put Heath 12-8 up.

But as the tension mounted, 11 minutes from time Gavin Stead collected a kick to touch down for Siddal and level it.

But five minutes from time hooker Sean Kenny broke, supported by Jack Jones, who crossed for the winner.

There were still some anxious moments and in the last play of the game Stead thought he had snatched it for the Halifax outfit, but the pass was forward.

Heath are top dogs again for the first time since 2011.

Head coach Richard Owen, who was brought in at the start of the campaign, was keen to praise his predecessor Paul Hatton – who he had running messages on Saturday and the input of his assistants in delivering this success.

But he outlined the things he has changed this year - and in the week building up to the final.

Owen said: “We worked a fair bit on our goal-line defence ahead of the Grand Final because we struggled with that when we got beat at their place a few weeks before that.

“That served us really well.”

Thatto had trailed 8-0 so needed that as another score would have been fatal for their hopes.

“Against a team like Siddal we knew that if they had gone much further in front it would be a big ask,” said Owen.

“But we always knew we had points in us.

“My concern was never with scoring points but asking whether we could defend.”

Much of that philosophy started early on, before Owen took on the Thatto reins full time.

“I had a few discussions with the club and speaking with Paul Hatton, who is a great coach, the philosophy was how we attack.

“I said, what I have always found is ‘’Thatto let you score 33 and we will score 34.’ That was the mindset.

“But I said Imagine how good you’d be if you could defend as well.

“Paul asked me to come in and do some defensive work.

“Then he asked to come in and coach, and I said yes but I would have to do it my way.

“They were fine with that.

“All we did in pre-season was working on how to defend.

“That was changing a big culture because a lot of the players had not had sessions with contact in them.

“All my sessions are contact based.

“The more they did it, the more they started to enjoy it when they could see it, and the focus on the points against us rather than how many we had scored.

“The lads started to buy into that, we got better at it and then we started tweaking our attack.

“It has been good and the lads really enjoyed,” Owen said.

“You get a mixture of responses at the start – and I said to Mike Denning I will either get sacked or win the comp.

“We just rolled from there and the belief grew each week.”

The Premier Division is a tough league – particularly for a newly-promoted outfit like Heath, but they set themselves targets to tick off as the year progressed.

“We were always going to have a mid-season dip and we were prepared for that.

“Our first goal was to get 20 points and that would mean we would be safe from relegation, after that the target was top six

“Once that was achieved it was about winning the competition.

“We stood by that all the way through and did not get ahead of ourselves.”

As for stand-outs in winning the league Owen could not fault the team effort, 1-17.

He said: “I watched the game back and out of the 17 guys I could not name one bad player.

“They have all gone through steep learning curves but the guys who have stood out – Matty Norton at prop has been absolutely outstanding. He just does his job and he has gone back into that middle unit which he prefers.

“Teams cannot live with his aggression and physicality.

“The backrowers Adam Prendergast and Jamie Tracey have been a handful on that edge. Josh Crehan and nine and half and then you bring in Brad Ashurst who has missed just one game all season.

“Liam Quinn has stats of 50 plus tackles and 18 hit ups from that final. He broke into that team at 13 at the start and has never been moved. We had to do a bit of work with Liam, but he has never looked back.

“Dan Birkett has had a great year too - and it is probably fair to say that we would not have got to the Grand Final without him.”

Thatto Heath last won the Premier League title – the highest point in amateur rugby – back in 2011, but they were relegated and have had something of a rebuilding job.

But the squad they have assembled now is coming into its prime, with good years ahead them.

Owen said: “We are lucky. The special thing is I am looking at a three-year programme and the special thing is some of those players are maturing and the average age is 22.

“So there is more to come, and we have even had some of our 18s training with us as well.”

The one-club mentality that runs through the club has helped across the board. And all work to the same system, which makes it easy for players to step in and fill the gap.

It also created a unique double for one player – with Sean Leicester tasting glory in both open age play off Grand Finals.

Owen continued: “We are lucky that we have a second team and that we all train together.

“If you look at Sean – he is one of the few players to play in two Grand Finals in the same year and win them both.

“We put him in the North West Men’s League to get more minutes coming back from injury.

“He worked hard and then we unfortunately got an injury and that opened the door for him.

“We all train together – it makes your second team players better because they are training with better players.

“And it makes your first team players pick the right pass, so to speak.

“I am a big believer in having the same plays for the same moves and if anyone steps up he is good to go and gets the ethos and knows all the calls.

“It works well.”

Thatto will enjoy the deserved plaudits, but the coach has already told them that the bar will be raised again for next year when they will be up there to be shot at.

Owen said: “We have to raise our bar again.

“I have already sent a message to the players – enjoy your off season.

“They will be back in the middle of January and we will have to work hard because they will want to knock us off the top spot.

“It is up to us how hard we are going to work.”