The one thing about cup ties, as far as we supporters are concerned, is not to be distracted by such aspects of the game as performances and winning or losing margins. In a cup tie the only thing that matters is winning, because winning determines your whole future as far as that competition is concerned.
So, as far as last Saturday evening’s sixth round Challenge Cup tie, against the Huddersfield Giants, is concerned, the important thing is that Salford’s name went forward into the bag for the draw for the quarter-final. That they might, possibly even should, have won by a bigger score, in the greater scheme of things matters not at all. Huddersfield would have given anything to have had that very two-point winning scoreline be in their favour.
As a form of entertainment, however, you would have had to travel a considerable distance to witness anything as admirable and riveting, with both sides committed to wide, expansive, fast-flowing, open rugby, and each of them having their quite lengthy periods of dominance, in which to put their skills on display, with the most favourable of playing conditions assisting with this.
The switches in momentum, however, seemed, at times, to come completely out of the blue. How many Salford supporters, for example, when the Giants, after twenty-five minutes, for the fourth time, kicked off after, on this occasion, Rhys Williams’s converted try, sat back expecting to enjoy an avalanche of Reds’ tries for the remainder of the half, and probably beyond?
And the next change after that did not even come, as we had all hoped, upon the second-half resumption, with the visitors, in fact, continuing where they had left off, by crossing for their fourth try, in the 45th minute. Indeed, it was twelve minutes into the half before the Red Devils restored their dominance, for what we had all then expected to be the remainder of the match.
Those two spells, when things appeared to be going so well for the Red Devils were most reminiscent of last season, when one try just led, almost immediately in some cases, to another. It is the hallmark of summer rugby – what was intended when the game changed season, back in 1995. With the dry conditions, handling becomes easier and errors fewer, which is fine for the team in possession. Back-to-back tries become far more commonplace.
It is, however, for the opposing side a quite thankless task, endeavouring to defend against the continuous onslaught of attacking plays, and sooner or later energy, to stem this, disappears. Things then can only change when eventually possession becomes the prerogative of the other side, and they are in the position of calling all the shots.
It was two poor end-of-set kicks immediately after Williams’s try, the first of which went directly over the dead-ball line thus instigating a seven-tackle set bringing the Giants good field position. The second came at the end of Salford’s subsequent set, which was collected on the half way line giving Huddersfield the opportunity to set up their first really threatening attack and gain the first of their tries which proved to be a tonic to the visitors.
Suddenly, the Red Devils found themselves defending against a team throwing the ball around, under the direction of Fages, in a similar manner to their own. Defence against recent opponents has been on wet surfaces, which slows down the attack, meaning that the defence has that little more time to make its decisions. The faster the game, the harder it is for defenders.
Thankfully, the half time interval kept eight of the Red Devils’ original twenty-four points intact to provide some cushioning for the second forty. Having outscored the visitors by one try in the first half, it turned out to be Huddersfield who were to cross for the extra try in the second period.
Once they did regain control again, on fifty-two minutes, the Red Devils carried on from where they had left off in the second quarter, and once again built up a seemingly impregnable twenty-point lead with only fifteen minutes left. It is generally accepted that eighteen points is insufficient a margin, at half time, to securely win the match, but anyone would have thought that twenty would have been more than sufficient, fifteen minutes from the end.
That thought seems to have been there in the Salford players’ minds, but most clearly was not in the minds of the Giants. The Salford players must surely have believed that they could comfortably outscore their opponents, which they both did, and did not.
They did not because their seven-try feast was matched by their opponents. It eventually came down to the one hundred percent goal-kicking fete of Marc Sneyd, whilst Huddersfield’s Connor fell short of that target, albeit by one, but that one attempt mattered greatly.