Will the 18th man win it for Salford?

MARTYN SADLER reflects on the rise of the Red Devils

Until recently I was highly sceptical of the claims of those people who say that a boisterous crowd can have a significant impact on the outcome of a sporting contest.

But now I’m beginning to change my mind.

Rugby League clubs often refer to their supporters as the eighteenth man and at the DW Stadium last Friday night I thought that description was absolutely accurate.

The Red Devils had around 4,000 fans in the stand behind the goalposts, and their presence seemed to unsettle Wigan, whose own supporters were notable mainly by their absence in an official crowd figure of 9,858.

The Wigan fans hadn’t really taken to the play-offs, perhaps because their team hasn’t played well recently, culminating in that humiliating 40-10 defeat at St Helens a week earlier.

On the other hand, Salford, after their 18-12 defeat against Wigan in the opening week of the play-offs, responded to that defeat by holding out Castleford to zero points the following week, and then they returned to the DW Stadium and not only defeated Wigan, but hammered them.

It wasn’t just the tries they scored or their outstanding defence. It was the way they put right the errors they had made a fortnight earlier and thereby didn’t give Wigan any opportunities to hit back at them.

The key statistic for Salford was that they only made two handling errors in the match, compared to Wigan’s 12. In the game two weeks’ earlier they had made 12 themselves.

That allowed them to have a completion rate of 91 per cent, compared to Wigan’s 69 per cent.

When you have a match with statistics like that, there is normally only one winner, and so it proved.

Jackson Hastings was voted the man of the match, and after the match Jackson cited Gil Dudson as the player who should have had the nomination. But my vote would have gone to Josh Jones, who was the dominant forward on the field by quite a long way, in my view.

He made 160 metres from 20 carries, with three offloads, and he caused Wigan endless problems, constantly bursting through the first point of contact. St Helens should be warned, when he faces his former club at Old Trafford this Saturday.

On the other hand, one of the quietest Salford players on the pitch was Niall Evalds, the fullback who had been the hero a week earlier with that brilliant cover tackle on Jordan Rankin. This week, Wigan posed very little threat and Evalds’ workload was much more limited than against the Tigers a week earlier.

We have all seen the wonderful development of some of the young Wigan forwards this season, but Jones, Dudson, Lee Mossop and the rest of the Salford pack demonstrated that in crucial matches experience counts for a lot.

And the thing that I suspect is motivating a lot of Salford’s players as the season reaches its climax is the fact that they know that the Red Devils’ squad will break up after the Grand Final, with Hastings and Jake Bibby going to Wigan, Jones to Hull FC, George Griffin and Derrell Olpherts to Castleford and Logan Tomkins set to leave the club but with no other club having yet formally signed him.

Given the way in which Hastings in particular has dedicated himself to the Salford club since his arrival at the A J Bell Stadium in 2018, I wasn’t surprised to see him in tears after the game. And it was a nice touch to allow him to walk out onto the pitch with his sisters before the start of the game. They had travelled to the game with his parents from Australia and their presence seemed to emphasise the spirit within the club.

And that spirit is reflected Salford’s supporters, who were thrilled when club captain Lee Mossop scored the final try of the game right in front of them. If ever a try was well deserved, that one was.

It was interesting to see that in the mass ranks of those Salford supporters, only a modest percentage seemed to be decked out in Red Devils’ replica shirts, which may suggest that some of them have been late coming to the party.

I suspect that the Salford club shop will have done a roaring trade this week as more and more fans jump on their bandwagon, with almost 10,000 tickets having now been sold for the Grand Final. And I’m sure every one of them will be hugely welcome for a club that is at last hitting the heights.

But can they beat St Helens?

And how important will their 18th man be? Will the Red Devils make more noise on the night than the St Helens supporters?

The problem Salford will face on Saturday will be to prevent St Helens scoring a couple of early tries and killing the game before half-time.

The Red Devils have been outstanding in their last two games, nilling Castleford and only conceding one try to Wigan that came late in the game.

Their defence will need to be that good again, and their handling will need to be error-free if they are going to beat Saints on Saturday.

But in a tight game, who’s to say that their supporters won’t shout them home?

This is a revised version of an article that first appeared in this week’s League Express.
A full report, photos and comment from Saturday’s Betfred Super League Grand Final will feature in Monday’s edition of League Express, available both online and from all good newsagents.