Super League in 2019 has been skew-whiff to say the least.
At the top, St Helens have blown away the competition, wrapping up the League Leaders Shield well before the end of the season only to fluff their lines in the Challenge Cup Final last month, defeated by underdogs Warrington Wolves.
It still seems strange to call Warrington underdogs. After all, they’ve been second in the league for much of the season and they looked to be capable of pushing Saints all the way for the top spot with new recruit Blake Austin calling the shots.
Wigan have emerged as serious contenders after a turbulent start to the season but it’s the team in fourth - Ian Watson's Salford - who have been this year’s surprise package. They're a team that has become used to relegation battles but in 2019 they have a genuine chance of making the Grand Final which is held just across Barton Bridge at Old Trafford.
There has been a fair amount of drama at the foot of the table too where the prospect of automatic relegation for the bottom-placed team ensured an almighty battle to stay up. London Broncos, written off by many after their surprise promotion a year ago, have proved stubborn opponents and the fact they are still in with a chance of staying up at this advanced stage of the season is a credit to their highly-rated coach Danny Ward.
Even Super League heavyweights Leeds Rhinos had a flirtation with the Super League trapdoor while Wakefield Trinity, Huddersfield Giants and Hull KR are still not entirely safe.
On Friday, Salford go to Leeds, a fixture which in the past would have been marked down as a home banker. But this year’s Salford are an entirely different proposition and they know a win would secure them a play-off spot. Such a result is not beyond them on current form.
Last week, they beat an albeit understrength Challenge Cup winners Warrington at the AJ Bell Stadium which was their sixth successive win. It was the first time in their Super League history that they’d achieved such a winning streak and perhaps more impressively, it was the third time this year they’d beaten Warrington - two of those successes coming away from home.
One of the smallest squads in the league. ✍
6 wins a row. ✅
Firmly in the play-off race 5⃣
Points difference of 177 ➕
Called up as Great Britain Assistant 🇬🇧
Ian Watson appreciation post 👏
Some have dismissed Salford’s achievement, arguing the overall standard of the top flight this season has been well down on recent years. They are the same kind of arguments levelled at Leicester City when they won the Premier League in 2016. And while few could make a case for 2019 being a vintage Super League year, Salford don’t deserve to be just a sidebar in the season’s story.
Their key player, Australian half-back Jackson Hastings, could walk into any team in the competition and next year he will be playing on a bigger stage at Wigan. Hastings made the best debut I’ve ever seen, making tries and breaks for fun, before going off - apparently jetlagged - against Leeds. He did enough in that brief spell to suggest he was going to live up to the hype.
Hastings’ signing was seen as something of a risk at the time. Painted as a “bad boy” by the Australian rugby league press, he embraced life in Greater Manchester, becoming an instant hero and a positive force in the community. He helped Salford retain their Super League place in the 2018 qualifiers despite being suspended for two games - the two they lost.
Many expected him to leave the club before the start of the next campaign but he stayed and his role became even more important when another key player, half-back Robert Lui, was sold to Leeds. In a style almost indicative of Watson’s ability to get the best from players which has unsurprisingly drawn comparisons with Moneyball, he took Tui Lolohea from Leeds in return, slotting him into the Salford team where he produced the kind of performances which the Headingley crowds could have only dreamed of.
That’s not to say Salford are a one man team. The consistency of their spine, especially the dynamic full-back Niall Evalds, has been little short of amazing. Their pack is hard-working and honest, rarely getting bullied by even the very top teams. There's pace across the backline and reliability in defence.
Watson, who also played for the club, hinted recently that his players have only just started to realise how good they are, identifying a game against St Helens in May where the penny finally dropped. Salford lost that game 32-30 but they deserved to win, having been in the lead for long periods. A James Bentley try with 35 seconds on the clock broke Salford hearts that night but post-match Watson was not feeling sorry for himself, instead insisting that his team’s performance against the league leaders compensated for losing in such cruel circumstances.
It’s not surprising that success for Salford coincides with a settled managerial set-up. Prior to Watson’s appointment and under the stewardship of outspoken owner Marwan Koukash, the club had flitted from coach to coach and the turnover of playing staff was not conducive to a happy ship. Watson, who played for Wales, has also recently joined the Great Britain coaching staff to work with legendary Australian Wayne Bennett, fitting recognition for his progress.
The club narrowly avoided relegation in 2016 as they snatched a remarkable victory at Hull KR in the Million Pound Game, one of Super League’s most ridiculous concepts. Gareth O’Brien kicked a match-winning drop goal in extra time after 80 minutes where Salford were never actually in front.
Salford and their loyal fans are right to enjoy their time in the sun after such a turbulent few years which saw them leave their atmospheric old home - The Willows - for a purpose-built stadium in Barton. Like many similar relocations to out of town locations, the move has not gone without a hitch and attendances have suffered.
The club has worked hard to attract new fans and re-engage with lapsed Salfordians but it’s a tough sell for a stadium which isn’t close to a Metrolink stop and difficult to reach via public transport. An appearance in the Grand Final would change all that.
Main image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com - Salford's Kris Welham fends off Wakefield's Justin Horo.