For the second time in three matches, the Salford Red Devils had the heart-breaking experience of losing by a single point from a late drop-goal. Indeed, the only difference in this latest denouement was that there was no extra time involved, but the devastation at having the league points snatched from their grasp, minutes from the final whistle, must have been every bit as hard to take for our players as was that Golden Point Quarter-Final loss to Castleford Tigers.
It certainly was for we Salford fans, returning in numbers to the AJ Bell Stadium, after some fourteen months’ absence, but there again, we had not had to spend eighty minutes of intense concentration and physical buffeting which they had had to endure, in an encounter which had seen every single one of them give their all, in the Salford cause.
And how well they measured up to their illustrious opponents. In similar fashion to the previous outing against St Helens, they were the quicker to settle to their task, and produced yet another magnificent display of defence, which had the visitors attacking flair completely subdued for lengthy periods of the game.
The difference, however, was that the attack, which against the Saints had been quite lacklustre, was a far more potent force, that had the Warriors on the back foot, particularly in the first half. How confident they looked as they swung the ball along the line, ran the angles, and questioned the visitors’ goal-line defence at every opportunity, forcing them into conceding a first half 6:3 penalty count in the Reds’ favour.
Twice, on the ninth and twenty-fourth minutes they breached the Wigan try line to take the lead, only for their opponents to hit back with tries of their own on eighteen and thirty-three minutes, but thanks to a penalty goal, from the trusty boot of Harvey Livett, the Red Devils left the field at half time with a narrow four-point lead.
Salford’s opening try came as some compensation for Morgan Escare’s earlier disallowed effort owing to an adjudged obstruction from Ryan Lannon’s venturing into the Wigan line. This time there was nothing to complicate the issue, as Livett got on the end of an offload from an overly ambitious Wigan player. His thirty-metre sprint to the line saw him ground the ball in almost the same place as Escare had done a mere minute before.
The ever-improving Jack Ormondroyd laid the foundations for the second with a tremendous, forceful run which took him through the Wigan line and into the clear. Jack Wells was excellent in providing the necessary support to be on hand to take the pass and cross close to the posts.
Good as the Salford performance overall had been to this point, however, errors did start creeping into it. These succeeded in providing the Warriors with opportunities to put their hosts under pressure of their own. Their first try came as a result of a set restart after two tackles and the extra plays enabled them to progress the length of the field and use the power of Singleton to force his way over for the first of his two tries.
Probably even more irritating to the coaching staff would have been the second, in which a poor attacking kick into the Warriors’ overcrowded, righthand corner, ricocheted into the arms of winger, Harry Smith, and he took advantage of a momentary lapse of concentration to round the advancing Salford left flank, each of whom appeared not to recognise the danger until he was on his way to getting into the clear. With the whole field in which to run, Smith cleverly exploited the space to thwart two or three attempts to stop him before putting Farrell over to the left of the posts.
Coming as this did, just over five minutes before the interval, it put the visitors in a much better position to overturn their half time deficit, in the second half, and their penchant for doing so, this season, has been quite widespread as local rivals Leigh Centurions will testify. Few would have gambled on four points being sufficient cushioning against such a robust outfit as Wigan, and so it proved.
The Reds’ second half performance did not quite match up to that of their first half, and the errors became a little more evident, starting with Ormondroyd losing control of the ball in a tackle in the very first set of the half – not an unknown occurrence this season – but with the considerable improvement, this time, of holding their line intact for the next set.
The balance of possession however started to shift in Wigan’s favour, primarily from an increase in the number of penalties and repeat sets which started to go their way, and the extra defensive work which was consequently thrust upon the Red Devils started to take its toll. By the later part of the half they were clearly tiring, for let us not forget that there was probably also some residual after-effects from the exertions of the St Helens game, five days earlier.
To compound the situation, the end-of-set options which were taken did not seem to help matters. Long, high kicks downfield require an energetic determined chase, and, with this becoming increasingly more difficult for them, Hardaker at fullback was put under rather less pressure. Drilling the ball downfield into touch would, at least, have brought some few seconds respite for them to get some air into their lungs.
Consequently, it was Wigan, only, who, on 63 minutes, were able to cross and draw level, following Livett’s solitary penalty goal, and in the final moments of the half Salford were unable to raise the same degree of energy to pressure Jackson Hastings’s drop-goal that Wigan had put on Escare a few minutes earlier, and the half back promptly slotted the ball between the uprights to take the spoils.