London Broncos may have caught the eye for their odds-defying performances in Super League this year, but arguably the real Cinderella team of the competition in 2019 have been Salford Red Devils.
Despite having a playing budget and resources dwarfed by the top sides in the competition, and being tipped for another year fighting to avoid relegation by many pundits at the start of the year, Ian Watson’s side finished the regular season third and are preparing for the play-offs.
Those performances have seen the former Wales international nominated for Super League’s coach of the year award along with Broncos counterpart Danny Ward, boss of runaway leaders St Helens Justin Holbrook and Warrington Wolves’ Steve Price.
Wigan Warriors vs Salford Red Devils
September 20, 2019, 7:00pm
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Sky Sports spoke to the former Wales international ahead of Friday’s qualifying final away to Wigan Warriors, with Watson giving an insight into what shaped him as a coach, how this Salford team have been moulded and what the future holds for the club…
Learning the ropes
After something of journeyman playing career, Watson was handed his first opportunity to be in charge of a team when he was appointed player-coach of Swinton Lions for the 2014 Championship season.
Combining those two duties is a big enough task on its own, never mind at a part-time club where finances are tight and the responsibilities of the first-team coach go beyond just preparing the twice-weekly training sessions and picking the team for a match-day.
Having to turn his hand to a variety of jobs helped give Watson the ideal start in coaching, however, teaching him some valuable lessons which he took with him when Iestyn Harris came calling in July that year asking him to join Salford as his assistant.
“I think coaches who are in the Championship have to deal with different things and I think that’s why Salford suited me,” Watson told Sky Sports.
“You don’t just look after the coaching side, if the analyst or the kitman need something you have to help out – it’s just rolling your sleeves up and helping each other out.
“The Championship moulded me in not being blinkered to what you look at, open your eyes and have a little look at everything in the environment as well.”
Seeking out advice
Swinton’s dual-registration agreement with Warrington at the time meant Watson was able to tap into the knowledge of Super League and Challenge Cup-winning head coach Tony Smith during his spell at the Lions.
He remains grateful for the time the now-Hull Kingston Rovers boss spent advising him, along with being able to bounce ideas off Smith’s fellow Australian and former World Cup winner Tim Sheens when he was at Salford as director of rugby.
Being around some iconic names when he was making his way as a young professional player gave Watson insights he has been able to transfer into coaching as well.
After being plucked from nearby amateur club Eccles by Salford in 1995, the young half-back cum hooker soon found himself playing alongside former Great Britain internationals David Hulme and Steve Hampson.
Playing under Australians Garry Jack and John Harvey, plus all-time Wigan great Andy Gregory during their respective spells as head coaches at The Willows, proved invaluable for Watson as well.
“They’re really people who shape you and make you understand what being a professional is all about,” Watson.
“Wigan were full-time back then but Salford weren’t, so when Steve Hampson came in he really drove the standards high and you had to buy into that or you’d get kicked out of the group.
“It was a lot more ruthless in that environment at the time, but it showed you a different approach and how you should be as a rugby league player as well.
“I was really blessed in coming forward by some of the guys I got to play with or be coached by.”
Rising to the challenge
Few head coaches have to deal with the variety of ups and downs Salford have been through since Watson took over as head coach, first on an interim basis when Harris departed late in 2015 before earning the job permanently.
Relegation battles, points deductions and the club’s owner departing have all occurred during the past few years, but the 42-year-old has kept to the task of building a team capable of challenging at the right end of the Super League table.
Even this season has not been without disruption as the half-back partnership of Jackson Hastings and Robert Lui – the running, off-the-cuff style of which Watson had shaped his team around – was broken up when the latter moved to Leeds Rhinos mid-season.
But Tui Lolohea, who joined the Red Devils from Leeds as part of that deal, has proven the perfect fit alongside Hastings.
Indeed, Watson has devised a system which not only brings the best out them, but has allowed the Super League’s joint-second-highest try-scorer Niall Evalds, Krisnan Inu and Joey Lussick to flourish as well.
“I enjoy coaching and enjoy being around rugby players as well, and sometimes it’s finding their strengths and playing to them rather than just saying ‘this is the way we play and we’ll play that way regardless’,” Watson said.
“You’ve got to look at the individual and the player, and try to mould a game-plan around the players.
“What we’ve done this year, we had running half-backs in Robert Lui and Jacko so we wanted to build the spine around the guys running – which suits Tui.
“Although losing Robbie was a disruption, bringing in Tui gave us a similar kind of player so we didn’t need to change too many things.”
No time to stand still
Whatever happens in the play-offs, which start with Friday’s trip to Wigan Warriors live on Sky Sports, Watson knows Salford will face something of a rebuilding job during the off-season.
Influential half-back Hastings is leaving to join their play-off opponents, while Derrell Olpherts and George Griffin are both crossing the Pennines having agreed deals with Castleford Tigers.
Watson and former team-mate Ian Blease, now director of rugby and operations at the Red Devils, have already been hard at work though, agreeing deals with Wigan and England centre Dan Sarginson, plus Hull KR pair Joe Greenwood and Chris Atkin.
1:52 Watch the video explainer of how Super League's play-offs will work in 2019
Not being able to spend up to their full salary cap allowance has seen Salford scour the Championship for hidden talents as well and that has paid off, with mid-season recruit Josh Johnson proving an astute signing after dropping out of Super League at the start of the year to get game-time with Barrow Raiders.
He will be joined by Featherstone Rovers duo Connor Jones and Jack Ormondroyd at the AJ Bell Stadium in 2020, and Watson is determined to ensure the club becomes an attractive prospect for players of all backgrounds to pursue their careers at.
“I think because the way we’ve gone over the past four-and-a-half years as a group, people are thinking ‘it’s not actually a bad place there and it’s worthwhile going there’,” Watson said.