If you didn’t know anything about Rugby League and were watching the sport for the first time with this match, you would be forgiven for thinking Salford were a top flight team and St Helens generally left struggling to hold on to the bottom rung of the Superleague ladder. For Saints were run ragged, and exposed as helpless and hopeless in equal measure by a Salford team that haven’t played this good within the living memory of any of their players, and probably a fair number of their fans too.
Of course they St Helens they beat was not the same team we’ve seen over the last few seasons of Super League. Where those teams would have fought and fought, this St Helens never recovered after being hit by a freight train of three Salford tries in quick succession. When they did briefly rally, with Alex Walmsley making a powerful drive for the line in the first half, and Adam Swift nipping in at the corner during the second half, it just fired up Salford’s hunger for victory, and the passion in their performance, even more. Quite what Keiron Cunningham said to his players at half time he didn’t say, but his comments had a brutal honesty to them regarding the performance of his players. ‘If you lose the energy battle in Rugby League you might as well walk off the field’ he told Sky Sports afterwards. Given that watching Cunningham’s own performances as a player was like seeing a tank with a rocket engine pile drive its way through anything in the way, those comments carry weight.
Far more weight should be attached to his next comments though by players who should be aware their place in the team is no longer a given after such a drubbing. “If people don’t want to play for a shirt, then you have to look at that”.
Luke Walsh in particular should think upon those words and reflect on how much he let down his club tonight. First there was the incident with Murdoch-Mesila, then shortly afterwards he gave away a penalty that Michael Dobson easily converted. As if that wasn’t enough to convince him to cool his heels a little, another poor decision saw him sin binned in the 29th minute with another penalty Salford’s way. Fortunately for Walsh, Salford went for a try and four points that they didn’t get, though St Helens being a man down for the rest of the first half was by far the more important point.
For all that Saints were never really there, or made poor decisions, this was still Salford’s night. Any they deserved every minute of it because they played as a team. As with Warrington last week at Leeds, their game was as much about playing good rugby by keeping the ball in their possession as it was about scoring tries. Most of their tries were brought about through team effort, that consisted of a fantastic passing game but also a visceral self-belief and a need to make up for last week’s disappointment away to Hull.
Both were evident from the moment a tactical strike by Dobson’s kicking found its way into the hands of Greg Johnson who put the ball across the line before Josh Griffin converted. Craig Kopczak added another in the seventh minute, which Griffin again converted. Five minutes later Robert Lui, later voted man of the match, showed why he could be Salford’s best acquisition for this season. A quick and clever dummy wrongfooted Saints setting Lui up for an incredible breakout run that ended in Salford’s third try. This time it was Dobson who converted, but his aim was no less true than Griffin’s.
Such breakouts are affairs to be savoured yet Salford made them look almost routine such was their force of play in this game. Even with two tries denined, including one for Murdoch-Mesila, who deserved to get in on the scoring such was his consistency, Salford still never looked threatened the entire game. Robert Lui added another to his tally despite a clear obstruction, and Saints narrowly avoided conceding another try just before the break.
No sooner had the teams returned than Adam Walne took Salford’s score higher still, and two more tries, from Dobson, along with the coup de grace from Niall Evalds put the finishing touches to this masterclass performance from a team who have learned how to take a drubbing the hard way more than once against Saints in the past. Indeed about the only complaint Ian Watson can have about his players was that neither Dobson nor Griffin managed to keep up the strength of the kicking game throughout the match. Such complaints though will be a quibble at best rather than the awkward silence that must have prevailed as the Saint Helens players took the coach home.
If Salford can play half as well for the rest of the season they’ll finish in the top half of the table with ease. If they can deliver like this every week though, they’ll exceed even that and be playoff contenders. With Widnes and then Wigan their opponents for the next two games, Salford are a team to watch this year.