Salford capitalise after St Helens lose concussed stand-off Theo Fages

Aaron Bower at the AJ Bell Stadium
St Helens’ Theo Fages, left, battles with Salford’s Gregory Johnson. Fages left the field early on and did not return after a failed concussion assessment. Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters

In recent years, there have been occasions to suggest the tide is finally turning for rugby league in Salford, but these are the moments where it feels like hope may finally spring eternal for a club seemingly capable of stepping out of the Super League shadows at long last.

Ian Watson has spoken publicly about Salford’s desire to break the competition’s status quo at the top, and it is that ambition which perhaps forced the club to tie down one of the game’s most exciting young coaches to a new three-year contract last week.

For all the talk – and rightly so – of the burgeoning reputation of British coaches such as Daryl Powell and Lee Radford, the job Watson is doing in turning around a side who narrowly avoided relegation during last year’s Million Pound Game is nothing short of sensational.

That it is only six months on from that dramatic win against Hull KR seems unthinkable given the scale of the turnaround Watson has produced. This latest victory, their fourth in five games, moves Salford into the top four and level on points with the leaders, Hull FC. Salford fans would not deny that, based on recent history, this is positively nosebleed territory.

“We won’t get carried away,” Watson said afterwards. “If we forget we’ve got to work hard, we’ll lose sight of where we’re going. We’ve got to take things week by week but I’m absolutely made up.”

This was a victory which was built around all the positive traits Watson has instilled at Salford. Culture is an oft-overlooked asset in rugby league but the Red Devils possess it in abundance. They also possess attacking flair and a hardy bunch of fans – no more than 4,000 – who create a tribalistic atmosphere not too dissimilar from the so-called bigger sides in Super League.

St Helens, who have enjoyed a return to form themselves of late with back-to-back wins prior to this, were far from woeful, but as Keiron Cunningham alluded to post-match, they were beaten by a side who seem capable of bright things this season. “They’re playing well,” he said. “We’ve got to start better, though – but credit to the players, they hung in there without being at their best.”

Cunningham’s plans were not helped when the half-back Theo Fages was forced off in the opening set with a head injury which ruled him out of the remainder of the game. He would subsequently reshuffle his pivots on numerous occasions – and that enabled Salford to open up a commanding lead they would not relinquish.

They led 8-0 at the break thanks to a try from the outstanding Craig Kopczak and two goals from Michael Dobson, before the latter – who ended the night with 16 points to his name – added a try of his own shortly after half-time to make it 14-0.

St Helens threatened a comeback courtesy of tries from Alex Walmsley and Ryan Morgan but, even with a man in the sin bin after Robert Lui was shown a yellow card, Salford secured victory when Dobson crossed for his second, with Jonny Lomax’s late try for Saints mere consolation.

Salford O’Brien; Johnson, Welham, Jones, Carney; Lui, Dobson; Tasi, Tomkins, Mossop, Murdoch-Masila, Griffin, Flanagan. Interchange Kopczak, Walne, Brining, Carney.

Tries Kopczak, Dobson 2. Goals Dobson 4, O’Brien

St Helens Lomax; Owens, Morgan, Percival, Makinson; Fages, Smith; Walmsley, Roby, Douglas, Taia, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Wilkin. Interchange Amor, Walker, Lee, Peyroux.

Tries Walmsley, Morgan, Lomax. Goal Percival

Referee J Child.

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