This year we’ll be introducing a new feature on our website called ‘In the Know’ which will see us quiz a journalist on our upcoming opponents and to start things Tom Bramwell (@tmbrmwll) of the Manchester Evening News has told us everything we need to know about Swinton Lions and Sunday’s game.
Swinton narrowly avoided the drop in 2017. What did you make of their season and their heroics to stay up?
I thought it was pretty incredible with everything that was going on off the field that the players could put in the performances they did and get the results they needed to stay in the Championship. To be totally honest, I just couldn’t see it happening, especially when John Duffy went to Featherstone and Chris Atkin’s move to Hull KR was brought forward. So much credit has to go to Stuart Littler for how he stepped up into the head coach role and helped the side to kick on – going to Odsal and getting that result against Bradford in his first match in charge is one that will live long in the memory.
The Lions have recruited quite heavily in pre-season. What do you make of their new signings and how do you think they can impact Swinton this year?
I’ve been very impressed with their recruitment, especially as no one was really sure what to expect because of the financial situation. Gabe Fell was long talked about as a future star at Wigan and I think if Sam Tomkins hadn’t returned, he’d have had plenty of chances in the first team by now, so he’ll be a good replacement for Jack Murphy. I haven’t seen much of Hayden Hansen who has come in from Redcliffe Dolphins in Australia, but I know the club are very excited to have him on board and think he can bring something special this season. George Tyson is the one that stands out for me though – I’ve been impressed whenever I’ve seen him play for Oldham or Sheffield and I’m sure working with Stuart Littler, who was such a good centre himself, will only help him develop his game even further.
Who do you think will be the key players for the Lions this season and why?
Josh Barlow has re-signed and he often gives the team a big lift, whether it’s breaking the line, getting an offload away or putting in a big hit, so I think he can be really important – provided he keeps his discipline in check! Mike Butt had a fantastic 2017 season and I’d expect him to get plenty of chances to demonstrate his finishing skills this year with centres like Tyson, Chris Hankinson and Rhodri Lloyd playing inside of him.
There has been a lot of activity of the field. Do you think the Lions can stabilise progress both this season and going forward in the coming year?
A lot of the signs coming out of the club are really, really positive – particularly the launch of the Swinton Lions Academy with The Rugby College and more progress with the development at Agecroft. I think Andy Mazey is doing a great job as chairman to steady the ship after such a turbulent time last year, and in Stephen Wild they’ve got a director who is incredibly passionate about the club and has a wealth of experience in the financial sector – I’m confident the club is in good hands and it’s no more than the fans deserve, especially after all their fundraising efforts last year.
Of course, there’s a lot of history between the Clubs added to by Stuart Littler and Ian Watson being coaches. How good is it to see the derby back and what does it bring?
Local rivalries are one of the things that make this sport so great and this derby is no different. I’m sure the players and staff on both sides are excited to be able to kick off their pre-season games with a match that will be this fiercely contested – there’s no friendlies in rugby league really, is there? It seems the two clubs have a fantastic relationship off the field though, but with Stuart and Ian having played and coached together, that probably shouldn’t be much of a surprise.
How do you see the game going?
It’s always a bit of an unknown kicking off pre-season, but with so many new recruits, I won’t be expecting Swinton to look anything close to the finished article. The warm-up matches they’ve got lined up will be all about building up the relationships and understanding between the players, as well as their fitness. For Salford, I’m really keen to see how Rob Lui and Jack Littlejohn get on in the halves, because I think that partnership will be the key to the entire season. Hopefully, we’ll also get a look at Levy Nzoungou and Ben Nakubuwai because I expect they will be further examples of more really astute recruitment from Ian and his coaching staff.
Score prediction: Salford 24-10 Swinton.