Remodelled Reds test progress against Bulls

John Harvey is slowly transforming Salford from sluggish also-rans to a Super power
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The Independent Online

For a coach confidently predicted to be propping up Super League by now, today represents the real moment of truth. Under John Harvey, Salford have already exceeded expectations for the season. They deserved to beat Warrington in the Challenge Cup and actually picked up Super League points at Huddersfield-Sheffield and the London Broncos. So far, so good. Now for Bradford.

Harvey, a big, bluff, bear-like Australian who took over at The Willows from Andy Gregory midway through a troubled last season, has few illusions about what is awaiting his team this afternoon. "Bradford are a mammoth task for us," he says. "We've just got to beat the sides we can beat and keep it neat and tidy in games like this. We'll give them a run for their money, but if we won it would be incredible."

Not that Harvey believes that the Bulls are unbeatable. "Just looking at the cattle around the place, Wigan and Leeds would be in with a shout if they're on their game. But from what I've seen of Bradford so far this season, they've been awesome. They're just so big all over the field. That certainly applies to ex-Salford players like Nathan McAvoy and Scott Naylor. It would be good to still have them available, but you can't hang on to players like that."

Harvey, a roughhouse prop in his days with Eastern Suburbs and Manly in Sydney, is not, however, dissatisfied with the squad he has assembled. "We've got a really good bunch of blokes here," he says. "At a club there's practically always a couple of blokes who you think are good footballers but a bit of a problem in other respects. But there's none of them here."

That strong spirit within the squad has been evident so far this season. The other essential element that Harvey has added has been pace. At the start of this season, he promised to take Salford from being "the slowest team in Super League to the fastest".

Hence the recruitment for the back-line of Martin Offiah and Nick Pinkney, as well as the Australian trio of Jason Webber, Kris Tassell and Jason Nicol, none of whom can be classed as slouches. They might not be the quickest, but the Reds are certainly no longer the most sluggish.

Of all of them, Offiah's renaissance has been the most startling. For all his 458 tries - putting him third on the all-time scorers' list - he has discovered a new hunger this season. Not only that, but the way Harvey uses him, in a floating role across the full width of the pitch, is tactically innovative - and that is not a term there has been much call for when describing Salford in recent years.

In the forwards, Harvey pays particular tribute to Neil Baynes, a splendidly old-fashioned prop who has shed enough of his ample poundage to become highly effective as he hits the line, spins and makes the ball available.

Another Australian, Jim Smith, is not only a colourful personality - with talents for film-making and improvisational comedy - but is also making considerable impact in the second row.

And then there is Darren Brown, yet another Australian and as skilful a rugby player as anyone in the game. It is starting to look pretty good... but, against Bradford, pretty good is rarely good enough. "Bradford are the biggest team I've ever seen in my life," Harvey says. "The Newcastle Knights back home would have come pretty close, when they had Paul Harragon and those blokes."

There is more to their early dominance than sheer size, though, and the closest comparison that Harvey can make to the way the Bulls have started the season is "the Brisbane Broncos in their heyday". Not that he is conceding defeat already. "Like even the strongest sides, they have their weaknesses," he says. "And they might have an off- day. One thing we won't be doing, though, is trying to take them on down the middle."

That is where Salford's new-found fluidity, in which Offiah has been such an important factor, could come into play, although Harvey will wish that he had his regular scrum-half, Martin Crompton, available rather than confined to the sidelines with a wrist injury.

John Duffy will come in at scrum-half for a demanding first appearance for the club since his arrival from Warrington, but it is asking a lot from him to compete on level terms with the Paul brothers - the silk alongside the steel in Bradford's formidable machine.

"Our supporters shouldn't expect too much this weekend," says Harvey frankly. "This is still a building period for us. There are plenty of sides out there we can beat, but a side like Bradford might be a little way beyond us."