When the Salford Red Devils open their Super 8s The Qualifiers mini league tonight there is much more at stake than the club's Super League survival. In this era of hyperbole and over egging the pudding it is a statement of realism to question the Red Devils whole future if they are relegated from Super League.
In the club's long history, it has been relegated from the top flight many times and on each occasion it has found the resolve to fight back, playing the role of the unfashionable rugby league underdog, in some ways echoing the working-class spirit and never give up grittiness of this city pre-gentrification.
But, at some point, there is a knockdown which cannot be beaten and the referee waves the fight off at the count of 10. Is 2018 going to be one of those occasions?
Strictly speaking the Red Devils should not be relegated. The team spirit that coach Ian Watson has instilled and the key players in the squad should ensure this. However, we all thought similar things in 2016, the last time the club flirted with this end of season system, on that occasion escaping relegation with the 'miracle on Humberside' when dead and buried; a Lazarus-like come back and a monster drop goal by Gareth O'Brien saw them prevail.
But what if they are relegated, as in the cases of the Hull KR and Leigh in the last two years? Hull KR came back up and are competing to avoid the drop with Salford this year. Leigh did not bounce back and recently imploded when their benefactor pulled the plug. Indeed, Bradford Bulls, the Championship team which lost the first Million Pound Game in this new format in 2015, went into financial meltdown and were relegated to League 1 at the end of 2017.
What Will Happen To Salford If The Trapdoor Opens?
Reasoned speculation and my own opinion is to think that the club would have serious problems without a benefactor to bank-role a promotion push. The club would have to rely on the income it could generate from match day attendances, TV revenue, sponsorship and other match day income. All will fall if relegated. If revenue, as we have seen this season, is not enough to compete at Super League level now, how in the short term will the club obtain the revenue to get back up and then compete? Incidentally how many people will also lose their jobs?
Red Devils' Trust spokesman Andrew Rosler told the Salford Star in a previous interview that "it's a fallacy to say we [Salford] were massively supported at the Willows, we weren't".
Whilst this statement holds water when compared to other teams, the problem is that since moving to Barton the statistics indicate (not including 2018) that attendances have dropped by around 500 supporters (20%) in the seasons at Barton when compared with the Super League seasons at he Willows. One can only see these figures dropping, even if home fans stay, as the club's hard-core support appears to be consistent, away support will drop markedly as most of these teams are not as well supported.
Whilst the club did have, as Andrew Rosler said, a benefactor (John Wilkinson), and a cynic will add in later years soft loans from Salford City Council, the club when at The Willows did have more income streams on matchday as well as being located close to population centres for walk up attendees. We simply do not have that at Barton.
Andrew Rosler told the Star that at the AJ Bell Stadium on match days, outside of ticket sales and after costs are deducted on hospitality, the club only gets money from the sale of programmes. Which essentially means that financially the club was better able to cope with relegation at The Willows than at the AJ Bell Stadium as it had more ways of raising money and in all probability smaller overheads.
The idea that AJ Bell stadium due to its proximity to the M60 is some kind of destination and profile builder (build it and they will come!) is currently a complete misnomer for the club. Firstly, if the proximity to a motorway and passing traffic increase your profile, then Walsall FC should be the best supported club in country being next to one of the busiest sections of the M6.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly in this case, when you drive over Barton motorway bridge the branding which is visible on the stadium is that of AJ Bell and Sale Sharks - how would you know if Salford played there if you didn't already?
In short, in my opinion we cannot afford to be outside of Super League and that's why these Super 8s The Qualifiers are now the most important seven games in the club's history. Let us hope that our Super League status is secure before the Million Pound Game.
Super 8s The Qualifiers and The Million Pound Game
The 'Million Pound Game'! The tawdry and ultimately pathetic name for what has amounted in the last two seasons to be a relegation play-off. Perhaps its name shows everything that is wrong with Rugby League. What's a million pound in sport these days? It's nothing, a little over a week's wages for Lewis Hamilton (£32million a year), a night out for Floyd Mayweather or 6% of Cristiano Ronaldo's £16.6million tax evasion fine.
I could understand such a name back in 2001 when the XFL, an ill-fated American Football League, the brain child of Vince McMahon of WWE fame, saw the teams competing for a million dollar prize in their Grand Final! But, that was a reward for being the best team in the league. Yet we market our Million Pound Game as if the figure means something, it's not a prize! No team has actually been promoted from it, it is an arbitrary amount which a relegated team will lose when the TV revenue and other funds the club needs to survive dries up. Perhaps they should call it the 'Who won't pay their mortgages next year play-off!'
However, this is the cherry on top of the icing of the Super 8s The Qualifiers! I may hate the branding of the Million Pound Game but the idea that the bottom four teams from Super League and the top four from the Championship does add some 'interest' to the end of the season; although I am not sure how much enjoyment the players and fans from the Super League clubs get from it as they have the most to lose and only the status quo to gain.
The format of the competition is simple: the eight teams each play seven games in a mini league, the top three teams gaining/preserving a place in Super League for the next season, the bottom three teams getting a place in the Championship, and two teams in the middle playing off for the final place in Super League. In theory all the teams from the Championship can be promoted and all the Super League teams relegated.
Generally, only one of the teams from the Championship can compete with the Super League clubs. This year it will be the Toronto Wolfpack. In the last two years both Leigh and Hull K.R. have been promoted from the Championship by their mini league position and the Million Pound Game has been a relegation play off, won extraordinarily two years ago by Salford and last year by Catalans Dragons.
The teams contesting the Super 8s Qualifiers in 2018 are Leeds Rhinos (Super League), Hull KR (SL), Salford Red Devils (SL), Widnes Vikings (SL), Toronto Wolfpack (Championship), London Broncos (Champ), Toulouse Olympique XIII (Champ) and Halifax (Champ). If the bookies are correct then we have nothing to worry about. Salford will finish third in the table and Widnes will be relegated after being defeated by Toronto in the 'Million Pound Game'. But bookies are not always correct!
Salford play seven games. Due to our final league position we have three at home and four away. I am actually quite happy with how they have fallen and feel that we should win five of the seven games, with our most difficult games being away to Leeds and Hull KR. Five wins and ten points should see our status secure as in the three previous editions of this competition no team has had to contest the Million Pound Game with ten points.
Salford Red Devils Super 8s Qualifiers Fixtures
Hull Kingston Rovers vs Salford Red Devils
Fri 10th Aug 8pm
KCOM Craven Park
Salford Red Devils vs Widnes Vikings
Sat 18th Aug 3:15pm
AJ Bell Stadium
Halifax RLFC vs Salford Red Devils
Sun 2nd Sep 3pm
The Mbi Shay Stadium
Salford Red Devils vs Toronto Wolfpack
Sat 8th Sep 3:15 pm
AJ Bell Stadium
Leeds Rhinos vs Salford Red Devils
Fri 14th Sep 7:45 pm
Emerald Headingley Stadium
London Broncos vs Salford Red Devils
Sun 23rd Sep 3pm
Salford Red Devils vs Toulouse Olympique XIII
Sun 30th Sep 3pm
AJ Bell Stadium
Breaking Down The Fixtures
Hull Kingston Rovers vs Salford Red Devils Fri 10th Aug
On paper this is one of the Red Devils most difficult games. In the league fixture in July, the Reds were hammered 52-22, another such performance would be damaging as this would harm points difference and give Rovers an advantage. However, Hull KR will be under the most pressure as it is vital for all teams to win their home games and Rovers three away games are very tricky (Toronto, Leeds and Toulouse). A repeat of the Salford victory in the Million Pound Game of 2016 will put Rovers under all kinds of pressure for week two onwards.
Although I would expect a Rover's win, don't count out the Red Devils.
Ones to watch: Leading try scorer Ryan Shaw, play maker Danny McGuire and ex Red Justin Carney - except that Carney and Shaw are both out of the qualifiers..
Salford Red Devils vs Widnes Vikings Sat 18th Aug 3:15 pm
All of the Reds three home games are must win. We beat the Vikings in June 26-12, since then Widnes have lost all seven games, including last night's defeat to London Broncos which already puts them in a mess. They have four tough away games and on current form should struggle to retain their Super League status. Playing them at the AJ Bell takes away Widnes plastic pitch advantage which has often seen them punch higher than their weight class.
Salford to win
One to watch: KrisnanInu; the ex NRL centre has plenty of big match experience, a good offloading game and knows his way to the line.
Halifax RLFC vs Salford Red Devils Sun 2nd Sep 3pm
On league placings the weakest team in The Qualifiers, an away win is essential and it would be handy to boost points difference. Halifax's fixtures are tough and they will be underdogs in all of their games. They will be looking to improve on their record from 2017 where they lost all seven games.
Salford to win
Ones to watch: Half back and Club Captain Scott Murrel and Simon Grix who has over 150 Super League games.
Salford Red Devils vs Toronto Wolfpack Sat 8th Sep 3:15 pm
Circle this game in your diary! If you only go to one game in The Qualifiers then this is it. The Reds have to beat Toronto, as if any club is a threat to their status in Super League it is the team from across the pond. The idea of sports league crossing continents is not new and Rugby Union's Super Rugby competition has teams from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina competing. With the Rugby League World Cup scheduled for 2025 in the USA and Canada it is vital that the Wolfpack compete in Super League…but not at our expense! Toronto won 20 out of their 23 league games this season and have an excellent squad, but their sole game against Super League opposition this season was a heavy defeat to Warrington in the Challenge Cup (66-10).
Salford to win
Ones to watch: Aston Simms and Darcy Lusick (providing grit in the pack, some niggle and plenty of NRL experience), Halfback/hooker Josh McCrone who has plenty of NRL experience and a good kicking game. Ex-Red Gareth O'Brien who will join the line from full back and add plenty of attacking options.
Leeds Rhinos vs Salford Red Devils Fri 14th Sep 7:45 pm
Salford basically never win at Leeds; in a half a century we have something like two wins and a draw. Even when we do have a chance of winning we seem to still get beat as in our 2017 league game, a Rhinos forward pass and try won the game at the death. Anything from this game will be a bonus, even though the Rhinos are in a crisis having recently sacked their coach and having lost the back bone of the squad which had previously won multiple grand finals. The Rhino's support which is normally very good was absent in our easy victory at the AJ Bell a few weeks ago, which perhaps shows the crisis at their club. That being said, at Headingly and with the players they had missing back, they will be a different proposition. In our last four visits to Leeds we have failed to score twice, been hammered once and lost a close game.
Rhinos to win
Ones to watch: Tom Briscoe and Ryan Hall who lead the Rhinos in tries, meters made and offloads. Hall will be especially keen to play well after his new club for 2019 the Syndey Roosters signed former Australia and NSW international Brett Morris who will compete with him for a wing berth.
London Broncos vs Salford Red Devils Sun 23rd Sep 3pm
The Broncos finished second in the Championship behind Toronto, but they actually had the same points as Halifax and Toulouse, which shows how tight positions two, three and four were in that league. Salford should win this game and with no disrespect intended if, as with the Halifax away game, we did not win this game then we do not really deserve to be in Super League.
Salford to win
Ones to watch: Half-back Jarrod Sammut a player whose talent is much greater than the leagues he has played in, was a highly regarded player and Captain when he was in Penrith Panthers' junior system. Eloi Pelissier has recently joined the Broncos, is a lightning fast hooker with plenty of Super League and international experience.
Salford Red Devils vs Toulouse Olympique XIII Sun 30th Sep 3pm
The season finishes with what should be a Salford win against Olympique. If results go the way I expect then Salford will need to win to guarantee not being in the Million Pound Game, whereas Toulouse will need to win to have a chance to get into the 'Million Pound Game'.
Salford to win
Ones to watch: Squad wise Toulouse are heavily French based (which will surprise the cynics) so most of the players are unfamiliar to UK supporters. Their most well-known players are Eddie Pettyborne who played the NRL and for Wigan Warriors as well as Sam Rapira who has played in the NRL, Super League and was a World Cup winner with the Kiwis in 2008.
Who Are Going to Be The Salford Match Winners
Simply if Rob Lui and Jackson Hastings perform Salford will be ok. Salford fans over a certain age will have heart palpitations if the words judging a player on his debut and Paul Carriage are made into a sentence! However, Jackson Hastings does not fall into this category and his debut against Leeds was easily the most impressive performance seen by many in a long time.
The problem Salford may have is actually keeping hold of Hastings beyond this season if he continues his form. Australian coaching guru and pundit Phil Gould said on his Podcast, of Hastings talent and the fall-out of his problems with Manly Sea Eagles, that "when he [Hastings] was 15,16 and 17 he was touted as being easily the best half-back prospect in the country [Australia]. Not by a little bit but by a lot. He was actually really dominant.... He was quite the prodigy coming through". If Phil Gould says you have talent then you do!
If Hastings can overcome his off-field issues he will be the real deal, hopefully at Salford but if not, he will have helped to keep Salford in Super League. Hastings looked quicker in thought, actions and speed and will undoubtedly cause problems to opposition teams.
The other key to Salford's fortunes is Rob Lui. Although he needs the pack to make yards and provide momentum, Lui has consistently been one of Salford's better players this season and has constantly attacked the defensive line causing problems and indecision. Lui ranks highly in the team's statistics for tries, metres made, clean breaks, assists and tackle busts.
There is no doubt Salford have missed Ben Murdoch-Masila this year, as well as explosiveness from dummy half of Kriss Brinning, but with the squad we have it should be enough to remain in Super League. The question is whether the new board with a full off-season, secure the signings, sponsorship etc to make the club go forward?
Words and photos by Dr Gareth Lyons