Ben Long previews Wakefield Trinity’s road trip to Salford this Sunday.
The struggling hosts, Salford, enter this crunch-game with one win and three defeats, while the visitors, Wakefield, travel to the AJ Bell with one win and two defeats to their name.
It may still be very early days in the 2020 Super League campaign but this is a huge game as both clubs, who have respectively got off to underwhelming starts, will have targeted this encounter as one they absolutely have to win if they’re serious about an unlikely top 5 charge.
The 2019 Grand Finalists, Salford, will view Wakefield at home as a good opportunity to kick-start their season, while Wakefield will equally fancy their chances against a Salford side who have already lost at the AJ Bell to West Yorkshire clubs Huddersfield Giants and Leeds Rhinos.
Salford Red Devils
The Red Devils seriously need to improve performances and results if an historic 2019 isn’t to become a very distant memory indeed.
St Helens away was always going to be a hugely challenging start but they weren’t competitive at Totally Wicked Stadium; as a matter of fact, they were destroyed. This was followed up by a needed but very unconvincing 24-16 victory over a desperately poor Toronto side. They lost out narrowly in a real battle-and-scrap clash at home to Huddersfield though in truth the visitors were the better side on the night and they lost again at home the following week, failing to build on an 8-0 lead over the improving Leeds Rhinos and eventually going down 8-22.
It is impossible to maximise the potential of an attacking setup in just four games but averaging just over twelve points scored during the opening four matches of the season will nevertheless be a concern to Salford coach Ian Watson. The lack of progress in terms of attacking cohesion and combinations won’t have been helped by the suspension of Kevin Brown for a headbutt on Jordan Turner during round 3, as the development of Lolohea and Brown’s partnership has been stunted as a result. Chris Atkin, in Brown’s absence, will give Salford a running threat but he isn’t a dominant organiser that will take the pressure off the maverick that is Lolohea.
Niall Evalds, who was Salford’s best player in their defeat against Huddersfield, is a big individual threat to Wakefield on Sunday, a team he has scored five tries in his last four appearances against. A fullback growing in confidence, Evalds has the pace and rugby intelligence to support line breaks and is improving as a pivot in attack. Despite Salford’s miserable start to the season he has two tries and three assists to his name already in 2020.
On the injury front, Salford go into Sunday missing influential three-quarter Krisnan Inu. Excellent at attacking high kicks and capable of an outrageous offload, Inu is one of Salford’s more dangerous players and will be a miss. They will also be without the services of hard-working forward Tyrone McCarthy, in a game where the battle down the middle will be very important due to both sides struggling for attacking cohesion during the opening few rounds of the season.
The visitors of Sunday’s clash have made an indifferent but not hopeless start to the season. A desperately disappointing and deserved 30-12 defeat at relegation-tipped Hull KR was followed by a shock 18-8 victory over the much-fancied Warrington Wolves. However, it was an all-too familiar story for Wakefield at the Jungle as they lost 32-15 to Castleford, failing to win the West Yorkshire derby for an unprecedented fourteenth time in a row.
There have been a couple of positive signs for Wakefield during the opening few rounds of the campaign but similar frailties to the second half of last season have been evident: lacking creativity and attacking ideas in the opposition 20 and struggling to maintain a high level of defensive intensity throughout a match. In the defeat to Castleford for example Wakefield’s energy and intensity levels in both attack and defence were very high but they failed to emulate them in the second half, not helped at all by the sin-bins.
Joe Westerman has been Wakefield’s standout performer during the opening three rounds of the season. An influential loose forward, his distribution as a first receiver in attack has been efficient. He has given the team good go forward when carrying the ball and his contact in defence has been very solid. When Westerman has the right attitude, he is capable of offering so much in both attack and defence and has taken some responsibility in terms of leadership in the absence of David Fifita. If Wakefield can keep him fully fit, he is the signing that can genuinely improve them.
On the injury front, Wakefield will still be without talisman forward David Fifita. They badly miss his leadership, carries and presence; but the rest of the pack simply have to step up. Wakefield will also be without the likes of Tinirau Arona, Ryan Hampshire and Danny Brough through injury.
The match will be a real battle-and-scrap.
Two sides desperate for the win and looking low on quality so far. Salford are a side that are generally quite high on endeavour and aggression; on home soil they will want to go out with a physical approach and really dominate the wrestle and collision.
Wakefield however should have the size and physicality to cope with Salford up the middle and in the absence of pivots Ryan Hampshire and Danny Brough they will look to gain as much ground as possible in the forwards battle.
The conditions are likely to be wet and windy so there will be an emphasis on low-risk rugby throughout the eighty minutes. Discipline, set completion and kicking game will all be equally vital factors, whichever team manages the conditions better will more than likely come away with the two points. It is sure to be a dogged, gritty affair rather than free-flowing, high-quality rugby.
Pauli Pauli vs Kelepi Tanginoa
It would be fair to say that Pauli’s stint at Wakefield didn’t work out and he should be well up for the battle on Sunday against his old club. Pauli, arguably the biggest player in Super League is up against the lighter but much more mobile Kelepi Tanginoa on Sunday in what looks like an important and intriguing battle. With the return of prop Chris Green, the athletic Tanginoa looks set to return to his favoured position in the back-row. Pauli can be a barnstorming runner but the pace, power and aggression of Tanginoa could prove a big test for him defensively.
Tui Lolohea vs Jacob Miller
The two senior halfbacks on show, Sunday will prove a somewhat awkward test for both Miller and Lolohea, two out-and-out running halfbacks who will have to take more responsibility in kicking and organisation departments in the absences of Kevin Brown and Danny Brough respectively. Two former NRL playmakers, Miller and Lolohea will be equally keen to come out on top in this individual battle. The predicted wet and windy conditions will be a big test of adaption for both halfbacks, as they are both generally known for their unpredictable and off-the-cuff styles of play respectively.
Niall Evalds vs Alex Walker
If the predicted forecast proves to be accurate it will be a very challenging afternoon for both fullbacks on show. Niall Evalds, who has been a solid performer for Salford since his breakthrough season in 2015, took his game to another level in 2019 and is currently recognised as one of the better Fullbacks in the competition. Alex Walker meanwhile isn’t a bad player either and is renowned for his consistency under high kicks; he will also be very keen to make a good impression on his Wakefield debut. Both Evalds and Walker will need to be right at the top of their games on Sunday as the attacking service they receive is likely to be limited quality and the kicks will prove very difficult to deal with in the conditions; in a game where a mistake could so easily prove decisive regarding the result.
Lee Mossop vs Chris Green
Neither side has really been firing on all cylinders from an attacking point-of-view during the opening few weeks of the season so the forwards battle should have a fair-sized bearing on the result. Mossop was tremendous in Salford’s narrow defeat to Huddersfield and on his return from injury, he will be desperate and determined to keep some sort of momentum going. Chris Green meanwhile has endured a frustrating start to the season through injury and on his first appearance of the season should be desperate to rip into Salford’s front-rowers. Green is a towering prop forward and his battle with Mossop should be a competitive and significant one.
Joey Lussick vs Kyle Wood
The two first-choice number nines on show will have a fascinating battle. Lussick is a serious threat close to the line and doesn’t miss many tackles, while Wakefield’s Kyle Wood is a dangerous dummy-half runner and is one of his team’s more experienced players. In a game that is sure to be a critical battle up the middle, the defensive contact and durability of both Lussick and Wood will be put to the test.
Prediction: Salford by 8
This seems a very gilt-edged opportunity for Salford to kick-start their season and at home against a side also struggling for form they should have just about enough. This could undoubtedly go either way mind.