DEVILS IN THE DETAIL
Salford Red Devils coach Paul Rowley refuses to allow a few narrow defeats to overshadow a successful season and he remains optimistic for the club and the sport.
FEW clubs sum up the small margins involved in the current Super League campaign better than Salford Red Devils.
Going into a mid-season break while the Challenge Cup semi-finals were taking place, Paul Rowley’s side lost back-to-back home games by two points to play-off rivals, first Leeds and then Leigh.
It left them out of the top six, whereas two wins would have seen them joint third. In a further 10 games this year, the Red Devils have been involved in matches decided by 10 points or less. It’s the nature of the beast in 2023, and makes the season run-in all the more fascinating and intriguing.
With that in mind, Rowley chose to give his players a mini break while the race for Wembley was unfolding, with those two losses playing a part in his decision.
“We’ve got a small squad and we’ve really had the foot on the accelerator doing high revs, so every time we have an opportunity to give the boys a break that’s what we do,” Rowley explained.
“It’s not just physical, it’s mental as well. We’re squeezing every last bit of juice out of them every single week.
“We had a couple of close defeats as well, which can be emotionally taxing. The break came at a good time before we go again. We’ve got a good bunch, a resilient bunch, but they’re still human beings and need a break.
“It was the manner of those defeats as well. We always want to be masters of our own destiny and downfall, but there were some contributing factors in those games that we look back on as being really disappointing.
“I can point blank say that there were officiating errors in both games, and when it’s close, obviously they can end up influencing the result somewhat.
“We don’t dwell on it and I try not to look at the league table. We also have so much respect for our opponents, and both games were against two teams that play good rugby – there’s certainly no bitterness.
“We want to win every game and get everything right all the time, but we’re realistic and know errors will be made. Sometimes if you’re in a slump it feels like it’s always going against you and never with you, and there was a bit of feeling of that around the club.
“But it’s not a good road to tread really and I try and keep our narrative away from that, as hard as it can be sometimes. We try and control the controllables, but it’s fair to say that the supporters and people in and around the club have been very frustrated.”
Rowley certainly hasn’t been frustrated – at any point of the season – by his players. “I couldn’t ask any more of them,” he says. “It’s been very rare that I’ve felt disappointed in what we’ve been doing.
“There are always individual things or mitigating circumstances within our club – we rush players back because of the squad size, and people play with injuries or illness. Those are the things people don’t see.
“I’m never disappointed in this group of players in terms of their efforts on the field. If we can get a healthy first 17 out there then we can fulfil all of our ambitions, dreams and goals, but it is a risky strategy to go with low numbers. We hear time and time again that the teams with a healthy squad are the ones in and around the cup finals and that has hurt us a lot this year.”
Still, Rowley doesn’t shy away from his ambitions for the rest of the campaign, one that has thrown up a host of shock results and produced a scenario where most matches are now difficult to call with any degree of confidence. The Salford coach believes that unpredictability is something the sport should highlight more than it does.
“There have been loads of influencing factors this year – there has been some inconsistency in some teams,” he explains.
“It’s the nature of the beast that being a predominantly northern sport, northern people like to find fault in things rather than enjoy the good times, and as a sport we can be overcritical and seek perfection.
“Sometimes we should just sit back and embrace what a marvellous sport we have and the superb and honest athletes that play it.
“Super League this year has been fantastic the way it’s playing out and the close nature of it. Sport is all about unpredictability – that’s why we watch it. Nobody wants to turn up knowing who’s going to win already.
“There are some areas that need investment – I’ve touched on officials and we need some more help, funding and finance to support them. I’m with them not against them, but when the sport is so close we should invest in giving them the tools to make correct decisions, via technology as much as anything.”
Asked about his own goals for 2023, it is put to Rowley that Rugby League World isn’t expecting him to say he wants to win Super League. He quickly dismisses that notion.
“I wanted to win the Challenge Cup, I wanted us to be League Leaders and I want to win the Grand Final,” he adds.
“Everybody probably thinks that’s delusional but I’m a competitor and when we’ve got a full squad I know we can compete. If I don’t believe, then no matter how distant a dream it is, we would attack things half-hearted.
“I want us to walk tall and proud, I’ve always said that I don’t want us to creep into anywhere. The city of Salford has proud people who stand tall and that’s synonymous with our squad.
“I want to win everything we take part in – I’m realistic and know that won’t happen, but it won’t stop me trying.”
First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 487 (August 2023)