iT WAS a case of what might have been for Wakefield Trinity Wildcats after their First Utility Qualifiers campaign began with a 34-26 defeat at Salford Red Devils.
Wildcats didn’t compete for the opening 39 minutes, but then Tim Smith – against his former club – began to play and he took them so close to what would have been a precious two points.
On the front foot, Smith is as creative as anyone in the elite competition and he masterminded a fightback with saw Wildcats turn a 16-0 deficit into an 18-16 advantage.
The lead changed hands twice more as two increasingly desperate sides swapped tries, but the game-breaking moment came 10 minutes from the end, with Wakefield 26-22 ahead.
Smith sent Bill Tupou away, with Richard Owen in support. The centre would only have needed to catch the pass to score what surely would have been a clinching try.
Instead, Tupou went himself and was tackled. Scott Moore then kicked straight at Rangi Chase and the Salford stand-off showed the defence a clean pair of heels on a scorching race to the line.
The third of Josh Griffin’s four conversions nosed Salford two points in front and the hosts’ final try, two minutes from time, was harsh on Wakefield.
The visitors had enough chances to win the game, but ultimately paid the price for failing to get into the game before the break.
Salford couldn’t cope whenever they were put under pressure, but it took Wakefield 37 minutes to carry the ball into the home team’s 20.
That initial attack came to nothing, but then Owen, back in the side after being stood down for a month due to personal reasons, made a strong run, Tim Smith kicked ahead, regathered and flicked the ball to Jacob Miller, who stretched over for a try which Lee Smith converted after the hooter.
That was probably more than Wakefield deserved based on their first half performance, but they were ahead just eight minutes after the resumption.
Wakefield’s first two penalties – after they conceded five in the opening half – helped, but it was Tim Smith who did the real damage with brilliant inside passes to first Miller and then Danny Washbrook.
Lee Smith converted both and Wakefield were suddenly in front. Back-to-back penalties, piggybacked Salford to the line and then Cory Paterson brushed off some weak tackling to ease over for a try which he also converted.
That made it 22-18, but Wildcats were behind for just four minutes. Chase’s pass was intercepted by Miller, he kicked ahead and Reece Lyne ran through to touch down at the corner, Lee Smith landing a towering goal.
Scott Anderson went within centimetres of scoring on the next attack, but Wakefield did increase their advantage with 12 left through a Smith penalty goal. The Salford fans behind the posts cheered a miss and were furious when the touch judges raised their flags.
Had Owen gone in soon afterwards it would surely have been game over, but Chase’s try gave Salford the momentum and they sealed two priceless points when Paterson collected Michael Dobson’s kick for his second try.
The all-action second half was in contrast to a pedestrian opening 40 which Salford dominated.
They wasted an early chance when Ben Jones-Bishop ran on to Chase’s low kick, but the ball squirmed free just short of the line.
Other than that, clear cut opportunities were few and far between.
The opening try came out of the blue and was more suited to a top of the table clash than one between Super League’s bottom-two clubs.
Josh Griffin took possession near his own line, ripped through the first line of defence, skipped past Lee Smith and then had enough steam left to beat the full-back’s second effort for a stunning touchdown, which he also converted.
On 20 minutes, Moore passed into touch on half way and Josh Griffin crossed again in the resulting set, off a nice offload by Jones-Bishop after Dobson had shifted play left.
Josh Griffin couldn’t add the extras from the touchline, but even at that stage 10 points looked a healthy advantage.
Salford clearly could sense Wakefield were there for the taking. On 31 minutes Josh Griffin was held up over the line and Wildcats were penalised twice in succession in front of their own posts.
George Griffin took the ball from the second penalty and bulldozed through some half-hearted defence for a try which his brother improved to open a 16-point gap.
Salford Red Devils: Jones-Bishop, J Griffin, Thornley, Sa’u, Johnson, Chase, Dobson, Taylor, Tomkins, G Griffin, Hansen, Maitua, Paterson. Subs (all used) Lee, Krasniqi, Evalds, Morley.
Wakefield Trinity Wildcats: L Smith, Owen, Tupou, Arundel, Lyne, Miller, T Smith, Scruton, Moore, Anderson, Molloy, Ashurst, Simon. Subs (all used) Sio, Walker, Mullally, Washbrook.
Referee: James Child (Batley).