At the end of a season filled with ups and downs, not solely for Salford but probably for the whole of rugby league, with the complexities around covid and its associated restrictions, the Red Devils eventually brought the curtain down on their proceedings, with an uplifting home victory over the mighty Saints.
First glance at the fixture list, back in early March, might well have filled the most ardent of fans with some qualms over the game, particularly after two previous defeats to the reigning Super League Champions, but that was all erased, on Friday evening, when the Red Devils restored some equilibrium in the balance of wins, with an impressive and entertaining performance.
Both teams were fielding somewhat depleted sides, with the difference being that, in the case of the Saints it was by choice, whereas with Salford it was a case of the team selecting itself, with their having a somewhat depleted squad of players fit to play. The emphasis in the St Helens team was undoubtedly on youth, but with a number of well-known names spread around their line-up, to prompt and guide them through the encounter.
It is only to be expected that, with a group of young players, and indeed some of them making their debuts, that they would put a great deal of effort and energy into getting a good start, and that is exactly what they did.
Utilising the pace and skill of Regan Grace, on the left flank, the visitors twice, within the first fifteen minutes, worked overlaps for him to make speedy progress down the touchline to set up converted tries on both occasions. That, however, with the exception of a solitary penalty goal, later in the half, was to be the sum total of their points, with their being held scoreless in the second half.
Salford, on the other hand, grew into the game to take complete control in a purple patch at the start of the second half, with three tries and two conversions taking the game away from the visitors, with its total of sixteen points.
The most important aspect of dealing with the expected onslaught from a young, or lower division opposition, is to keep in contention with them even if they do manage to score a couple of times, and this, Salford did most efficiently, sandwiching their first try, by Ken Sio, yet once more from Tui Lolohea’s crucial pass to score in the corner, between the Saints’ brace.
A ten-point deficit, at half time might not have been impossible to overcome, but diminishing it to a mere four, a couple of minutes from the half-time whistle, was the game changing moment, because the Saints’ youngsters went into the dressing-room having discharged some great degree of energy, but now, consequently, with little to show for it.
How fitting it was, therefore, that this most important of scores was at the hands of former Saints’ Youth product, Mat Costello, who got on the end of a four-man passing move to the right, and then used Sio as a foil before sliding over for a try, which must have brought him a great deal of satisfaction.
Saints’ slender lead lasted but three minutes into the second half. A scoot by Man of the Match, Andy Ackers, from dummy half, found the ever-improving Ellis Robson in support, and he provided the final pass to Chris Atkin to go under the posts, with Inu’s conversion putting Marshall’s men ahead for the first time.
Four minutes later, Ellis was to underline his growing impact on the game, when he ran strongly onto Lolohea’s pass to score to the right of the posts. It was then only a further six minutes before the game was ostensibly put to bed, with Atkin’s unselfish pass, in the in-goal area to Sio, for the final try of the afternoon.
Emulating, almost exactly, Grace’s contributions for Saints in the first half, Rhys Williams sped down the left touch line before kicking into the in-goal area where Atkin was not only first to the ball found time to await Sio’s arrival to touch down, thereby ensuring that he would finish as the game’s top try scorer for the regular season.
Not only is this so very greatly to his credit, because there have been some incredible long-range efforts among them, which have been so vital in securing a number of the seven victories they have acquired this season, it is also, as I am sure Ken would agree, equally credit to the players inside him, who have done their less applauded fetes in enabling him to finish off their efforts, by crossing the try line. Ken, and the whole of Salford, should be highly elated by his magnificent achievement.
As for the remaining twenty-five minutes, the team deserve as much credit for their achievement then, as for the try -scoring exploits before. There have been occasions, this season, when they have put themselves in a position to win, only to let the game slip, with some basic or reckless errors. Not so this time.
On Friday night, their game management, in that final period was first class. They recognised that even without the two points which were lost when one of Inu’s conversions hit the upright, that the twelve-point lead was sufficient, if not comfortable, cushioning. They rolled up their sleeves on defence, put in the hard yardage with ball in hand, and finished sets with telling kicks, and chases, to match, all to the greatest avail in concluding the season on an unquestionable high, which behoves well for next season.