Salford look to Clinch final

If anyone was still in any doubt about the importance of Gavin Clinch to Salford's Super League aspirations, the point was surely hammered home in midweek. The Australian scrum-half dominated the National League awards evening, winning the trophies for NL1 Player of the Year and Players' Player, as well as figuring in the divisional All-Star selection.

Clinch was introduced to the throng in Leeds as "the most targeted player in the game", and few could argue with that assessment this season. He has been the victim of some terrible tackles, including one by Paul Rowley two weeks ago that has resulted in the Leigh hooker being under suspension for today's NL1 Grand Final between the same two teams.

Clinch says philosophically that such treatment goes with the territory. Despite the excellence of players such as Cliff Beverley outside him, there is a general feeling that, if you stop Clinch, you stop Salford.

For all the individual prizes, what he really wants to win is today's clash at Widnes. If Salford are promoted back to Super League at their first attempt for next season, he will be with them next year; if not, the British career that has also included stints with Halifax and Wigan is likely to come to an end.

That would remove from the scene one of the game's most skilful players. Apart from his trademark trick of stealing the ball in the tackle, Clinch has a mesmeric ability to delay a pass until the optimum instant, and a varied and imaginative kicking game.

His Salford coach, Karl Harrison, is on record as saying that, if Clinch had joined the club earlier last season, they would never have been relegated. It is too late to worry about that now, but for Clinch to lead them back would support Harrison's argument.

Only Leigh can prevent that happening. The absence of Rowley is a major blow, with John Duffy the man likely to be given the hopeless task of matching his incisiveness from dummy-half.

The one possibility that haunts Salford, however, is that Leigh's player-coach, Tommy Martyn, could produce the sort of big-match display that helped St Helens to so many trophies during his time with them. If he does, all bets are off.

The legendary Alex Murphy, back at Leigh for the fifth time - this time as director of rugby - helping Martyn and Norman Turley, will have the players fired up, but that has been their problem in important games over the last couple of years. In big games, up to and including that one at Salford a fortnight ago, they have had a tendency to lose their discipline.

If they do that again, Clinch will have to watch out for further attacks, but he should finish on the winning side, vindicating Salford's decision to stick with a full-time squad as they tried to bounce straight back into the top flight.

The warm-up act for this little affair is the NL2 Grand Final between the Sheffield Eagles and the Keighley Cougars. Whatever the result, it will mark the end of the playing careers of a number of players - including Sheffield's Wembley heroes from 1998, Dale Laughton and their player-coach, Mark Aston, and Keighley's long-serving hooker, Jason Ramshaw.

The Eagles, who owe their rebirth as a stand-alone club after the fiasco of their so-called merger with Huddersfield to Aston's single- mindedness, have looked the best side in the division all season, but Keighley have run into form at the right time, and that can be the recipe for success in play-offs and Grand Finals.

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