There’s probably only rugby league which could throw up a situation in which a team that has won 10 of 23 regular season games can find itself two minutes away from relegation to second tier. Yet that is exactly where Salford Red Devils found themselves before Gareth O’Brien’s Golden Point in the Million Pound Game completed a miraculous escape and sent Hull KR into the Championship.
The Red Devils found themselves in the smelly stuff as a result of salary cap breaches dating back to the 2014 season. A six-point deduction cost them a place in the Super 8s and left them in a real scrap in the Qualifiers. Once there they seemed to lose a little confidence and dropped further games against Leigh, Hull KR, Leeds and London Broncos. In short, it should never have come to this but then, that’s rugby league and well….that’s Salford.
A repeat of that kind of trauma looks perfectly avoidable. Hopefully there will be no more financial skeletons in the closet. We have been repeatedly assured that the salary cap is a live system and so quite how we found ourselves harking back two years is unclear anyway. But if Salford can stay out of monetary mischief then their squad should have enough to make a real challenge for a Super 8s spot and, should it fail again, to be able to get through the Middle 8 stage with a little more comfort than in 2016.
Josh Griffin’s move to Hull FC is a major blow, but otherwise there are few on the list of those exiting the club who will have Salford fans crying into their pints. Mason Caton-Brown was a talent who often flattered to deceive and will now do so at Wakefield, while Luke Burgess played only eight times for Ian Watson’s side before his switch to Catalans Dragons was confirmed. Tommy Lee may or may not be capable of backing up James Roby at Saints but if his record of only nine appearances in 2016 is anything to go by then Salford will remain largely unaffected by his absence. Winger Daniel Vidot appeared even more rarely than Lee, making just six appearances in his one season with the Red Devils before returning to Australia with Gold Coast Titans.
Also making a return is prop Lama Tasi, who returns to Salford after possibly the most uninspiring stint in a Saints jersey that it has ever been my displeasure to witness. Tasi made 19 appearances for the Langtree Park side without ever really threatening to break out of the proverbial paper bag, before he was finally ousted from the side by Keiron Cunningham as his patience snapped. Suggestions of off the field problems are some mitigation for Tasi’s desperate form and perhaps a move back to the club with which he made his name will help him rediscover his mojo. This is after all a player who made 37 appearances in three NRL seasons with Sydney Roosters and Brisbane Broncos before arriving in England in 2014. There must be a player in there somewhere.
Joining Tasi is another with NRL experience, former Wigan Warrior Lee Mossop. Despite spending many a Good Friday revelling in what an over-rated lump he is, I’m sure we can all agree that Mossop will add something to the Red Devils pack. He has racked up 114 appearances in two spells at Wigan either side of an injury-plagued season with Parramatta, earning three England caps in the process. He was part of the side which won the 2013 Grand Final and made 22 appearances in 2016 before missing out on the Grand Final win over Warrington. He is a player of some pedigree, even if he isn’t at the very top level these days. Falling into a similar category is centre Kris Welham who joins after becoming a free agent in the wake of the Bradford Bulls debacle. Welham scored over 100 tries in his time with Hull KR before moving to Bradford last year and at 29 will be out to prove that he still has something to offer at Super League level. Whether he can fill the void left by Griffin’s departure is another matter.
Perhaps the most significant change at Salford ahead of the 2017 season is not on the field but in the coaching structure. Tim Sheens will no longer be looking down from on high, giving Watson full control and, consequently, full responsibility for what happens on the field. He has plenty of weapons at his disposal in the likes of O’Brien, Michael Dobson, Robert Lui, Junio S’au and Ben Murdoch-Masila while Justin Carney is still among the most prolific try-scorers in the competition. Up front Craig Kopczak, Weller Hauraki and Mark Flanagan add to Murdoch-Masila’s experience, but news of a broken hand sustained by the excellent Josh Jones will dampen spirits a little ahead of the season opener with Wigan on February 11. Jones’ form left us all scratching our heads and wondering what Dominique Peyroux was for last term, leading the Red Devils in tackle busts and making over 2000 metres while also scoring six tries and getting through over 500 tackles. Expect him to go well again once he recovers from this latest setback.
All of which should point to a marked improvement for the Red Devils in 2017, with none of the barely credible on and off-field drama which followed them around a year ago. Questions should be asked if they fail to make the Super 8s.