SOME remarkable defensive quality was at the heart of a vital, Hull KR win last night as James Webster’s spirited side took a giant step towards securing their Super League future.
For all the East Yorkshire club outscored their hosts four tries to two, and Josh Mantellato’s metronomic boot always kept them in front, the actual contest was far closer than the final scoreline suggested.
However, it was determined Rovers who had the majority of class in this tense Qualifiers affair and, crucially, the defensive appetite, too.
As Salford toiled to get back into the contest after an abysmal first half – they will now fear being dragged into the Million Pound Game having also lost against Championship Leigh Centurions last week – Rovers produced a series of definitive plays.
Albert Kelly, the Australian scrum-half whose quality kicking steered his side home so expertly, is not renowned for his defensive prowess but he produced a crucial tackle to prevent Greg Johnson from scoring.
Ben Cockayne, Rovers’ evergreen full-back who first helped them into Super League in 2006, did likewise with a remarkable challenge on giant centre Junior Sa’u before quickly repeating the feat on Ben Murdoch-Masila.
Each time desperate Salford tested them, inevitably they stood up to the test and, rightfully, claimed a much-needed win after last week’s narrow defeat at Leeds Rhinos.
Five victories was enough to secure a top-three place in the Qualifiers last year and the Robins – who won all seven fixtures then in an admittedly weaker competition – have now picked up two from their opening three games.
Given their next three opponents after the forthcoming Wembley break are all Championship sides – Leigh Centurions (home), London Broncos (away) and Featherstone (away) – you could argue, if they continue in this vein, they could have their top-flight status secured before Huddersfield Giants arrive in east Hull for the final fixture.
Rovers were 22-6 ahead at half-time and fully deserving of such a lead.
They completed their sets efficiently, were ruthless with their finishing while that defence was simply inspired at times.
They looked like a side fighting for their futures. Salford, on the other hand…
Twice in an error-ridden first period, the hosts forced Rovers into conceding a drop-out only to then fumble on the first tackle.
Similarly, in the second period, they spilled the kick-off and a re-start to leave head coach Ian Watson with his head in his hands.
Rovers’ defence was too physical as well as Webster’s fired-up side caused them to lose the ball on plenty of occasions in contact.
All of which meant the visitors – with Maurice Blair at his leg-pumping best in the second-row and prop Dane Tilse impressing after a shaky opening – had a perfect platform to build on.
Mantellato got them off to a flying start with a fine finish in the third minute after a lovely backline move involving Matty Marsh and, with the last pass, Cockayne.
Mantellato slotted the first of his six kicks and – after former Rovers forward George Griffin coughed up the first of those drop-outs following James Greenwood’s hit – Kelly’s clever reverse grubber sat up perfectly for Greenwood to reap the rewards on 12 minutes.
Mantellato again improved and, though, they were let off the hook when Johnson narrowly missed out on chasing down Michael Dobson’s ‘free-play’ raking kick after Kelly spilled, George Griffin was lazy in the tackle for the Italian winger to slot his first penalty.
Cockayne produced a great tackle on Logan Tomkins to lock up the Salford hooker before Mason Caton-Brown did make a breakthrough for the home side with a quality finish, the winger’s 10th in five games.
But Mantellato added another penalty before Kelly’s sublime 40/20 created position for Rovers’ second try, Blair delaying his pass from the scrum to send incoming winger Ken Sio arcing through between the posts for a simple conversion.
All beleaguered Salford could muster was a O’Brien penalty on the hooter but they had been out-played.
Rovers’ work-ethic was to the fore again as Ben Murdoch-Masila spilled under more pressure from Cockayne over the line and, though O’Brien stepped over for his second try in the 51st minute, adding the kick, there was no fightback.
Mantellato added another penalty after Salford, inexplicably, dropped the restart – Rovers could maybe have gone for the jugular there – and once Kelly dropped a goal in the 66th minute there was no denying them.
Former Leeds Rhinos back Thomas Minns rounded it off latching onto another Kelly kick in the dying moments.
St Helens: O’Brien; Caton-Brown, Sa’u, J Griffin, Johnson; Lui, Dobson; Burgess, Tomkins, G Griffin, Murdoch-Masila, Jones, Flanagan. Substitutes: Hauraki, Mateo, Kenny, Kopczak.
Hull KR: Cockayne; Sio, Minns, Thornley, Mantellato; Marsh, Kelly; Tilse, Lunt, Allgood, Blair, Greenwood, Clarkson. Substitutes: Walker, Lawler, Donaldson, Larroyer.
Referee: Robert Hicks (RFL).