On eve of Grand Final Ian Watson reveals Salford were eyeing Challenge Cup glory
Salford have the Super League trophy within their grasp but coach Ian Watson has revealed the Challenge Cup was the piece of silverware they really had their sights on at the start of the season.
Because of the small size of the squad he put together on a shoestring budget, Watson says Wembley was a more realistic target but a second-round home defeat by Hull KR in May forced them to re-adjust their aims.
A run of three straight defeats then put Watson’s men in relegation trouble, just four points above bottom club London Broncos, but they lost just two of their last 12 matches of the regular season to secure a third-placed finish.
Victory over second-placed Wigan in last Friday’s final eliminator clinched a maiden Grand Final appearance and now only St Helens stand in their way of the big prize.
“We asked the players in pre-season to get together as a group and discuss what they thought about what we could achieve and they all came back positive, saying we could win something,” said Watson, 42, who was not born when Salford last won the league in 1976.
“The one we highlighted actually was the Challenge Cup because we thought, being realistic, we only had a small squad and, with Super League being over 29 rounds and the play-offs after that, this might be the tougher challenge.
“In the Challenge you don’t have as many games and they’re one-off fixtures.
“Obviously we fell out of the Challenge Cup and we had to re-focus our goals and all that was left was the actual Super League Grand Final.”
Of all the Super League clubs, the Red Devils have comfortably the shortest journey to Old Trafford – it is a 15 minute-drive from the AJ Bell Stadiium – but the odds against the cash-strapped Red Devils reaching their goal lengthened when influential stand-off Rob Lui was sold to Leeds in June.
However the swap for Tui Lolohea worked out better than Watson could have imagined.
Lolohea was the makeweight in the deal, having failed to make an impression at the Rhinos, but in partnership with Jackson Hastings, he quickly discovered the form that made him a regular with the Tongan Test team.
Watson said: “It was a decision for Robbie and his family and, when Leeds started to throw money at us, we’re a club that probably couldn’t resist at that time.
“It was a massive blow but I would say since Tui has come in, his level of consistency is probably why we’re here.
“He’s given us a contrast with Jacko in terms of how he plays. There’s a lot of stuff he does that goes unnoticed and Jacko gets the plaudits.
“The one thing we were really worried about when he came was his defence but we spent a lot of time talking about that and his defence has been outstanding.”
Despite the presence of newly-crowned Man of Steel Hastings, Salford remain the outsiders at Old Trafford but that is fine with Watson.
“We’re the obvious underdog but we know what we need to do as a team to be successful,” he said.
“This is why you play rugby league, it’s what you work really hard for. To come here and not be excited by it, you’d be missing a trick.”