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Challenge Cup final: Ian Watson calls on Salford Red Devils to keep building after loss

Ian Watson is in no doubt Salford Red Devils are still moving in the right direction after a narrow defeat to Leeds Rhinos in the Challenge Cup final.

Second-half tries from Pauli Pauli and James Greenwood had put the Red Devils four points up with just under a quarter of an hour to play, but Ash Handley’s second try and a drop goal from Luke Gale saw Leeds snatch a 17-16 win.

The loss at Wembley in another of rugby league’s major showpieces comes just over a year after Salford were beaten by St Helens in the Super League Grand Final and head coach Watson believes it shows how far the club has come in recent seasons.

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“It shows the club and the team are moving in the right place from where we have been and they’re competing in these big games now,” Watson said.

“With everything that has happened and to come here with it ending up being a 17-16 result, players and staff and everybody being absolutely devastated we’ve not been able to win, is probably a sign of how far we’ve come as a group and a team over the last few years as well.

“The good thing is, we’ve been to a Grand Final last year, we’ve been to a Challenge Cup final this year and we’ve kind of backed up what we did, and it’s for us to keep building.”

The former Salford half-back was left to rue missed opportunities from his team in both halves of the match, citing Krisnan Inu and Niall Evalds both putting in kicks in dangerous positions when he felt they could have taken other options with the ball in hand as two examples.

We’ve been to a Grand Final last year, we’ve been to a Challenge Cup final this year and we’ve kind of backed up what we did, and it’s for us to keep building.

Ian Watson

He would not be drawn on whether or not referee Liam Moore’s decision to pull up try-scorer Pauli Pauli for an incorrect play-the-ball on halfway, leading to Leeds getting into position for Gale to kick the winning one-pointer, was unduly harsh though.

“There were small margins in the game where we could have done certain things better to win it ourselves,” Watson said.

“I thought we opened them up a hell of a lot in attack and we just weren’t composed enough with the final pass.

“We were trying to find kicks to score tries off rather than turn them over on their try-line. We just weren’t smart enough at those times to capitalise and put Leeds on the end of some aggressive defence.

“There were a few turning points in that game and we did think when we scored that [Greenwood] try, it was looking like it was our day. We just needed to be composed and good enough to defend out that result.”

The nature of the loss made it even more agonising for the team and Watson made no secret of the fact everyone was feeling the hurt in the immediate aftermath of the final.

However, he urged his side to focus on finishing the Super League season strongly as they start to build towards 2021.

“It will sting, and it already was in the dressing room,” Watson said. “We’ve got some players who are right at the back end of their careers now in Mark Flanagan and Kris Welham – even Kev [Brown] is not getting any younger.

It shows the club and the team are moving in the right place from where we have been and they’re competing in these big games now.

Ian Watson

“You don’t know when you’re going to be here or whether you could get here again, so it was important for us to take that opportunity.

“Leeds have got the win and we congratulate them on the win. We’ve got to move forward, focus on the rest of the season and finish the season well.”

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Rugby

Rugby League chairman calls for more Government support during pandemic

Rugby League chairman Simon Johnson has reiterated his plea for more Government support during the coronavirus pandemic.

Johnson has thanked the Government for the £16m loan but also warns the game remains in a perilous state and called for more support.

“Our game is still in a vulnerable state,” Johnson wrote in his programme notes ahead of Saturday’s Challenge Cup final. “We have worked hard to make our stadiums safe for spectators and yet we have not been able to let spectators into them.

“We have implemented class-leading bio-security protocols and yet may have to remain closed for six more months.

“We have followed and continue to follow every piece of Government guidance. But we say to Government that if, by following Government guidance, we end up risking the survival of our clubs and the future sustainability of our game, we
must look to Government to help to sustain us.

“We are ready to be part of the economic recovery and the return of our national life to normality but we can only do that if we have been able to survive the restrictions.

“I hope that Government will continue to look favourably on our request for measures to help rugby league to help the nation’s fight against coronavirus.”

Johnson has also defended the decision to keep Saturday’s final between Leeds and Salford at Wembley even though it will be played behind closed doors, insisting there will be no asterisk placed against the winners of the 125th anniversary final.

“This Challenge Cup final will be remembered for being played with the lowest attendance in history. There will be fewer than 200 people in the whole stadium, something which we all bitterly regret.

“Wembley’s wide open spaces will echo to the shouts of the players and the coaches. This great stadium will provide a lonely backdrop to the compelling action on the field.

“To those who criticise our decision to play this final at Wembley, I retort that it is entirely fitting that we should be here – the relationship between Wembley and the Challenge Cup final is so strong.

“For, in this strange and most challenging of seasons, it is significant and praiseworthy that we have arrived at the first showpiece occasion; at the award of the first trophy of the season and that we are trying to be as normal as we
can.

“Whichever of Leeds Rhinos and Salford Red Devils are the winners, their name will be forever written in the history books as Coral Challenge Cup winners.

“There will be no asterisk next to this triumph for whoever wins. Whichever of Luke Gale or Lee Mossop is the winning captain, they will lift, down on the pitch, the real Coral Challenge Cup trophy.”

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Challenge Cup final: Leeds Rhinos’ Rhyse Martin takes long road to the top

As someone who has played for the Papua New Guinea national team at a World Cup, Rhyse Martin is no stranger to rugby league’s big stages.

When he steps out onto the field at Wembley with his Leeds Rhinos team-mates on Saturday for his first experience of a Challenge Cup final though, it will be completely different to when he made his international bow.

Partly because the match against Salford Red Devils will be played inside an empty stadium – although even the most fervent Cup final crowd at Wembley might struggle to match the passion and devotion of fans in the one country in the world where the 13-man code considered is the national sport.

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But the biggest difference is that prior to kick-off, they will not have to walk the pitch to clear the playing surface of rubble as was the case when Martin first lined up for the Kumuls for a Test match against Tonga in Lae in 2014.

“Before the game we had to line up next to each other, walk down the field and get all of the big rocks off the field,” Martin said.

“Literally, the middle third of the field was all gravel and everything outside of that was nice green grass. Everyone was just trying to stay out of that middle part, so I’m glad Wembley is not like that.

“I had heaps of carries that day with it being shifted out to an edge.”

Martin has quickly established himself as one of the key players in the Rhinos’ revival since joining from Canterbury Bulldogs in July last year.

But it has been a long route to the top for the goal-kicking back row, who did not make his NRL debut until the age of 25 with the Bulldogs.

Martin originally came through the youth set-up at their cross-city rivals Sydney Roosters, but was let go before making a first-grade appearance after spending the 2014 season playing for feeder club Newtown Jets.

That led to a return to his home state of Queensland – Cairns-born Martin qualifies to play for Papua New Guinea though his father – with Townsville Blackhawks, where he played alongside future Leeds team-mate Robert Lui prior to the half-back joining Cup final opponents Salford.

It has been a long road, but I’m kind of glad it went that way because if I got the opportunity when I was a kid, I don’t think I’d still be playing.

Rhyse Martin

From there, the Bulldogs came calling and after making a try-scoring debut against Brisbane Broncos the rest is history. However, the 27-year-old has no complaints about having to be patient before finally achieving his long-held ambition of playing at the sport’s top level.

“It has been a long road, but I’m kind of glad it went that way because if I got the opportunity when I was a kid, I don’t think I’d still be playing,” Martin said.

“I don’t think I’d have been ready and would have burnt out my career, so to speak. I had to grow up a fair bit, change the way I was preparing for games and I’m just glad I still get to be a professional.

“There was a point when I thought it wasn’t going to happen and it had always been a dream of mine as a kid to play in the NRL, and I wouldn’t have forgiven myself if I’d have given up.

“I was just happy I stuck in and where it’s led me now, I get to play in a Challenge Cup final at Wembley.”

Unlike many of his Rhinos team-mates, the Challenge Cup was never something which featured much on Martin’s radar as a youngster growing up in Queensland.

He has quickly got to grips with the significance of rugby league’s most prestigious knock-out competition since moving to this side of the world though, and is under no illusions about what it would mean to both him and Leeds to lift the trophy at Wembley.

“It’s a massive thing,” Martin, who scored the opening try in Leeds’ 26-12 semi-final win over Wigan Warriors, said. “I’ve come over here to win competitions and to get that so early on, it would be awesome for me.

I’ve come over here to win competitions and to get [the Challenge Cup] so early on, it would be awesome for me.

Rhyse Martin

“It’s getting the club back to where it should be. The team and the squad we’ve got, we’re heading in the right direction and what we want to do is win this game and keep building for years to come.

“For me, that’s the whole reason I came over here.”

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