Salford’s first visit to Wembley in a Challenge Cup Final for over half a century provided the sort of encounter that neutral spectators must have savoured. A match full of thrills and spills, twists and turns, and highs and lows for both sides.
With Leeds undoubted favourites it was always going to be down to the grit, determination, and never say die spirit which fills the Salford camp in droves these days, to overturn the team which had twice put them to the sword in league encounters this season.
It was not only the Red Devils however who had suffered at the hands of the Rhinos recently. Mighty Wigan, in a semi-final which on paper was too close to call, were humbled in a semi-final they would like to forget, by the team which, on the day, stood out above all four combatants.
To come so close on Saturday, must fill every Salford fan with pride in their performance, despite the deep disappointment of defeat. So, what were the various aspects which combined, in varying degrees of satisfaction, to take us so close, but not quite close enough, to lifting the Cup:
They say you have to lose one to win one, which is another way of saying that gaining the familiarity and having prior knowledge of the unusual procedures and processes, peculiar to the day and the venue, is most beneficial in settling nerves and anxieties. Leeds over the years have been a part of these occasions in abundance, and that familiarity must certainly have helped them, particularly in the early stages of the game.
As most people probably expected therefore, the Rhinos dominated the majority of the first half and went someway to holding the Red Devils in their own end of the field in the sort of stranglehold that had been so effective for them in the semi-final. When chances then came their way, they took them with the utmost clinical efficiency.
Because of Leeds’s dominance in the first half, Salford had a limited number of forays into the opposition’s twenty metre area, but on three occasions were unable to convert their opportunities into points, with timing issues around a crucial pass to Evalds, his chip and chase lacking height and being defused by Myler, and just before half time Lussick having the ball dislodged in a loose carry close to the line.
— Salford Red Devils 👹 (@SalfordDevils) October 17, 2020
In between all these, however, the Red Devils had hit back with what has been regarded as the try of the match with Watkins’s securing possession close to his own line from a threatening Leeds kick, and he and Evalds combining, to perfection, to put the winger away on a ninety metre race to the line, in which nobody in a Leeds jersey ever looked like catching him.
🎙️ "Williams is away"
— Salford Red Devils 👹 (@SalfordDevils) October 19, 2020
Probably our most clinically secured try was that by Pauli Pauli, early in the second half, following precision timing and accuracy of passing from left to right, along the line, for him to charge past the isolated Gale and bring Salford back to within two points.
Shortly afterwards, the Red Devils were as equally clinical as Leeds had been in the first half, in punishing one of the Rhinos’ increasing number of forced errors with James Greenwood’s try which had involved a great kick-chase which saw Yates and Lussick handling beautifully in the build up.
🗣️ "A really good culture"
🏟️ James Greenwood has talked through the changes at the Club since his 2015 loan spell, following try-scoring performances in @TheChallengeCup quarter-finals, semi-finals and final!
— Salford Red Devils 👹 (@SalfordDevils) October 20, 2020
The penalty count in any game is always of interest, but it is not only the number of penalties given each way that is important. The position on the field, the point in the tackle count, and the context of the game at that moment are also of significance.
For Salford, struggling for field position, three penalties in the first half, were followed by Leeds crossing the line on all three occasions with two being awarded as tries, while the third was ruled a double movement.
The two penalties Leeds conceded that half, were nowhere near as crucial, merely bringing Salford some respite from the intense pressure which the Rhinos had been applying at the time, but it was those twelve points which emanated from Salford’s early indiscretions which were the difference between the two sides at the interval.
An aspect of the game which coaches now study with considerable concern, is the manner in which their team ends each set. Important as completing the set is, it is what happens on the last tackle which determines much of what is to follow in the next set.
Three kicks really stood out as being exceptionally good, the first of which came from an early long, down field kick by Brown, which bounced into touch inches from the corner flag and bought Salford some much needed territory alongside Leeds’s having to start their set in the corner, on their own ten metre line. Influence such as this was quite incredible, from a player whom it has since been revealed was playing through injury.
In the second-half, Lussick put in a beautifully weighted kick through into the Rhino’s in-goal area, forcing one of the few goal-line drop-outs of the game, thanks to the excellent chase his teammates put in.
That same selfless devotion to pressure Leeds with their chase brought just rewards when Lolohea’s towering, medium-range effort threw Myler into confusion and his belated attempt to defend it was too late to prevent it from leading to Greenwood’s try.
🏉 Quarter-final ✅
🏉 Semi-final ✅
🏉 Final ✅
🏆 James Greenwood loves @TheChallengeCup!
— Salford Red Devils 👹 (@SalfordDevils) October 19, 2020
Head coach, Ian Watson, has long since expounded the importance of defence, and his success in instilling defensive structures and routines into the players brought fruit on Saturday. It was the superb efforts of Yates, Evalds, Lussick, and Burke which ensured Donaldson being denied by the referee for the double movement.
In the second-half, the seemingly tireless efforts of the whole team managed to keep the Rhinos pointless for a full twenty-five minutes, during which time Salford managed to turn a six-point deficit into a four-point lead.
Leeds’ defence, particularly in the first half, was most impressive, containing the Red Devils and restricting their yardage to the barest of minimums. For this, after all was the defence that had kept Wigan pointless for seventy-five minutes two weeks before.
A four times Wembley finalist once told me that by just being at Wembley, energy levels just evaporate, because it is not simply the physical energy being used up, it is also the emotional energy that the occasion seems to simply drain from anyone, in relatively little time.
There is nothing more energy sapping than having to defend for any length of time, but you need also to add to that the energy being expended at the individual level in Salford’s efforts to try to take play further up the field.
It is hardly surprising therefore that by the last five minutes of the first half, after all the pressure they had had to sustain to that point, that they each really looked as if they had given everything, and they probably welcomed the half-time break most warmly.
Leeds, on the other hand, were in a position whereby they were able deploy their reserves more economically. The energy used in their defence in that opening quarter was well used, because it took so much out of the Red Devils too. Their line-speed at various times throughout the game was phenomenal and made it exceptionally difficult to play against.
Even then, it is likely that they too had a twenty minute spell after half-time when Salford put them on the back foot and were able to make them pay with those two well worked and well taken tries.
It is hardly likely that anyone will have been surprised at our falling behind to the first score of the game. After all that is what has happened in every previous round of the competition, yet on both occasions, the Red Devils finished far more strongly than their opponents.
In the game against Catalans Dragons, we were twelve-points behind in almost as many minutes, never led at all throughout the whole eighty minutes, yet a move to the left wing in extra-time, set up Dan Sarginson to go in behind the posts.
🏉 The set starts with Sarg!
🆚 The match ends with Sarg!
— Salford Red Devils 👹 (@SalfordDevils) September 19, 2020
How we could have done with his being on the field to do likewise, on Saturday. Something similar was tried though with Inu rejecting an attempt at drop goal in favour of a four pointer which, if successful, would have brought back the spoils.
Three games in ten days must have had a significant effect on the minimalist Salford squad, with some of the players having been embroiled in the league game four days earlier.
It is always the closest of defeats that are the hardest to take, as I am sure that both Catalans and Warrington will readily testify, but the achievement of qualifying to grace Wembley is unqualifiable.
To have contributed so much to the occasion on the field was truly magnificent on the part of each and every Salford player, and I am sure that everyone connected with the club will come to look back on the proceedings with the utmost pride and pleasure.
🏟️ 𝙒𝙀𝙈𝘽𝙇𝙀𝙔 𝙒𝘼𝙇𝙆𝙊𝙐𝙏
📲 Describe your reaction to this moment with a GIF👇
— Salford Red Devils 👹 (@SalfordDevils) October 18, 2020