Five things: Gale for England, Warrington worry and Red disaster
John Davidson takes a look at the weekend of Super League action, which saw Ben Roberts star and more instability at Salford.
1. Gale force
This column mentioned classy Castleford last week and again the Tigers collected another big scalp, this time defending champions St Helens. It was a game with see-sawing momentum, several key errors, but one in that Cas showed real heart and determination to grind out victory. Special credit has to go their halfback, Luke Gale. The playmaker was excellent for the Tigers on Thursday night, kicking with aplomb and steering his team around the park.
Gale arrived in the off-season as the replacement for Marc Sneyd. The scrum-half has done that and more, gelling with Liam Finn and playing so well that there has been calls for an England spot. There’s a clear position available alongside Gareth Widdop, with the likes of Matty Smith, Rangi Chase, Kevin Brown, Richie Myler and Danny McGuire all competing for the number seven England jumper. Gale’s form this season has been as good as any of that five. The former Bradford Bull has scored six tries, set up 11 and has slotted 56 goals, nine below Super League Josh Mantellato. He has great speed, a solid passing game and that bit of X-factor about him. If the 26-year old does get the nod at the end of the year, I don’t think he would let anyone down.
2. Warrington worry
Worrying signs for the Wolves at the moment as they record their fourth loss in their past five games. What is going on with the Wire? Again they looked like they were going through the motions, happy to travel along in second gear, but couldn’t handle it with their opponent started to exert some pressure. It was the same situation on Friday night as it was the Sunday before at Huddersfield. Solid first halves but poor seconds. Both Hull KR and the Giants stepped things up in the second half and ran out comfortable winners.
Warrington has had a few injuries but it is the inconsistency that must be worrying Tony Smith and the lack of fight from his troops. None of his halves has really excelled, Daryl Clark is not setting Super League alight like he did in 2014 and so far Joel Monaghan has only crossed for nine tries, a poor return for a dynamic player who scored 28 last year. But all is not lost for the Wolves, they remain in the top eight and there is still time to turn their season around.
Warrington has been linked with the likes of Cooper Cronk and now Chris Sandow as a marquee signing. They will have Kurt Gidley at the Halliwell Jones next year and another experienced half would go down nicely. There has been some calls for Tony Smith’s axing on social media after the Hull KR defeat, but that would be madness. The Wolves are nine wins and 10 losses so far this year and Smith has won three Challenge Cups and a League Leader’s shield with the club under his tenure. They reached the grand final in 2013 and were one game from the decider in 2014. Smith has the experience and know-how to get them back on top. You don’t turn into a bad coach overnight.
3. Robins bobbing along
News of Terry Campese’ ruptured ACL hit the KC Lightstream Stadium hard. ‘Campo’ had been one of the buys of the season and was in the running for Man of Steel, such was his fantastic form. The injury came at a crucial time, in their loss to Castleford, which was their third in a row. Most expected Hull KR’s chances for the top eight to be gone with the loss of their captain, the bald Aussie with the famous footy surname, for the rest of Super League XX.
But the Robins had displayed some gumption and real grit to notch back-to-back victories, first against Widnes and then against Warrington. Albert Kelly and Maurice Blair have really stood up in the halves, while replacement skipper Tyrone McCarthy was an inspired choice. McCarthy is a real workhorse who tackles himself into the ground and is one of rugby league’s good guys. Kieran Dixon is also coming of age and French rake John Boudebza, a Super League rookie, has been outstanding.
Ken Sio keeps scoring tries and Josh Mantellato has been a welcome addition to the club. If the Robins can keep getting some forwards back to full fitness, like Dane Tilse, they could continue to surprise. Hull KR plays Salford twice, Huddersfield, Hull FC and St Helens, along with a Challenge Cup quarter-final against Catalans, in the next month. They are currently in ninth place, on the same amount of points as their crosstown rivals. Write them off at your peril. Chris Chester has done a great job in bringing his team together after a huge overhaul at the end of 2014. The recruitment has been smart and they’ve already beaten Saints and Wigan twice this year. To make the finals without a star like Campese would be a special feat.
4. Banking on Benny
Luke Gale and Cas were firing on Thursday night and so was their field goal hero, Ben Roberts. The Samoan international redeemed himself in the final minutes, after losing the ball near his own try-line, with the winning drop goal, sending it over almost nonchalantly. It was a fitting result for the halfback who finds himself in the unlikely position of fullback at the moment.
Roberts had a solid, if unspectacular, nine-year career in the NRL before arriving in the UK. He debuted for the Dogs in 2006, made 93 appearances before joining Parramatta in 2012 for two seasons. He then had a year with the Melbourne Storm before signing for Castleford. Born and raised in Sydney, Roberts never really seem to make his mark in the NRL. He was always shifting positions – from halfback to five-eighth, hooker to centre – and never really found a home. He appeared to become a journeyman, a utility destined to try and plug many holes for different teams, but he has played five Tests for New Zealand and 12 for Samoa.
Roberts’ cousin is former Everton midfielder and Australian footballer Tim Cahill. Apart from his heroics in the Premier League, Cahill is best known for his feats for the Socceroos. Cahill has scored in three World Cups and his volley in the 2014 tournament in Brazil against the Dutch was a thing of beauty. Roberts has never commanded the sporting stage like his cousin has but Cahill, who has a penchant for big-time clutch plays, would have approved of the 29-year old’s match-winner against Saints. Daryl Powell will be hoping there’s more of that to come for the half-cum-fullback.
5. Red disaster
What a week for the Salford Red Devils. Kevin Locke resigns, a close loss to Wigan after beating Wakefield and allegations of unpaid employees and debts persist. Salford just can’t get out of the headlines. Marwan Koukash has been under the pump from several quarters and is set to hit back in an explosive press conference on Tuesday.
Koukash has a liking for drama and it will be pushed up on a notch at the presser. The controversial owner plans to give “the full facts” and says he will announce the signing of two world-class props. According to my sources they won’t be Origin reps Paul Gallen and Dave Taylor, but one could be Wests Tigers and Kiwi enforcer Marty Taupau. Regardless of who the club brings in, the Red Devils desperately need some stability.
Salford sits in 11th spot with just six wins from 18 games. Last year they finished 10th. This year they look set for the middle eights and a battle to avoid relegation. Considering the investment poured in, the players recruited and all the hype, that’s a poor return. Tim Sheens would be a good addition to the Red Devils if he can bring some experience, contacts and professionalism. Salford needs to start doing all of its talking on the pitch, where it counts. From the outside, the culture of the club looks very poor and needs to change. Serious questions need to be asked about the coaching future of Iestyn Harris. Koukash’s attempts to buy success so far have failed and the chairman is feeling the heat. Get set for fireworks.