Rugby League: Hull in danger of losing touch

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The Independent Online
IT WILL be the clash of the caretakers at The Willows tomorrow when the bottom two sides in Super League contest what could prove to be two vital points come the end of the season, writes Dave Hadfield.

Salford climbed above Hull by virtue of their third point of the season from their draw at Sheffield last weekend, but both clubs are haunted by the prospect of finishing last and dropping out of the elite division, perhaps for good.

"It is a very important game, but I don't believe our season will hinge on the result on Sunday," said Hull's temporary man in charge, Steve Crooks. "There is still too far to go to say that."

All the same, defeat would cast Hull adrift at the bottom and their thin squad is stretched further by the loss of Andy Ireland and Craig Murdock for the next few weeks. Both dislocated shoulders at Castleford last week, while the previously ever-present Gary Lester is a doubtful starter with a dead leg. That places even greater onus on young players who have been Hull's only bright spot this season. "They've been thrown in at the deep end, but they've done really well," Crooks said.

While the coaching position at Hull remains unresolved following the sacking of Peter Walsh this week, John Foran and Steve O'Neill know they will be handing over the reins at Salford to John Harvey as soon as he arrives from Australia.

"We just have to do as well as we can in the time available to us," O'Neill said - and the pair have undeniably improved some aspects of Salford's play in the short time since they took over from Andy Gregory.

A good win over the London Broncos and the point garnered at Sheffield, despite having a man sent off and others suffering from a virus, demonstrated a much-improved resilience that makes them narrow favourites to carry on the good work tomorrow.

Dave Bradbury, who missed that match because of illness, and Steve Blakeley and David Hulme, who were both forced off during the game by the same bug, are all expected to be fit, while Darren Brown escaped any suspension for his dismissal.

There is a match almost as pivotal at the other end of the table, where third-placed Leeds are at a Castleford side that sits immediately below them on the same number of points.

Castleford are hoping for a five-figure gate for a fixture that traditionally stokes up local rivalries, although they would be more confident of a result if Francis Maloney and, especially, Aaron Raper were available. Maloney is ruled out with a cracked cheekbone, while Raper will see a specialist next week about his lingering thumb injury. On the plus side, Michael Eager and Lee Harland are back.

Elsewhere, leaders St Helens should be too good for troubled Halifax, while Bradford should keep up their pursuit by beating Huddersfield.

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