Food chains are apparent in all walks of life. rugby league is no different.
Unfortunately for Salford Red Devils, they have been somewhere near the bottom of the pile for several years, and don’t they know it.
In recent years the Red Devils have had their livestock picked off by Wolves, Saints, Rhinos, Warriors and a Wolfpack.
Now they have a new predator they’ve felt the wrath of. Tigers.
Red Devils supporters have barely got over the departure of Jackson Hastings and now they’re left contemplating the departure of another prized asset; Niall Evalds, who has signed for Castleford ahead of the 2021 season.
For years, there has been a sense of inevitability that their top talent would leave. Money has dictated that. Riddled with debt, the Red Devils have simply not been able to compete with their peers.
The sale of Ben Murdoch-Masila for £175,000 to Warrington was a piece of business that effectively helped the club survive. The same can be said of Gareth O’Brien’s move to Toronto, which is understood to have brought in a six-figure sum. They were deals that needed to be done to ensure the club’s survival.
Rob Lui’s departure to Leeds was also a tremendous piece of business for the club. While the details of that deal have remained undisclosed, it’s fair to say the Red Devils secured a very profitable deal that included the arrival on Tui Lolohea. As for Jackson Hastings and Josh Jones, the club, simply, could not compete financially with bigger clubs.
Each one of those departures hurt. But the departure of Evalds hurts most.
This is the most painful because it wasn’t inevitable. It wasn’t essential. And to an extent, it wasn’t expected.
Salford are by no means the biggest spenders. In fact, they remain the lowest spenders in Super League.
But under the stewardship of Ian Blease and director Paul King they have stabilised off the pitch and under the leadership of Ian Watson, they have grown on it.
Last year saw the club reach a Grand Final for the first time and in doing so, they became only the eighth team to reach Old Trafford in 22 years.
The combined effort of those three men has seen the club’s stature grow. It gave them an opportunity to climb the food chain. Or so they thought.
Evalds has been a key component of Salford’s team for years. He is the club’s leading try-scorer of the Super League era and the last player to remain from their time at The Willows.
As such, they offered him a deal they felt was enough to make him stay. They believed they’d presented him a contract that was as good as, if not better, than Castleford’s and would keep him at the club for years to come.
They thought his retention would give the team stability, something Watson has strived for ever since he became the club’s head coach. All he has wanted is the chance to retain and reinforce rather than rebuild. Their progress over the last two years got them into a position where that appeared to be a realistic hope.
But losing Evalds damages that. Had Salford been able to boast of Evalds’ re-signing, it would have been a statement of intent to not only their other existing off-contract players but also to potential new recruits considering a move to Salford. Make no doubt about it, had Evalds, who has emerged as one of the competition’s top fullbacks, remained at the club, it would have made a move to Salford much more appealing. The departure of another key player will not only cast doubt among the rest of their squad but also those players considering a move to the club.
The consolation for Salford is that if history is anything to go by, they will find a way to replace him. Watson’s ability to adapt Salford’s game around what he has at his disposal has been nothing short of incredible. With no disrespect intended, Salford reached the Grand Final with a bunch of misfits.
It’s hard to think of many players who have suffered after joining Salford in recent years. For the majority, their reputation has been enhanced, often significantly, after joining the club. That trajectory doesn’t always continue after they leave. The Red Devils will hope that is noted.
Unfortunately, in the case of Evalds, all of that wasn’t enough to keep him at the club.
The sadness and animosity surrounding his departure isn’t because it marks the end of an era, but that it reinforces a reality Salford aren’t willing to accept anymore.