Salford Red Devils opened their 2022 campaign with a 26-16 win over tonight's opponents Castleford at their Jungle ground, and had hopes of repeating that performance tonight.
The visitors had a dreadful start to the season: the loss to Salford started a run which saw them win just one of their opening half-dozen games. But they overcame that and won five of the following six leading up to this match.
Their hosts have won fewer games, but have shown their ability in every round so far. And their winger Ken Sio is the top try scorer in Super League at the half-way point of the season.
Castleford kicked off and restricted the Red Devils to their own 40m zone for the first set. When they got their first go with the ball, the Tigers worked steadily upfield, helped by a set restart before moving the ball smoothly out to their left where Ryan Hampshire scored his first try of his second stint as a Tiger.
Gareth O'Brien, the league's top goal kicker, missed the conversion attempt and the score was 0-6 with just four minutes gone.
But on 15 minutes, Salford hit back after a period of pressure when centre Tim Lafai ran on to a Mark Sneyd kick and beat both team mate Harvey Livett and a Cas defender to ground the ball. Sneyd converted and the Red Devils led 6-4.
Minutes later Lafai lost the ball in Salford's 10m zone, and the Red Devils were then caught offside. Cas opted to kick and O'Brien made no mistake from in front of the posts, levelling the score at 6-6.
Gifted territory by a penalty following a Kenny Edwards high tackle, Salford pressured the Cas line and Joe Burgess crossed in the corner after 30 minutes. Sneyd failed to convert and the hosts were ahead 10-6 in the final 10 minutes of the half.
He scored his second when Derrel Olpherts lost the ball over his shoulder in the tackle and Salford pounced on the Cas winger's mistake.
The ball found its way to Burgess via Lafai He sprinted for the corner and had time to run infield to narrow the gap - which helped make sure Sneyd made no mistake with this conversion attempt.
The Red Devils led 16-6 as the half-time hooter sounded.
It was mixed fortunes for Cas in the opening minutes of the secon half. O'Brien was taken off the field after a clash of heads, and failed the resulting head injury assessment. But as soon as play resumed, the Tigers moved the ball left and Jake Trueman passed the ball out to Jason Qareqare lurking on the touchline with no opoosition in front of him.
The young speedster raced in to score. Hampshire - kicking in the place of O'Brien - couldn't convert, but the score had narrowed to 16-10.
The advantage was nearly reset with another Burgess try, but Cas fullback Hampshire raced across for a key cover tackle to take him into touch.
Cas seemed to be getting back into the game, keeping Salford pinned in their own red zone but Sneyd kicked a 20-40 to march the attack back up field. And when the Tigers were caught offside in goal-line defence, the Salford no 7 opted to kick for goal for to take their lead back to two scores at 18-10.
Minutes later, Andy Ackers broke the line and passed to Morgan Escare. Hampshire stopped him with a fine tackle. But salford moved the ball fast to the edge where centre Deon Cross crossed to score. Sneyd converted and now the Red Devils led 24-16.
Cas struck back with another Qareqare try. Hampshire kicked off after Ackers score and drilled the ball over the timeline. With possession in the Salford half, Cas moved the ball to the left and Qareqare raced for the line.
He was met by two tacklers who pushed him over the touchline. Referee Liam Moore ruled no try, but sent the decision upstairs to video ref Robert Hicks, who ruled that the winger grounded the ball while still in the air.
The try was awarded and the score moved to 24-14, with the conversion missed.
But any chance of overcoming the deficit disappeared when Adam Milner spoke out of turn to referee Moore and was sent to the sin bin for 10 minutes, with just 13 minutes of game time left.
Burgess scored his hat-trick when Escare and Lafai took advantage of the gap left in the Cas defence and a superb pass from Lafai to his winger saw him cross in the corner. Sneyd's conversion made the score 30-14.
Both teams now have a week off as the league takes a break for next weekend's Cup Final. Salford will feel recharged, while Castleford know there is still a lot of work to do.
Salford Red Devils: Escare; Sio, Cross (T), Lafai (T), Burgess (3T); Croft, Sneyd (4G, 1P); Omondroyd, Ackers, Akauola, Livett, Watkins, Taylor. Subs: Clark J, Bullock, Davis, Mulhern.
Castleford Tigers: Hampshire (T); Qareqare (2T), Fonua, Mamo, Olpherts; Trueman, O'Brien (p); Griffin, McShane, Smith, Edwards, Lawler, Westerman. Subs: Dupree, Addy, Bourouh, Lannon.
Score Progression: 0-4, 4-4, 6-4, 6-6, 10-6, 14-6, 16-6: HT : 16-10, 18-10, 22-10, 24-10, 24-24, 28-14, 30-14 : FT.
Referee: Liam Moore.
Venue: AJ Bell Stadium, Salford.