With Salford Red Devils due to open their 2020 season with a visit to their Grand Final conquerors St Helens on Friday night, MARTYN SADLER talks to Salford coach IAN WATSON about the forthcoming season.
That will be the dilemma facing Salford Red Devils coach Ian Watson, after a remarkably successful 2019 season that saw them reach Old Trafford for the first time, shocking their rivals along the way, before giving a spirited performance in the Grand Final that wasn’t quite enough to overcome hot favourites St Helens.
And since that thrilling night at the Theatre of Dreams in October, Watson has lost the services of some of the key players who played in that Grand Final.
The most notable, of course, is the Steve Prescott Man of Steel Jackson Hastings, who played in every game for the Red Devils in 2019.
But the Red Devils have also lost Great Britain star Josh Jones, his forward colleagues George Griffin and Logan Tomkins and centre or winger Jake Bibby.
The question facing the club in 2020 is whether the replacements for those departing players will be able to replicate the form the club showed for so much of last season.
The crucial position, of course, will be at halfback, with Kevin Brown joining from Warrington to replace Hastings. Brown, who has now turned 35, was out for the 2019 season after suffering an Achilles tendon injury in January, although he did return towards the end of the season, when he went on loan to Leigh, figuring in three matches and scoring two tries. Whether he can still pull the strings on the field for his new club, and what sort of partnership he can strike up with Tui Lolohea, will be one of the key elements that could determine whether the Red Devils will go anywhere near to emulating last season’s success in 2020.
The only cover that Watson appears to have for either halfback position is Chris Atkin, another newcomer signed during the close season from Hull Kingston Rovers, but he has no doubt about the qualities Brown will bring to the A J Bell Stadium.
“Kevin is training with us and developing consistency and good habits that accord with the ethos of our team,” says Watson.
“He may not have the same speed that he once had, but he is clever and better up top than most players.
“It was important that we got someone with the experience of controlling teams and guiding them around the pack, and Kevin certainly has that.
“He’s a great player and an important signing for our team.
“He has a brilliant rugby mind and is capable of winning games with his smarts and kicking game alone.
“The level of his organisational skills, knowledge and composure are things which will benefit our whole organisation on and off the field in 2020.
“Kev was the starting half in the World Cup final in 2017 and would have been Warrington’s first choice half in 2019, which shows his level of performance and experience.
“Our young players will benefit from this massively, especially Tui and Chris.
“This is a big signing for our team, especially considering the leadership he will offer in probably the most important position.
“As for Chris Atkin, I remember bringing him in when I was the coach at Swinton. He has pace to burn. The performances of our halfbacks in pre-season have been really important, in terms of talking and organising with a decent kicking game, but it’s fair to say that Tui was our best field kicker when he joined us from Hull KR last season.”
Also in the backs, the arrival of Dan Sarginson from Wigan Warriors looks like a straight swap for Jake Bibby, while the recruitment of Rhys Williams and Elliot Kear from London Broncos will significantly increase Watson’s options in the outside backs.
“Dan’s an absolutely outstanding signing for us. I think he’s been one of Wigan’s best players,” says Watson.
“His backfield returns have been second to none in the competition. He gets the team on the front foot.
“He’s tough, uncompromising and he’s an international. That’s the level of player we want to be bringing in at Salford, to keep us pushing at the top end of Super League.
“As well as his ability on the field, we’re getting an outstanding person as well.
“Sitting down and talking to him, he’s very level headed. He knows what he wants to do and what he wants to achieve.
“So it’s an all-round great signing. I would rank it as one of our best signings during my time at the club.”
In the forwards Watson has recruited heavily, with new signings Sebastine Ikahihifo, Pauli Pauli, Luke Yates, Connor Jones, Jack Ormondroyd and James Greenwood boosting an already strong pack of forwards.
“I was watching Luke Yates before he came to London, but we didn’t have a quota space at that time,” says Watson.
“I liked him when I saw him play for Newcastle. He is a workhorse first and foremost, and he will be especially important, given that we have lost George Griffin, who was a great player for us. He will go really well for Castleford and I can’t say enough about him.
“And I’ve liked Sebastine Ikahihifo for a couple of years. I like the way he plays the game; he causes defences problems, has good offloads and he is explosive in the way he carries the ball. In signing him I wanted a bit of a contrast from some of the middles we already had. I have been really impressed with him in training and I can’t wait to see him in action.”
While at Huddersfield, Ikahihifo was selected in the Super League Dream Team in 2017, but had since fallen out of favour with Giants’ coach Simon Woolford. But Watson has no doubt about his potential to contribute to Salford’s 2020 season.
“Sometimes you need to feel that the coach believes in you. As a club we are good at identifying which players will fit our team.
“Last season we had Pauli Pauli for a month and we wanted to keep him. He was brilliant with us. We are big about work ethic and he really bought into that. Pauli wants to achieve things, and he is happy and settled with his family, having had a baby recently. He wanted to come in and train before we even came back. He has had a really good pre-season so far.
“Connor Jones has got plenty of repetitions in training and he’s a little different to Joey Lussick, but he’s smart and quick around the ruck area. His tackle technique shows he is good enough to come into Super League, tackling around the midriff and dominating the ball carrier.”
Having said that, Watson accepts that he faces a major challenge to build on what his club achieved last season.
“That’s the challenge for us as a coaching team, as players and as a club.
“We had a great season last year and we have lost some valuable players from that squad.
“But we feel that we have recruited well and it’s up to us to get the best outcome to become a constant challenger like, perhaps in the same way that Castleford have.
“I have always had a mentality of knowing that I have to build a team. Once you start doing well you end up losing players. So you have to replace them, and that’s been the process we have followed. We are slowly improving year on year, becoming more competitive.
“I’m confident that’s what we can achieve.”
2020 Squad: 1 Niall Evalds, 2 Ed Chamberlain, 3 Kris Welham, 4 Dan Sarginson, 5 Krisnan Inu, 6 Tui Lolohea, 7 Kevin Brown, 8 Lee Mossop, 9 Joey Lussick, 10 Gil Dudson, 11 Ryan Lannon, 12 Pauli Pauli, 13 Tyrone McCarthy, 14 Sebastine Ikahihifo, 15 Adam Walker, 16 Greg Burke, 17 Luke Yates, 18 Chris Atkin, 19 Mark Flanagan, 20 Josh Johnson, 21 James Greenwood, 22 Rhys Williams, 23 Ken Sio, 24 Elliot Kear, 25 Connor Jones, 26 Jack Ormondroyd.
INS: Dan Sarginson (Wigan Warriors), Kevin Brown (Warrington Wolves), Pauli Pauli (Wakefield Trinity), Sebastine Ikahihifo (Hudderfield Giants), Luke Yates (London Broncos), Chris Atkin (Hull Kingston Rovers), James Greenwood (Hull Kingston Rovers), Rhys Williams (London Broncos), Elliot Kear (London Broncos), Connor Jones (Featherstone Rovers), Jack Ormondroyd (Leeds Rhinos)
OUTS: Junior Sa’o (Leigh Centurions), Jake Bibby (Wigan Warriors), Robert Lui (Leeds Rhinos), Jackson Hastings (Wigan Warriors), Josh Wood (Wakefield Trinity), Josh Jones (Hull FC), George Griffin (Castleford Tigers), Ben Nakubuwai (released), Logan Tomkins (Widnes Vikings), Daniel Murray (Hull Kingston Rovers), Greg Johnson (Bradford Bulls), Derrell Olpherts (Castleford Tigers), Adam Lawton (Newcastle Thunder)
5 January: Salford Red Devils 52 Swinton Lions 4
11 January: Salford Red Devils 40 Leigh Centurions 4
23 January: Warrington Wolves 26 Salford Red Devils 10 (Mike Cooper Testimonial Game)
Head Coach: Ian Watson
Assistant Coach: Paul Rowley
Strength and Conditioning Coach: Greg Brown.
Head of Analysis: Chris Nelson
Head of Youth and Reserve Team Head Coach: Danny Barton
Reserve Team Manager: John Blackburn
Player Welfare Officer: Marlon Billy
Home shirt: Red, White and Black
Away shirt: Dark blue with pink shoulders