If a week is a long time in politics, as is so often alleged, then it can seem a lifetime in rugby league, such were the differences in Salford’s performance, in this weekend’s fixture at Huddersfield from that which had been served up the week before against Hull KR.
Yet, as far as the context of the game was concerned, there were a number of similarities between the two. Both entailed travelling over the Pennines into Yorkshire, both were against opponents who were in a similar position in the league to the Red Devils but both doing marginally better as far as results were concerned, while the injury situation in the Salford camp was still the major obstacle to the acquisition of that long sought-after latest victory.
That injury situation only got worse, twenty minutes from the kick off, when captain, and corner-stone of the pack, Lee Mossop, was forced to pull out with a calf strain, leaving Jack Ormondroyd to be hastily drafted in, on the bench.
The similarities continued as the game progressed through its early stages, with the Red Devils being the quicker side to settle and producing some organised and well-structured rugby, yet again, to take the lead, after nine minutes of play, when dummy half, Andy Ackers showed once more what a tricky handful he is to deal with around the play-the-ball, going over between the posts.
This really put Salford in the driving seat and they consequently took control of the game until it was, once again, followed by a reduction to twelve men, this time for the duration of the encounter, and that is when the similarities between the two games finished completely. This time the Salford players refused to be put out of their stride, no matter what, and whereas the week before they had gone into their shell and consequently lost their momentum, on Friday night they just kept a grip on their feelings, stuck with the game plan with which they had been provided, and executed it through right to the end of the match.
The outcome was they produced their best eighty minutes of sustained contested rugby, both in attack, and particularly in defence. The combination at half back of Dec Patton and Chris Atkin appeared to be the best pairing that has been on view this season, and the two gelled together extremely well. The effect on the rest of the side was a joy to behold, and their skilful handling in the slippery, greasy, conditions was especially commendable, particularly when their opponents struggled to retain possession and turned over the ball on a number of occasions.
Atkin has always been one of the keenest and most reliable of players this season, whether at hooker or half back, while Patton relished his return to starting in the halves, giving the whole team the leadership and direction that has been in rather short supply in recent weeks. At one stoppage in the second half he could be seen going round instructing every individual player of what he wanted from each.
Much has been written, and said, about the dismissal of James Greenwood, after around half an hour, but what is of the greatest importance, and remains unchanged irrespective of which individual had been involved, is that Salford played for over forty-five minutes with only twelve players against the thirteen of Huddersfield, with only the cushioning of a mere six points’ start, and still won.
Following this dismissal the Giants immediately upped their tempo and their physicality, to put Salford somewhat on the back foot. However, the Reds did this time manage to keep their line intact right up to halftime, and the home side had to retire to the changing-room still without a try, and with only the penalty goal, awarded for the tackle on O’Brien, to show for their first forty minutes.
Huddersfield returned to the fray with even more zest, energy and determination, which had their visitors once again at full stretch for the opening stages, but, owing to the commitment to the cause of the Salford players in defence, it took the Giants a total of thirteen minutes from being up against only twelve men, before they managed to draw level, with a try from Joe Wardle, goaled by Aidan Sezer.
Nor did Salford allow that one solitary setback to impact on their overall performance and execution, thereafter. Indeed, Marshall’s men were the only scorers, throughout the remainder of the game, courtesy of a drop goal – the winning drop goal – from Chris Atkin, sixteen minutes from the end.
The timing of this was quite cunning, in so far as we all have painful memories of Kevin Brown’s attempt being charged down in the Quarter Final of the Challenge Cup, and then Morgan Escare’s similar match-winning shot receiving the same fate the following week, against Wigan. On Friday, Atkin had all the time in the world to measure everything up and strike the ball cleanly over the bar, unchallenged because, of course, nobody was expecting anything like that so early in the half.
They could, in fact, have scored again when awarded a penalty goal in front of the posts a few minutes later, but chose instead to take on the Giants’ defence with ball in hand. That was an exceedingly brave decision, since it left them then exposed to an equaliser from their hosts, and so it proved, with only the intervention of the left upright preventing Sezer taking the game to Golden Point – not something you would care to have countenanced, a man short.
The sheer delight, at the final result, of everyone connected with the club, players supporters and officials, was evident to everyone, but no-one could have been more thrilled than head coach, Richard Marshall. Despite recent disappointing losses, he has refused to panic but has held fast to his beliefs, conducting himself with great dignity in the face of considerable adversity. On Friday, he reaped the rewards from his players, who showed their solidarity with him, by committing their all to getting him the victory, upon which they will all be keen to build, in the coming weeks.