Salford Red Devils were one of a number of teams to surprise everyone in 2017. While Castleford were streaking away with the League Leaders Shield and Wakefield Trinity were pushing Saints and Wigan all the way for a semi-final spot, the Red Devils spent much of the regular season on course for the semi-finals themselves.
They fell away during the Super 8s, winning just one of their seven matches in that stage of the competition but still a finish of seventh overall represented a much better performance than most people thought Ian Watson’s side was capable of given that they had only just squeaked past Hull KR in the 2016 Million Pound Game. Eight points down with just two minutes to play they produced a miraculous recovery before Gareth O’Brien’s golden point kept them in the top flight at the expense of the Robins. They didn’t waste the opportunity, at least not in the regular season.
Now as they enter the 2018 campaign they are being widely tipped once more to struggle. The loss of Ben Murdoch-Masila to Warrington Wolves was always going to be a heavy one, while midfield schemers Michael Dobson and Todd Carney have also departed in the off season. Both have been released while the Walne brothers Adam and Jordan have left for Huddersfield Giants and Hull KR respectively. Robert Lui has been retained so that the loss of Carney may not be so keenly felt as that of Dobson, while Jack Littlejohn is the man brought in by Watson to take over the halfback role. The 26-year-old has 21 NRL appearances to his name during spells with Manly Sea Eagles and Wests Tigers but has never really established himself in the Australasian competition. As well as operating at seven he can also fill in at hooker should Logan Tomkins or Kriss Brining need any help in that department.
Luke Burgess is known mostly for being the only one of the famous rugby league brothers who doesn’t appear to make either women or England coaches swoon at the very sight of him. Nevertheless he is a very capable player and arrives in Salford after an injury hit spell with Catalans Dragons. He has amassed 70 NRL appearances in spells with South Sydney Rabbitohs and Manly Sea Eagles and played 80 times for Leeds Rhinos after emerging on the scene in 2007. If he can stay fit his experience will be invaluable but that if is a very very big if. The sort of if that would struggle to get through the door.
If the halfback partnership of Littlejohn and Lui gels then the Red Devils could surprise people again. In O’Brien they have one of the more dynamic fullbacks in the league who can also operate in the halves, while in Greg Johnson, Junior Sau, Niall Evalds and Manu Vatuvei Watson has plenty of pace at his disposal. A posse of former Saints look after things up front, with top offloader Josh Jones joined by Mark Flanagan, Lama Tasi and the recent addition of former academy starlet Levi Nzoungou. Thirty-one year old Welsh international prop Craig Kopczak will go around again despite persistent rumours that he would either retire or else finish his career elsewhere and he could be hugely influential in the pack also.
Salford start the season with a home date with a Wigan Warriors side looking to bounce back from suffering the indignity of missing the playoffs in 2017, before they go to Wakefield in Round 2. Chris Chester’s side are much more fancied than perhaps at any time in the Super League era and will represent a difficult test for the men from the AJ Bell Stadium. Round 3 sees Hull KR visit at the end of February which means a return not only for Jordan Walne but also for Rovers coach Tim Sheens who had a consultancy role with the Red Devils up until 2016. Tough away games follow in Round 4 and 5 as Watson’s side go to St Helens and Castleford in early March and it doesn’t get any easier when back to back Challenge Cup winners Hull FC rock up at the AJ Bell in Round 6. You get the feeling that wins against Wakefield and Hull KR are imperative and if the Red Devils can snatch a win over one of the more illustrious sides on the schedule in that early run of fixtures it will set them up nicely for the rest of the season. A continuation of their Super 8s form from the back end of last season could however see them slapped bang into the middle of a relegation fight before we get into April.
It really could go either way with Salford this term.