St Helens will need a top performance to beat this Salford Red Devils team

A week ago Salford Red Devils lost their final home game in the regular season against Warrington Wolves, with their coach Paul Rowley having left out their four key spine players of Ryan Brierley, Brodie Croft, Marc Sneyd and Andy Ackers.

It meant that the Red Devils dropped from fifth to sixth place in the table, with Leeds Rhinos moving up into fifth place. It also meant that Salford would travel to Huddersfield rather than Perpignan for their opening play-off game.

In last week’s Salford media conference I asked the coach whether that was all part of the plan, which he denied strongly.

Obviously, I’m happy to take him at his word, but if he had planned it, it could hardly have worked out any better.

Apart from anything else, the relatively short journey to Huddersfield allowed a huge posse of Salford supporters to accompany their team to the John Smith’s Stadium and they played a great part in shouting their team home.

“Give us your hearts, and we’ll give you ours,” was how Rowley explained the connection between the team and its supporters and that seemed particularly appropriate, especially during a week in which the events of the day tugged at a lot of heart strings.

The team that scores the first try in a Rugby League match very often goes on to win the game. On Saturday, Salford, who had already gone in front with a penalty, scored the first try through Joe Burgess after Tyler Dupree charged down a Theo Fages kick and Chris Hill knocked on the rebound. The Red Devils had a scrum deep in the Giants’ half and the ball was moved smartly through Marc Sneyd and Ryan Brierley to Burgess.

Three minutes later, the brilliant Brodie Croft burst through the Giants’ defensive line and handed on to Kallum Watkins for the second try. And with both tries being converted by Sneyd for a 14-0 lead, the Giants were already facing a mountain to climb.

They didn’t seem to have an answer, even when Brierley was sinbinned for illegally pulling down Tui Lolohea when the Giants’ fullback broke and kicked to the line.

Try as they might, the Giants couldn’t breach the Salford defence and their frustration was typified when Lolohea threw a pass into touch.

It was already dawning on the Huddersfield supporters that this wasn’t going to be their day and that Salford’s incessant willingness to keep the ball alive at every opportunity was going to pay dividends, while their defence, especially near their own line, was going to be decisive.

Having said that, when Croft was injured and had to leave the field just before half-time before failing a head-injury assessment, we all wondered whether the Red Devils would be able to maintain their first-half momentum without the player who had inspired so much of it.

And that feeling was magnified right at the start of the second half, when Sebastine Ikahihifo ran straight over the top of Brierley in an awesome charge forward. The Giants’ fans could have been forgiven for thinking at that point that the fortunes of the two sides were going to radically change in the final 40 minutes.

Soon afterwards Ken Sio and Deon Cross did well to tackle Ricky Leutele into touch but we asked ourselves how long it would be before the walls would be breached.

But they never were and soon after Leroy Cudjoe was penalised for a crusher tackle on Brierley, it was the Red Devils’ fullback who scored a joyful try, touching down Sneyd’s perfectly calibrated grubber, that extended the lead to 22 points with 30 minutes remaining.

That was a crucial score because it seemed to deflate the Giants, who suddenly realised that the game, and their season, was up.

It remained for Andy Ackers to put the icing on the cake almost on the full-time hooter with a brilliant individual try scored from dummy-half, selling a brilliant dummy to touch down.

I can only imagine how disappointing this defeat must have been for Ian Watson, his players and the Giants’ supporters, who had come so close to winning the Challenge Cup at Tottenham in May and who looked such well-qualified contenders to reach Old Trafford. I’m sure they will come again.

But this was Salford’s day and they will no doubt take an even larger number of supporters to St Helens on Saturday, although Croft won’t be playing.

I have no doubt that Saints will not underestimate their opponents.

And they will have to play well to beat them.

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