Salford aim to scale new heights
Salford Red Devils have the chance to go top of the First Utility Super League for the first time in the club's history when they host St Helens tomorrow night.
Last year's wooden spoonists are enjoying their best start to a Super League season since 1997, their first in the top flight when they won their opening five games under Andy Gregory but remained below Bradford Bulls on points difference before falling away and eventually finishing sixth.
They have made a steady, if unspectacular, start to the new era under their Red Devils banner with opening wins over Wakefield Trinity Wildcats and London Broncos and face an early test of their lofty ambitions against another of the undefeated teams and one fancied to go all the way to Old Trafford.
"We're looking forward to it," Salford coach Brian Noble said. "It's got the strap line, hasn't it, the Devil against the Saint?
"We're still very new but the tough couple of games we've had will stand us in really good stead.
"In many people's opinions, this is our first real test and I probably don't disagree, with no disrespect to Wakefield and London.
"We've a heck of a lot improvement in us.
"You won't really get a true indication of where you're at until round 11 or 12 but we're working feverishly hard to make sure we're up to speed quicker than then."
St Helens have won 29 of the 33 Super League meetings between the clubs, with Salford's last home victory being a 42-34 triumph at The Willows in May 2010.
Saints coach Nathan Brown, whose side won 52-10 in the corresponding fixture last June, is expecting a much closer contest this time and believes the arrival of wealthy owner Marwan Koukash in Salford has been a breath of fresh air.
"I think what's happened there has been great for the game," Brown said. "This game in particular in the past could have been seen as a standard St Helens win I suppose.
"It's a good rugby league story which is good for the game and the competition.
"Wigan did well against the Roosters but, if they played more games against sides spending the cap, then the comp would be better and they probably would have been more prepared. There's certainly no negative to Salford."
Saints will be facing something of an old boys brigade, with veteran duo Tony Puletua and Francis Meli joining former team-mates Andrew Dixon, Matty Ashurst and Martin Gleeson at Barton this season.
"It will be good to see Tony Puletua and Francis Meli," Brown said. "They have no points to prove to us though. They were more than welcome to stay at the club but their budget is what it is and we have younger players coming through.
"Franny and TP served the club well and Franny in particular has left a legacy with Josh Jones, Mark Percival, Tommy Makinson and Adam Swift."
Salford will be without Rangi Chase and Junior Sa'u, two of their 14 close-season recruits, as well as front rower Darrell Griffin who damaged knee ligaments in the win at London but they have ever-green prop Adrian Morley back to lead them.
"We've had a little bit of disruption early on with injuries but we've got a good team going out on Thursday and we want a good performance," Noble added.
"St Helens are playing really well at the moment so we're going to have to be really good to get close.
"The injection of (Luke) Walsh into the halves has given them a bit more direction and allowed other people to perform their roles."
Brown has called up back-rower Mark Flanagan, who has not played since sustaining a major knee injury last April, but is expected to keep the team that began the season with back-to-back wins over Warrington Wolves and Hull FC.