Carl Ablett: Leeds Rhinos fixture at Salford Red Devils is a ‘massive match’

Willie Poching.
Willie Poching.
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I WANT to start this week’s column on a sad note.

I, like I imagine everybody involved in our sport, was shocked when I heard of the death of Adam Cooper, who collapsed during a game for Culcheth Eagles in the North West fourth division last weekend.

Salford coach Ian Watson.

Salford coach Ian Watson.

Adam was 31 – the same age as me – and a father of three. I can’t imagine what his family and friends are going through.

Nobody should go off to play a game of rugby league and not come home. Culcheth aren’t a club I know anything about, but rugby league is like a big family and I am sure everyone will rally round and do what they can.

On behalf of everybody at the Rhinos – particularly the players and staff – I’d like to send sympathy and best wishes to anyone who knew Adam and to everyone associated with Runcorn, who were Culcheth’s opponents last weekend.

There’ll be a minute’s silence before all games this week and I think that is a fitting tribute.

On a happier note, when the fixtures came out last October I don’t suppose many people thought our game at Salford in round 21 would be second versus third in Super League.

That could change before kick-off, but either way it is a massive match and both teams need to win to keep on track for the top four or possibly second spot going into the Super-8s.

Salford are having a fantastic season and they are where they are in the table for a reason.

Ian Watson has done a fantastic job as coach there and I think getting Willie Poching on board as defensive coach has been a masterstroke.

They were within a few seconds of getting relegated last year, but I think that experience has probably benefited them this season.

Both teams were in the 2016 Qualifiers and I think they’ve grown from the experience. I don’t think our or their form this year is down to being in the middle-eights, but it probably has been a factor – just the experience of being involved in something different and playing at that level.

We came through the Qualifiers pretty comfortably, but there was a lot of pressure because we knew if we slipped up we’d be in danger of getting relegated so there was a lot riding on every game. It toughened us up and I imagine it did the same for Salford. Then, at the end of it all, we refocused on this season and made sure there was a real drive about us to do better.

Salford are a good team. They are being linked with some big names at the moment, but they’ve changed their approach from when they were spending money like it was going out of fashion and that has worked for them.

You can see that they are playing the way they train. They are well-drilled and they do the little things well. I think they are a good team to watch and they are capable of scoring points against anyone, but their defence has gone under the radar.

They have the third-best defence in Super League and they are very difficult to break down. We have a good record against Salford, but I’ll admit we were fortunate to get the win at home back in February and we know we are going to have to play well to get anything out of Sunday’s game.

The disappointing thing for Salford is the lack of support they are getting. This isn’t a criticism of the Salford fans who turn up every week, but they deserve bigger gates.

I think that’s probably a worry for a lot of clubs at the moment.

Salford is quite a hostile place to play and it would be really intimidating with a full house.

I know they are looking at ways of boosting crowds, but I am not sure changing the club’s name to Manchester, which is one of the suggestions I have heard, would work. I am not a marketing expert, but I think a lot of history and tradition would be lost and they’d probably upset their die-hard supporters.

What happens on the field – and having a successful team – can help, but clubs like Salford also need to do market research and look at ways of getting more fans through the gate.

They have a big, sports-mad catchment area on their doorstep and I think there’s huge potential if they can tap into that.

Gareth Ellis

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