REDS DEVILS IN DEPTH: LEEDS V SALFORD

In what was only the club’s fifth victory over Leeds at Headingley in seventy-eight years, the Salford Red Devils last Friday night, put that spectre to bed with an outstanding, winning performance, to take the spoils in an increasingly tightly fought battle to cement places in the Super League top six.

There had been an air of confidence and enthusiasm for the encounter, throughout the camp during the week, and on the night the players executed a game plan which drew on every strength within the side, leaving nothing to chance, and exposing any deficiency within their hosts’ ranks.

Whilst their attacking flair, as we knew it from last season, still lies awaiting the dry grounds, they have replaced it with an efficiency in defence of which Salford fans have not had experience for many a long year, and thereby rests a significant factor in the reasons for the paucity in post-war wins over there.

Looking back over the game without the anxieties which must have occasionally surfaced in some, whilst watching on the night, we can all appreciate just how good a game it was throughout, with both sides having their periods of ascendency.

Salford’s were probably the more prolonged, and certainly the more effective, because it was in these spells of dominance, with more than adequate possession in the Rhinos’ red zone, that their match winning twenty-two points were scored.  The effect on the home side of all this pressure was to force errors, particularly errors of discipline, leading to penalties and, consequently, even more pressure. 

The first of these came in the twelfth minute, when after an opening ten-minute arm wrestle, in which flaws in the home side’s handling started to become evident, Salford won, forcing a goal-line drop-out and a subsequent repeat set.

It was, however, the sin-binning in the 18th minute, of Leeds’s stand-off, Austin, for an obstruction on Kallum Watkins, which brought things to a head, with the Red Devils then tearing their opponents defence to shreds to notch two converted tries, through first, Rhys Williams, after they had got their attacking line in full flow, and then, five minutes later, the ball being moved to the left and Sam Stone showing great skill to avoid attempted tackles before going over to the left of the posts.

Their second period of dominance came in the third quarter, when they increased a six-point, half-time lead to what was to be a match-determining sixteen, courtesy of a converted try and two penalty goals.

The Rhinos, nevertheless, had their moments, though for somewhat shorter spells.  Their first came in the final ten minutes of the first half when they changed tactics by reverting to some daring, and some risky, offloads, which on the night stuck, none more than in the run up to their 38th minute try, under the posts.

Similarly, the Yorkshiremen gained the ascendency for the concluding fifteen minutes, when they were rejuvenated by a further six-pointer in the corner by getting on the end of a cross-field kick to set up, though as it turned out to be, an unnecessary nail-biting conclusion to the encounter – unnecessary, of course, because the Salford defence was equal to anything the Rhinos could thereafter muster to throw at it.

And that defence is now becoming a weapon in their armoury that no-one, outside the group, had probably expected.  It has, though,  been increasingly evident over a number of matches, culminating in that home victory over Catalans, which will have stood them in great stead in readiness for this encounter, for yet again the pack had to contend with, and actually subdue, a much larger and powerful opposing set.

Led by their opening middles, King Vuniyayawa, who must have relished every moment of facing up to his former club, Ollie Partington, who so noticeably showed the knack of putting himself in the right position to dictate plays, and Tyler Dupree, fresh from international duty.  They were ably replicated by the trustworthy Jack Ormondroyd, and Shane Wright, whose form this season has been absolute revelation.

Kallun Watkins made a captain’s contribution showing such strength and determination in his running, but mention also has to be made of the contribution of Ellis Longstaff, who had to be drafted into the unfamiliar role of centre, and acquitted himself well throughout, even going over the third of the visitors’ three tries.

Finally, it would be remiss not to mention the significant role of Marc Sneyd, whose kicking, especially goal-kicking, week after week, can so significantly make the difference between winning and losing.  It seems now to be even falling into the dim and distant past, at Leigh actually, since he last missed a goalkick, and his two penalty successes against the Rhinos, were, points-wise, the equivalent of an additional try.

So, it is onwards, next week, to the Totally Wicked Stadium, where against the World Club Champions it will require everything on view from the Reds at Leeds, and who knows what more besides, to overcome the Saints.  After this latest victory, their fourth in a row, however, they certainly will not be short on confidence.

RED DEVILS IN DEPTH: SALFORD V CASTLEFORD

Despite another short turn around after their victory over Leigh, the previous Saturday, Salford Red Devils, yet again in front of the television cameras, on Thursday evening, cemented their place in the current top six, with a hard-fought victory over the improving Castleford Tigers.

It is a notable tribute to the team that on the back of their tremendous performances in the later stages of last season, the SKY Sports team have targeted showing the Red Devils’ matches with some quite considerable regularity over the start of this season, and although it was an evening with both defences on top, the team did not disappoint in terms of dedication, effort, and, above all, winning.

True, the scoreline was on the low side, but on a cold evening, in a biting wind, the players did extremely well to produce a performance full of attacking ideas and handling ploys, which on a summer’s day may well have brought about a rather higher return in terms of points.  No-one could deny the quality of their slick inter-passing, which tested the Castleford defence, time and again. They just needed to have retained possession in attack for longer than the solitary sets they produced in order to wear the Tigers’ defence down.

It was therefore down to their defensive effort of limiting the visitors to a solitary try in the third minute and thereafter holding them pointless for the remaining seventy-seven, which brought them the two league points.  It was not necessarily their midfield line-defence which was most noteworthy, more their scrambling defence which brought some absolutely valiant efforts from a number of individuals. 

As early as the 17th minute a magnificent triple effort, started by Sam Stone, and quickly supported by Andy Ackers and Ryan Brierley, prevented a Cas try being scored by Milner thanks to their holding him back, a whisker from the line.  Two minutes from the interval the timely arrival of Tyler Dupree, at full pace, was enough to force Eden onto the touchline, thereby making his considerable athleticism in the subsequent grounding, irrelevant.

Similar efforts continued into the second half, when first, Marc Sneyd’s last ditch tackle on Evalds caused the fullback to lose control of the ball has he sought to ground it between the posts on 49 mins, followed up some 14 mins later by another tackle on Milner just short of the line, this time by Wright, followed by the intervention again of Brierley to prevent his endeavours to roll over and ground the ball over the line.  

There were also some significant pieces of individual skill, which might on occasions go unnoticed, or which we sometimes take for granted.  Joe Burgess’s 8th minute, high level take of the ball in the air, which, on landing, he followed up with a half break through the visitors’ defence to clear the danger, was one such of these, likewise, Kallum Watkins’s midfield sideways run and offload, under pressure, to free up Brierley to continue the build up to Brodie Croft’s try under the posts, on 36 minutes.

Probably most eye-catching of all however was Brierley’s feat of collecting the ball on 52 minutes, behind his own line, to then turn the speedy Eden inside out with some incredible footwork and then cap it all with an offload to Ken Sio, as another Castleford player bore down on him.   Everything about it had the hallmarks of absolute class.

Even Salford’s two-try total could well have been double that, had they been just a little more fortunate.  The referral of Sneyd’s 23rd minute grounding to the video-ref saw it disallowed as it became apparent that, after his short kick through, the ball had bounced up to touch his arm, thus being adjudged as a knock on.  Similarly, 44 minutes into the second half, Sam Stone was denied a try with, this time, Chris Atkin having fumbled a loose ball forward in his attempt to gather it up.

Nevertheless, there was to be no denying the Red Devils for the two tries which were to count.  In what had been their best period that far, spanning the second quarter, it culminated in Brierley racing down the right wing, from Watkins’s pass, to put in the best, and most rewarding, kick of the half, for Croft to take a grasp of it as it stood up beautifully for him to go over for his team’s opener.

Shane Wright has been growing in notoriety over recent weeks having already notched up three tries against Hull (2) and Leigh.  With 56 minutes on the clock, he latched onto Sneyd’s beautifully timed short pass to surge over the line, between the posts and with Sneyd then having converted both tries, he had the opportunity to open up a two score, eight-point, match-winning lead, when Milner was penalised for tackling Ollie Partington without the ball, ten minutes from the end.

RED DEVILS IN DEPTH: WARRINGTON V SALFORD

For the second week in succession, Salford Red Devils had a half time lead expunged during the second period, to end up with a loss that had appeared most unlikely, as the teams trooped off for the half-time interval, in this Round 3 fixture at the home of the Warrington Wolves.

That the home side had opened 2023 with two most impressive victories, at home to Leeds and away at Huddersfield, must have hung over the visiting Salford fans, prior to kick-off, but such anxieties were quickly dissipated despite a Warrington try in the eighth minute, for there was a definite step up by the Reds, from the previous week’s performance against Hull KR.

The tactics based around their slick, wonderfully entertaining qualities might well have not changed but the execution of them was markedly better than the previous week, with every pass being so much more telling, and the gaps opening up more easily and effectively, as a result.

Their first, and equalising try, on eleven minutes, was a consequence of some precisionally timed, and accurately executed, passes, as the ball was moved along the line to Joe Burgess who unsurprisingly had had his opposite number sucked in-field, and so was completely in the clear to race down the wing before sending an equally effective and accurate pass inside to the supporting Ellis Longstaff, who must have revelled in crossing the line against his parent club, on their own pitch.

In addition, the Red Devils had learned from their previous experience the importance of muscling up in the physical aspects of the game.  Twice, in the opening twenty-five minutes, Tyler Dupree made clean breaks through the Wolves’ defence, brushing off attempted tackles and making great yardage up the field to build up good field position.  Not only he, but the remaining members of the pack were eager to make their presence felt, with Ollie Partington at the centre of so much of both attacking play and defensive efforts.

Last week, the problem was that they had failed to build a sufficiently comfortable lead, after their opening four pointer.  Not so, this time out, with first yet another interception by Ken Sio which saw him make progress before setting up Ryan Brierley, who showed terrific speed to get over for another. 

With Marc Sneyd’s being on target with both conversion attempts, his third effort was to tack on the extras to his own try, when he hoodwinked the Wires’ defence and coasted through.  He rounded off the first stanza with an additional two points from a penalty goal, which meant that by half time, there was a clear fourteen points difference between the sides, as opposed to the four, against Hull KR.

It is extremely doubtful that there was anyone who did not expect a response in some form or other from this Warrington side, so impressive in previous weeks, and our players will have certainly prepared themselves for such, but, when it came, it was in a form that was extremely difficult to do anything about, for quite simply they were most cleverly deprived of the ball, being in possession for less than ten minutes of the forty.  Without it, all anyone can do is tackle, tackle, and keep on tackling in the hope that it will come around to them, eventually.

All that tackling takes it toll, however, on energy levels, knocks and the like sustained in the collisions, and with a sense of frustration building up, which can then affect effectiveness on the few occasions possession does come their way.  One wayward pass to Joe Burgess, on the first tackle of a set, which went behind him and straight into touch, was merely symptomatic of this.

The Wolves took possession straight from Salford’s half-time kick-off, and proceeded to start as many as seven sets and retain possession for almost nine minutes.  The Reds’ one chance of stemming this tide came at the end of the first set, the high kick from which was left completely unclaimed by anyone on the field, and the ball, having been allowed to bounce, ricocheted up and backwards into the arms of Warrington, who were quickly afterwards awarded a penalty, which triggered a set restart.

From that point on, they found ploy after ploy to reclaim the ball for yet another set. The problem then became compounded by defenders conceding penalties, set restarts, and even a sin-binning, which on this occasion proved to be so crucial, in their increasingly tiring endeavours to styme the waves of attack thrown at them.  So good, though, was the Salford defence in the early stages of the half that there were times when the Wolves actually ended up further back than they had started the set.

Significant, however, was the Reds’ seeming difficulty to deal with the high, short-distance, hanging kicks, which their hosts seemed to be able to reclaim, with some regularity.  Williams’s kick into the corner for Thewlis’s try was probably their highlight of these, and if the final score-line seems a little unfair to the luckless Red Devils, it was, in part, because it was adversely affected by two, eight-point tries, the first of these being this one, with Dupree being adjudged to have fouled the scorer after the grounding.

So, after four months of the close season, during which coaches of other sides have had chance to weigh up how to deal with the flamboyant attacking style of the Salford Red Devils, we have twice now seen the use of tactical kicking as a partial means of starving them of sufficient possession to be the threat they can be.  It is now up to Salford to work on dealing with this in readiness for next week’s trip to Hull. FC

RED DEVILS IN DEPTH: SALFORD V HULL KR

It was such a promising opening, with the Red Devils starting with a splendid display of wide, expansive, attacking rugby, which had become so familiar to the Salford fans in the later stages of last season, but which had been absent in the previous week’s visit to the Leigh Sports Village.

Yet here it was again in what was only Round 2 of the new season, in all its exciting, entertaining spectacle, from the very first set when swift hands put right winger, Ken Sio, in space, and the visiting Hull KR players were desperately having to scramble back to prevent an early setback.

When, at the end of their back-to-back sets, they forced the first of two goal-line drop-outs, it seemed only a matter of time before they went in front.  It turned out to be just ten minutes, with their attack being restarted by the second of the drop-outs, and ended with a wide pass to Sio, who scored in the corner.

Although Marc Sneyd’s conversion attempt failed to find the mark, there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that there would be more on the way, and indeed for the next ten minutes the Red Devils continued to dominate possession and field position, though with no further points to add to the scoreboard.

The game started to change a little around the twentieth minute, with back-to-back penalties gaining good field position to enable the visitors to test the Salford defence, and although they did not get anything to show for it immediately, they seemed to grow in stature and confidence, as a result.

In truth, four points after such a protracted period of Salford dominance seemed scant reward for their efforts, as they had had sufficient possession and position to have added at least one, if not more, scores, which would probably have dispirited the visitors somewhat had they been able to do so.  As it was. their self-belief that they could contain the threat their hosts posed grew, and inspired them to further effort.

Consequently, when Sio, as he is wont to do, intercepted a Hull pass to his wing, his progress was arrested before he could even get into his stride and the team then had the task of taking the ball up the field, tackle by tackle.  They also seemed to make heavy weather of the increasing amount of defending they were required to do.

The Robins’ pack is quite an imposing group, all of whom are capable of making their mark on any game – a victory over the Wigan Warriors, as they had achieved in round 1, is no mean fete – and they started to gain the ascendency, not just on the attack where they drove forward relentlessly, but also on defence, where they harried and hassled the normally rampant Reds into an increasing number of hurried and wayward passes.

The writing was clearly on the wall, when, on 32 mins, the referee was forced to refer a Robins’ grounding to  the video referee, and, although this was ruled out, it merely portended what was to come after the interval.  It will surely have been the away dressing-room, which will have been the more satisfied, over the recess, and they continued where they left off, after the resumption.

Salford’s best moment of the second half came on 54 minutes, when they were stung into a response to Hull’s two-try opening to the half, by overcoming the less productive of some of their more recent attacking forays, with slick hands putting Deon Cross over for their second try, to put themselves to within two points of the visitors.

Twice within five minutes, Salford were denied possible further tries.  A referral to the video referee ruled out Sio’s grounding in the corner, on 56 mins, with Brodie Croft being ruled offside prior to his involvement, and then on 70 mins. A ball steal by Tim Lafai led to another attack along the line to the right wing, where Cross, this time, just had a bit too much to do to get over the line for what would have been his own second score.

Hull, however, had no such problems in adding to their score with further tries on 57 and 72 mins, as Salford continued to fail to muscle up to the continued pressure on their defence.  Deserved, Man of the Match, Ollie Partington had led the way in how to deal with this, and it is likely there will be work done upon this element for others, in the coming days.

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