Salford Red Devils opened their 2023 season, on Sunday afternoon, with what in the end turned out to be a remarkably close 26-22 winning scoreline in the first of their pre-season friendlies, against traditional local rivals, Swinton, winners last week in a friendly over St Helens reserves, to retain Peter Smethurst Trophy for another season.
The well-known phrase ‘a game of two halves’ was taken to a new level, for, in truth, it was almost a case of two separate games of forty minutes, either side of half time. The only elements common to both were the opposition, the progressing scoreline, and three first team players, whose game-time straddled the interval.
With the first choice Red Devils taking complete control during the first half, it was always going to be a case as to whether the 26-0 half time lead, which the players from the Reserves inherited to defend for the second stanza, would be sufficient for them to hold out against their well-organised and enthusiastic opponents from the Championship. That they were successful in doing so was ultimately down to their dogged defensive efforts, which kept the Lions pointless, until the fiftieth minute.
Indeed, it has to be said that they came closer to scoring, a few minutes later, than their opponents had done in the first half, only for the final pass to be ruled as forward. A try at that moment would have been a real boost for them, and could have led to a less nervy, final few minutes. In the end it was a single player being in the right place at the right time, which prevented Swinton scoring on the death, by causing Scott Mikalauskas to blow for obstruction.
All of which was in stark contrast with the expected domination of the Salford first team, who opened their account as early as the third minute, with Rhys Williams crossing for a try in the left corner goaled by Mark Sneyd from the touch line. They then went on to score at almost regular intervals, aided by a good supply of possession, which was assisted, at times, by the Lions’ ill-timed attempts at stealing the ball, none of which went unnoticed by the referee.
Swinton’s best spell of that half was in the second quarter, when they gained rather more possession and were able to test out the home side’s defence. That this stood firm mid-field consequently prevented the Lions getting too close to become any real threat, and this is a facet of the Reds’ game which will be have to stand much greater tests in the coming weeks and months.
When in possession, the Red Devils showed that they still have the same flair to entertain as they had had in the latter stages of last season, producing some thrilling skilful handling and running, from which the tries flowed. True there were errors, and that was only to be expected with a small number of debutants in the side, on a cold afternoon, and a slippery ball, but these will diminish as the whole squad gels together and the weather improves.
Their final score, in the 37th minute, was a fine example of how the whole team was keen and capable of keeping the ball alive and supporting one another, with no less than six players inter-passing for Ryan Brierley to finish off with a sixpointer.
The vital half back pairing, which, by the end of last season was probably the best in Super League, was seen to be at the heart of much of the Salford attacking ploys, not least in the run-up to their second try, on 9 mins. Sneyd’s probing, cross-field run, across the visitors’ line, sucked in the defence and his quick play-the-ball gave Brodie Croft the opportunity to send out a wonderful, long pass which found Ken Sio on the touch line to go in at the corner.
So, an overall enjoyable and successful afternoon for everyone, with Swinton gaining satisfaction from their endeavours throughout, though most evidently in the later stages of the match. Salford’s first team players gained some invaluable game-time together, while the Reserves had the experience of performing in front of a much larger crowd than they will usually encounter, and against professional opposition.