It had all looked so promising, and confidence was surely high among the Salford fans, as they travelled over to the Totally Wicked Stadium for their clash with the Saints, on the back of four successive Super League victories, including an extremely rare win over Leeds Rhinos, at Headingley.
The Saints, on the other hand, had had a rather less profitable couple of weeks, and were turning out after having undertaken the somewhat demanding sojourn to the south of France, for their away fixture with Catalans Dragons, all of which were most positive indications for everyone to be encouraged.
In the end, however, it is all about what happens on the day, and that went contrary to these optimistic expectations, for the Saints had their own expectations and aspirations for the game – the expectations of the current World Club Champions to perform to that level – and took control in the second half to record a 26-12 home victory.
Not that anyone would have even thought that that would happen as the Red Devils turned on the style and swept into a twelve-point lead after only sixteen minutes, with two excellent tries. The first came in the fifth minute when a totally unexpected, but magnificent, break by prop, King Vuniyayawa, left the Saints defence in his wake, and with the fleet-footed Brodie Croft in support, he fed the stand -off to go in, under the posts.
Andy Ackers it then was, who, eleven minutes later, put Kallum Watkins away down the right and his inside pass to Ryan Brierley saw, along with Marc Sneyd’s second successful conversion attempt, him double the Salford advantage to twelve, which was sufficient for the remaining twenty plus minutes to give them a 6-12 half time lead.
The second half turn around to the home team might lead anyone to regard this as a game of two halves but perhaps, on this occasion an over-simplification, because everything in a game leads on to what follows – more obviously to the more immediate, but also, to an extent, in the longer term. The loss, for example, of Shane Wright, after a mere few minutes of his introduction denied the team all that he has brought to each game over recent weeks, and also meant that others had to play considerably more minutes, and therefore tired far more quickly as a result.
In fact the roots for this not inconsiderable half time turnaround had been planted during the first half. There will have been few in attendance or watching tv, on the day, who would have thought, as Sneyd struck the ball to convert Brierley’s try that the Red Devils would fail to add to their score for the remainder of the match, but that was what happened and was something that fed into the St Helens game plan
The visitors had been put under spells of pressure from the outset right through to their first score, and then again between their two tries. The Salford players had stood up well throughout each of these, as indeed they did throughout some rather more-lengthy spells thereafter, but the fact that these periods of Saints’ dominance became more protracted placed greater and greater demands on the players in terms of energy and concentration.
That these periods soaked up so much time was in part due to the St Helens players’ ability to complete their sets but aided by an increasing number of penalties and set restarts, which went the way of the home side. Penalties are seldom awarded against teams in possession, the significant majority are against defenders and, as these defenders start to tire, so their tackling technique suffers and the penalties continue to accrue all the more.
By the time the second half had got underway, the continued Saints’ pressure had started to tell on the Reds, and they immediately conceded yet another penalty, this time whilst in possession, for an incorrect play-the-ball, as early as the third tackle of the half, with a St Helens try coming directly off the back of it.
No-one could possibly question the Red Devils’ effort and commitment at any time during the encounter – without that there was no way they would have limited St Helens to only twenty-six points – but, in the second half, their execution was well below the standards we have become used to, with handling errors from some most wayward of passes seemingly prevalent, and each one presenting the home side with even more possession with which to challenge the Salford defence.
Forthcoming results may well show that in this match St Helens have turned a corner in their season, and that others will find themselves facing the same onslaught of pressure piled upon them, but for Salford players it is important to learn from the outing and fix the elements necessary for a Challenge Cup victory over visiting Huddersfield, next week.