Monday, 23 April 2018


My first memory of attending a Saints game was around the early 1980s. The mind plays tricks when trying to recall events that happened so long ago, to the point where games start to merge into one and details get mixed up. Yet I’m fairly sure that it came against a pre-Rhino Leeds side.

Or was it Hull FC or Hull KR? I’m unsure but what I am sure of is that in the centres that sunny afternoon was one Roy Haggerty. He scored twice, rampaging through the defence with the bulldozing, high-kicking style that would become his trademark long after a loss of a yard or two of pace and the arrival of the great Mal Meninga forced Roy into the second row.

I wish I could remember the details more clearly now with the news that Roy has passed away at the age of just 58. When you are a child watching your heroes achieve what look like superhuman feats you never contemplate their vulnerability. You never think that one day you will be sitting at your keyboard trying to put into words what they mean to you after their passing. Yet now that he has gone all we have left of him are these cherished memories, fuzzy though they are. Roy scored 115 tries in 363 appearances for Saints between 1978 and 1991. He toured Australia and New Zealand with Great Britain in 1988 and played at Wembley in the Challenge Cup defeats of 1987 and 1989.

That 1987 Cup final defeat to Halifax was my first visit to the national stadium. The following season Roy would kick 13 of the 20 drop-goals of his Saints career, yet I vividly remember him passing up the opportunity to have a pot-shot as Saints trailed by a point in one of the most dramatic cup finals ever played. I nearly blew one of my soon-to-be frail kidneys out from bellowing at him, pleading with him to have a go. Yet in many respects that was classic Roy. A thousand per cent endeavour and effort and no little skill, but never the shrewdest of operators. There are a gazillion urban myths about Roy, from talking to cash machines to informing Australian reporters on tour that he lived at the top of Elephant Lane. These may or may not be true, but they are very Roy and in that they have taken on a life of their own and become somehow plausible.

It certainly wasn’t all disappointments on the field, even if Roy played for Saints at a difficult time in their history. He played in the Lancashire Cup final victory over Wigan at Central Park in 1984, a Premiership Trophy final win over Hull KR at Old Trafford the following year and the memorable 15-14 John Player Trophy success over Leeds in 1988. In this period, the era of such relentless dominance from the mob over the lump, these wins were particularly glorious and sparked arguably even more crazed celebrations than some of the many that followed in the Super League era. By then we had become almost used to winning, and the expectancy and sense of entitlement we had developed could be a little numbing. It’s always more rewarding to taste success when expectations are lower and Roy helped deliver that for us. That alone is a reason to be eternally grateful to him.

Roy was a great player, but it was his accessibility and the time he had for everyone that marked him out as particularly special in my young eyes. In the days before full-time professionalism he would embark on training runs in the street where I grew up. Each and every time he jogged past us as we played whatever sport was on television at the time be it football, rugby, tennis, cricket or even American football there would be the same exchange between Roy and me and my mates;

“Alright Roy…” we’d enquire hopefully;

“Alright lads…” he would always shoot back. Every single time. It’s hard to quantify what even that little bit of interaction with a Saints player meant to a group of nine or ten year-olds but I think that Roy may have understood it. Either that or he genuinely did not feel that he was any different from anybody else in the community in or around the top of Elephant Lane. He was a regular in the off-license where my mum used to work during the 1980s and I have clear memories of her coming home with news of the birth of both of his rugby league playing sons Gareth and Kurt. The latter was, he told my mum, named after the former Widnes prop-forward Kurt Sorensen who Roy greatly admired. Not that it stopped him from bashing Sorensen as hard as he could whenever Saints met the Kiwi's then mighty Widnes side.

That was Roy. Live and die for the shirt which may seem obvious but is not something that you see exuding from everyone who has the privilege to pull on the red vee.

Roy Haggerty - 1960-2018

Sunday, 22 April 2018

5 Talking Points From Saints 66 Huddersfield Giants 4

Harsh Words From Holbrook Do The Trick

Let me take you back a week to the afternath of Saints 24-20 defeat at Wakefield Trinity. I know. You'd rather not relive it but it may have been an important signpost on the road to Friday's 12-try demolition of the Huddersfield Giants.

"They worked harder than us." said Holbrook of Chris Chester's side, adding;

"I was really disappointed with our effort today."

As assessments of performance go this is about as damning as it gets. It's one thing to criticise professional players for missing tackles or dropping easy passes, but quite another to suggest that they are not working hard enough. This could and should have stung the Saints players into the response they came up with against Chris Thorman's admittedly struggling side.
An early Jonny Lomax try gave little indication of the avalanche of points that was to follow in a fairly scruffy opening. It wasn't until Ben Barba scooted past half the Giants team for the kind of try seen on his NRL YouTube compilations that the gulf in class became apparent. Despite missing three of their four England squad regulars in Alex Walmsley, James Roby and the suspended Mark Percival Saints added four more tries before the break. At 34-0 at half-time all questions about their work rate had been answered. Six more tries in the second half underlined the point. Holbrook's words had produced the desired effect.

Do we want this kind of miss-match?

This time last year you would turn up to watch a Saints game with very little idea of whether Keiron Cunningham's side was going to win or not. While pithy wordsmiths like this one seethed about this and put the team's inconsistency down to the tactical shackles imposed on them by the then coach, the club party line was that in a salary capped sport the days of dismissing 90% of visitors who dared darken our crumbling old door were as gone as the Knowsley Road ground. We couldn't go back.

But on Friday night we did go back. Or at least it felt like it. Back to the sunny Sunday afternoons of my youth when the fascination was not in whether we would win, but in wondering by how many and who would get over for the tries. Few sides could entertain like Saints 20-30 years ago and all that came flooding back to mind in two dizzying spells at the end of each half.

So is this what we wanted? Saints scored some scintillating tries with Barba's first of two an obvious highlight, Yet not long after he embarked on that mazy run to the Giants line Barba and his team-mates had killed this as a contest. With over half the game remaining the outcome was not in the merest shred of doubt. Saints hoovered up goodies faster than Richard Madeley on a celebrity edition of Supermarket Sweep. A Giants side that was also missing stars such as Danny Brough, Jermaine McGilvary and Sebastine Ikahihifo offered nothing in response.

Which is all very well as a one-off. The salary cap has done a reasonable job of ensuring that winning margins have shrunk significantly in Super League, even if it can be accused of doing so by dumbing down standards at the top. So you pays your money and takes your choice. Ultra-competitive grinds with little or no flair on show or embarrassing towellings which call into question the quality of the league. At the moment we still seem some way off finding a happy medium.

Costello breaks through

Percival's verbal joust with Gareth Hewer during Saints loss at Wakefield gave an opportunity to Matty Costello. The 20 year-old is more comfortable at fullback but slotted into the threequarters nicely. He could not have wished for a better introduction to Super League level as the Giants folded in the face of the heavy onslaught.

Costello's main contribution was try assists for Lomax and Regan Grace, the latter finally having the confidence to back himself all the way to the line for only his third try of the season. It was Saints 11th try of a night in which Costello announced himself with a solid performance. He managed 68 metres on 13 carries and at times suffered from the same inability to link up with Grace that even Percival is still grappling with. Nobody is suggesting that Costello should be a permanent fixture ahead of Percival or even Ryan Morgan who added two scores of his own in the second half. But the important thing to note is that Costello proved able to step up when needed. With Percival due back from suspension at Salford on Thursday night (April 26) it may be a while before we see Costello again. There are two or three players ahead of him for his favoured fullback berth. But he has nevertheless gained vital experience that must surely aid his development.

But Bentley does not break through

With Zeb Taia one of five first team regulars ruled out through injury this might have been the perfect time to blood James Bentley in the Super League. Holbrook could not have known quite how much of a stroll this one was going to be but he must have been expecting his side to get over the top of a battered Giants outfit. Which greatly reduced the risk around including Bentley, signed in the off-season from Bradford Bulls with a reputation as one of the best players in the Championship.

Those that played ahead of Bentley excelled. Dominique Peyroux made a modest 68 metres but managed 21 tackles, missing just two. He burst out of six tackles and came up with a sensational offload for Lomax's second try. Similarly Jon Wilkin was sprayed with a bit of magic dust when his perfectly timed pass put Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook over, and it was Wilkin's offload which sent Barba weaving his way to the line so memorably. Meanwhile Morgan Knowles had a hand in Lomax's opening score, ran for 110 metres and came up with 36 tackles. Anyone trying to make a case for the inclusion of Bentley might well find themselves presented with these impressive feats as evidence that leaving Bentley out was the right call.

Yet if not this game, then when will we see Bentley in 2018? Saints enter the Challenge Cup draw this week and a favourable pairing may offer another opportunity. But if Bentley isn't required when so many stars are missing and when the opponent still looks highly vulnerable it may be a worrying sign that the young back rower has not convinced the coach that he is Super League ready.

They might be Giants....but we can't see them..

Away support is not particularly valued or deemed necessary in some sports. The NFL has no culture of visiting fans and sets no store by it. Similarly the NRL doesn't worry about it, moving games hours away at the drop of a hat safe in the knowledge that they will find someone, anyone, to stick their bum on a seat.

British sporting culture is slightly different and it was alarming to see the entire East Stand devoid of any Giants fans. Only a couple of flags, one depicting a fairly grumpy-looking Giants chairman Ken Davy, were taking up any space in the main section normally reserved for visiting fans. There were some in the north east corner, including the Twitter celebrity that owns the cow bell, but in truth it would be a surprise if more than a couple of taxis were required to get them down the M62 on Friday night.

If this were Catalans or London it would be nothing new. Empty away ends is something that Super League clubs have had to accept down the years to help pursue the goal of ensuring that Super League stretches outside of the northern towns of its stereotyping. But this is Huddersfield. Birthplace of the game itself. League Leaders Shield winners only five years ago. Is it really too much to ask that a few more are willing to travel an hour down the road, even if it is a Friday night and even if their side is expected to lose? Or is Friday night just an excuse that fans hide behind? Would any more have turned up had the game been played on a Sunday afternoon?

It's never made much sense to host games at exactly the same time as others are being televised. You are either eliminating a high portion of your targeted viewing audience or you are giving potential match-goers a reason to make a trip to the off-license their only outside venture on those evenings. That Sky allow it to continue is an unnerving indicator of their apathy towards the sport. Almost as if they don't care if away sections are empty or viewing figures for RL are lower as long as people are still subscribing to see Premier League football. This is an issue which needs to be seriously examined by all parties before the agreement of the next broadcasting deal, negotiations for which are surely to start imminently.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Saints v Huddersfield Giants - Preview

Saints will look to bounce back from a rude jarring of their collective ego when they host Huddersfield Giants in a BetFred Super League Round 12 meeting on Friday night (April 20, kick-off 8.00pm).

Justin Holbrook’s side suffered only their second loss in 11 league outings in 2018 when they went down 24-20 at Wakefield Trinity last Sunday (April 15). The result has since prompted much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the fans who rounded on portly whistle-blower and hate figure of the week Gareth Hewer. Yet the ugly truth is that Hewer got the two big decisions right, neglecting to award a penalty try when Jonny Lomax was in the vicinity of the try-line and then inviting Mark Percival to sit down for 10 minutes for a petulant bout of gum-flapping after he was obstructed on his way to never in a million years reaching his own kick through.

Percival has paid for that unwelcome expression of his opinion with a one-match suspension and so sits out this one. And that is not all. Saints will also be without the talismanic James Roby, longer term absentees Alex Walmsley and Adam Swift as well as Zeb Taia. The former Catalans man is replaced in the squad by James Bentley, a pre-season signing from Bradford Bulls who has yet to see the light of day in a Saints shirt but of whom big things are expected. Taia’s absence offers a real opportunity for Holbrook to back up comments earlier in the season about giving youth an opportunity but there is still the possibility that he will move Jon Wilkin into the second row to play alongside in-form Dominique Peyroux and promote Morgan Knowles off the bench to start at 13.

The props should remain unaltered with new pack leader Luke Thompson joined by the over-achieving Luke Douglas, Kyle Amor and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook in the rotation, while either Matty Smith or Theo Fages will take Roby’s hooking role. Smith started at Wakefield but there was a feeling that the speed of Saints game went up a notch or three when Fages joined the action. However, that is not to say that Fages should automatically start ahead of Smith. It may be that Fages injection of pace was aided by the fact that he was introduced against tired bodies later in the game and that Smith’s steady presence will be required early on. Along with Bentley, Jack Ashworth makes the 19 and could come into contention in the pack as well as Matty Lees who again finds himself required for first team duty but faces another disappointing omission from the final 17.

What to do about the backs then in Percival and Swift’s absences? Matty Costello retains his place in the 19-man squad and Holbrook has said publicly that it is likely that the youngster will get a run at centre. Whether this will be as a direct replacement for Percival on the left inside of Regan Grace is unknown. Ryan Morgan may swap sides to allow Costello to operate on Saints less busy right hand edge inside of Tommy Makinson. If Holbrook has a change of heart and decides that Costello is not ready for his Super League debut then other options include Lomax, who has played in the centres in emergencies already this term, and Peyroux who joined the club as a centre before finding his best rugby in the second row. The three-quarter line will of course have the luxury of playing in front of the incomparable Ben Barba, who might just beat a banged up Huddersfield team by himself should the mood take him.

Among the absentees for the still coachless Giants are fullback Jake Mamo, England winger Jermaine McGilvary, centre Leroy Cudjoe and the suspended Danny Brough. The latter talked his way into trouble during last week’s 30-12 home defeat to Salford Red Devils and has picked up a three-game ban. Brough was sent off for channelling his inner Percy and gobbing off, this time at a touch judge, and will miss matches against Saints, Warrington and Widnes. Jordan Rankin could step into the fullback role vacated by Mamo, while Innes Senior and Darnell McIntosh operated on the wings against Ian Watson’s side last time out. Former Saint Jordan Turner looks set for a centre berth alongside Aaron Murphy while Brough’s absence gives caretaker coach Chris Thorman a bit of a headache in the halves. Lee Gaskell is another ex-Saint who should feature there but whoever ends up in Brough’s scrum-half role is likely to be inexperienced, playing out of position or both.

The pack looks a little stronger with Sebastine Ikahihifo, Shannon Wakeman and Ryan Hinchcliffe leading the way. Oliver Roberts, Ukuma Ta’ai and Daniel Smith should all feature with Kruise Leeming operating from dummy half. Paul Clough is another who used to earn his living in the red vee and he may start at prop.

In contrast to Saints fast start the Giants have struggled throughout 2018 so far, winning only 2 of their first 11, and having to cope with the upheaval of the sacking of head coach Rick Stone. This side can sometimes be so bad that it loses to Catalans Dragons, a side which you would fully expect to be soundly beaten by the Whipping Boys Select XIII should such a team ever exist and their paths ever cross. It is insanely difficult to see anything but a Saints win even without a few first team regulars, such is the relative depth of the two squads.

The teams have already met once this season, Saints earning a 26-12 success at the John Smith’s Stadium on a cold night in February of the kind that used to decide titles, but now just makes you wonder whether it might not be more pertinent to start the season in April. The Giants had a lot of possession in the first half in that one but even with Brough and company on the field they could not convert that into points against a resolute Saints defence. Without the Scotland halfback and the classy McGilvary it is going to be even more challenging for the Giants who should be handled by a margin somewhere around the 20-point mark.


St Helens;

1. Jonny Lomax, 2. Tommy Makinson, 3. Ryan Morgan, 6. Theo Fages, 7. Matty Smith, 10. Kyle Amor, 12. Jon Wilkin, 13. Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, 14. Luke Douglas, 15. Morgan Knowles, 16. Luke Thompson, 17. Dom Peyroux, 18. Danny Richardson, 19. Regan Grace, 20. Matty Lees, 21. Jack Ashworth, 23. Ben Barba, 24. James Bentley, 30. Matty Costello

Huddersfield Giants;

4. Jordan Turner, 5. Aaron Murphy, 6. Lee Gaskell, 8. Sebastine Ikahihifo, 9. Kruise Leeming, 10. Shannon Wakeman, 13. Ryan Hinchcliffe, 15. Jordan Rankin, 16. Oliver Roberts, 17. Ukuma Ta’ai, 18. Paul Clough, 19. Daniel Smith, 20. Adam Walne, 22. Alex Mellor, 23. Darnell McIntosh, 24. Tyler Dickinson, 25. Corlton Roche, 26. Sam Wood, 33. Innes Senior.

Referee: Scott Mikalauskas

Friday, 13 April 2018

Wakefield Trinity v Saints - Preview

Table-toppers Saints will look to continue their excellent 2018 form when they travel to the ludicrously named Mobile Rocket Stadium to face Wakefield Trinity on Sunday (April 15, kick-off 3.00pm).

Justin Holbrook’s side earned their ninth win from 10 Super League outings so far this season when they beat Hull 26-12 at home last week. By the time this one kicks off they will have had nine full days to recover from the hectic Easter schedule and prepare. That should be enough to recharge the batteries and focus on beating a very decent Trinity side whose form has dipped in recent weeks after a solid start. Yet Trinity’s five defeats in a row over the last month have come by a combined margin of just 30 points at an average of just six points a game. This is a side whose current position of seventh in the league is unflattering.

Beating Chris Chester’s side is made that bit more difficult for Saints by the absence of James Roby. The England hooker has been right up there with Ben Barba as one of the stars of the Saints show so far this term but he misses out this week. He left the victory over Hull FC just after half-time with a rib injury, immediately prompting Holbrook to suggest that Roby’s involvement at Wakefield seemed unlikely. So it has proved, with Matty Costello drafted in to the 19-man squad for the first time this season in the only change from last week’s selection.

You’re way ahead of me I know but the obvious thing to state is that Costello is not a hooker, and therefore not a direct replacement for Roby. Most often Costello is a fullback, which may or may not cast doubts about whether Barba is ready to return having been side-lined through illness for the Hull FC game. Yet Jonny Lomax did a fine job in relief of the Aussie star and would be favourite to do so again should Barba have failed to recover. Barba’s selection seems to suggest a return to stand-off for Lomax with Theo Fages returning to the bench after deputising at 6 with varying degrees of success at Widnes and against Lee Radford’s black and whites. That would leave Tommy Makinson and Regan Grace to occupy the wings with Adam Swift still out with a shoulder injury, and Ryan Morgan and Mark Percival in the centres. Danny Richardson is now the established starter at scrum-half.

The most likely candidate to replace Roby is Matty Smith. The former England scrum-half has slotted in at hooker during both of the last two games and done fairly well in the role. It is impossible to replace what Roby gives you at dummy half but Smith’s tactical nous and passing ability allied to his willingness to work defensively should see him get the nod. Fages is another option in that role while either could be moved into the halves should circumstances dictate. Fortunately for Saints, while they have no specialist hooker to back-up Roby, they do have an array of halfbacks who are adaptable and can be moved around to different positions depending on where the gaps exist.

The forward pack is now missing its two best players with Roby joining the already side-lined Alex Walmsley. Kyle Amor, Luke Douglas and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook have all stepped up admirably in the absence of Walmsley and they will all again look to contribute in support of Luke Thompson. Due to a combination of Walmsley’s injury and his own form Thompson has emerged as Saints most reliable prop in 2018 and will be crucial again for Holbrook’s side. Matty Lees is again named in the 19 but will do well to break into the side with those ahead of him in the pecking order in fine fettle in terms of their form. Behind that group Zeb Taia continues to cop the flak from fans for failing to be Joe Greenwood, but the reality is that the former Gold Coast man bagged another two tries and 145 metres against FC and is arguably Saints most dangerous forward with ball in hand. Jon Wilkin, Morgan Knowles and Dominique Peyroux are a more than adequate support cast.

Wakefield may welcome back Scott Grix at fullback after he missed his side’s 28-26 defeat to Leeds Rhinos last weekend. He replaces Max Jowitt in one of four changes to Chester’s 19-man squad which see all of Liam Finn, Chris Annakin and Anthony England return. As well as Jowitt James Batchelor, Pauli Pauli and Ryan Hampshire miss out as Chester looks to find the right combination to get his side back to winning ways.

Trinity have pace in the backs with Ben Jones-Bishop and Tom Johnstone on the wings and Bill Tupou and Reece Lyne at centre. Finn will look to start in the halves alongside Jacob Miller while the pack includes the vastly under-rated former Saint Matty Ashurst as well as England, Tyler Randell, Justin Horo, Craig Huby and Danny Kirmond. Jordan Baldwinson, Tinirau Arona and Joe Arundel will all look to feature also and the presence of all shows that this is a Wakefield squad which contains far more depth than many of its predecessors in the Super League era.

For most sides Saints have been too hot to handle this season so far and with Wakefield stuck in something of a rut results-wise it is difficult to see how they halt that momentum even at home against a Roby-less Saints outfit. They will be competitive however, and their desperation to end their poor run of form may get an extra 10% out of them as the regular season reaches its half way point and wins become ever more precious. Yet with Barba likely to return and Smith a capable deputy for Roby a 10th win from 11 still seems the most likely outcome. Saints by 6.


Wakefield Trinity;

1.Scott Grix, 2. Tom Johnstone, 3. Pio Tupou, 4. Reece Lyne, 5. Ben Jones-Bishop, 6. Jacob Miller, 7. Liam Finn, 9. Kyle Wood, 10. Anthony England, 11. Matthew Ashurst, 12. Daniel Kirmond, 13. Tyler Randell, 14. Justin Horo, 16. Tinirau Arona, 17. Craig Huby, 18. Joseph Arundel, 20. Keegan Hirst, 22. Jordan Baldwinson, 23. Christopher Annakin.

St Helens;

1.Jonny Lomax, 2. Tommy Makinson, 3. Ryan Morgan, 4. Mark Percival, 6. Theo Fages, 7. Matty Smith, 10. Kyle Amor, 11. Zeb Taia, 12. Jon Wilkin, 13. Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, 14. Luke Douglas, 15. Morgan Knowles, 16. Luke Thompson, 17. Dom Peyroux, 18. Danny Richardson, 19. Regan Grace, 20. Matty Lees, 23. Ben Barba, 30. Matty Costello.

Referee: Gareth Hewer

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

5 Talking Points From Saints 26 Hull FC 12

This is not a one man team

In the lead-up to this one I happened to catch wannabe shock-jock and Hull FC fan Adrian Durham gloating about the absence of Ben Barba from the Saints line-up. Barba missed out through illness prompting Durham to declare himself 'very, very happy' at what he saw as an opportunity for his black and whites. But what he and many others had failed to take into account was the fact that Saints had an England international waiting to step in.

Jonny Lomax stepped seamlessly into his pre-Barba role. Safe under the high ball and with the ability to join up with the attack, Lomax claimed 131 metres on 18 carries and assisted Mark Percival's crucial try early in the second half which came after a neat move from a scrum. That gave Saints some much needed breathing space after a tight first 40 in which Zeb Taia's converted try was the only score.

Any team would miss a player of the class of Barba. He has 10 tries to his name already this season and has been at the heart of pretty much everything Saints have done in both attack and defence in the early part of 2018. It was noticable that Saints lacked a little bit of direction in the FC 20-metre zone in an error filled first half but it was encouraging to see Saints fix that up after half-time, with Lomax central to that. This is far from a one man team. Though without Barba it is essentially the same team which was struggling under Keiron Cunningham this time last year, it is difficult to think of too many players who haven't improved under the tutelage of Justin Holbrook. Fans of other clubs would no doubt rather their team face Saints without Barba than with him but they should not get too excited if they don't see the Australian fullback's name on the teamsheet.

But will the squad be tested?

Barba isn't the only man that Saints have to worry about doing without. Alex Walmsley has been ruled out for the long term with a fractured bone in his neck and though no time frame has been set for his return it will be a surprise if Engy the England prop sees action again in 2018. Adam Swift is midway through what was predicted to be a six-week lay-off with a shoulder injury which is doing more to keep Regan Grace in the team than anything the Welshman has mustered in recent weeks. While these absences hardly constitute an injury crisis of 2014 proportions they do indicate that the squad is about to be tested. Four years ago Saints came up with the revolutionary strategy of winning the League Leaders Shield and the Grand Final with Johnny Vegas and Stan Wall in the halves, but this vintage faces some different challenges.

With Barba expected back the key concern ahead of the weekend visit to Wakefield Trinity surrounds James Roby. The skipper left this one early in the second half with a rib injury, with Holbrook calling it 'a big ask' to expect Roby to be fit for the trip east. Where Barba was replaced by another fullback of international pedigree in Lomax, Roby's place will likely go to the previously ostracised Matty Smith. The man who would take us to the Promised Land as a scrum half does not lack the work rate or the tactical nous to do the job, but the bold truth is that he is not a natural hooker. Even if he were he could not hope to compensate for Roby's absence. There isn't another hooker in Super League who could come into a side and play at Roby's level, so to expect a part-timer like Smith to do so is as fanciful as expecting him to take us to the Promised Land as a 7. Theo Fages may also see some action in the role although he has recently been needed at stand-off in the absence of Lomax at Widnes and Barba here. Holbrook has options but you wouldn't like to find out what would happen if we lost one of two more.

THAT forward pass.

Despite it having about as much influence on the result as a running track at West Ham social media has been alight with fury at the award of Hull's first try scored by Albert Kelly. Holbrook had identified the stand-off as one of the main threats pre-game but even he couldn't have envisaged that Kelly would do it disguised as a wide receiver. The pass he collected from Jack Logan before scooting away to score was so far forward it might have qualified Logan for the javelin final at the Commonwealth Games. Yet neither referee Robert Hicks nor his touch judge on the south side of the ground spotted it. Everyone else did, including Wigan cheerleader and self parody Phil Clarke who could only offer Barba's super slo-mo knock on at Widnes on Easter Monday as justification. The largest endorsement of two wrongs equalling a right since Theresa May actually listened to the Amsterdam bridge beer-chuckers and went through with Brexit.

It all begs the question why we cannot use the video evidence to rule on forward passes. Especially since the notion that it all evens itself out over a season is the kind of total bollocks reserved only for those who have recently benefitted from an incompetent decision by a referee. We review everything else, to the point now where players are being yellow carded several hours after an infringement, yet we steadfastly cling on to the idea that 21st century camera technology cannot shed light on whether a pass has left the hands and then travelled in a forward direction. Even the buffoons in rugby union, who seem to do everything later than we do with the exception of organising credible international competition, have cottoned on to the idea that replays are helpful in this regard. It may not have mattered here but a gross error such as this could really cost somebody. If we have to have the annoyance of the video referee at all then ruling on forward passes should be included as a matter of urgency. Otherwise let's just get rid of it altogether and take our chances.

The re-enforcements step up

If I'm honest with you I've spent an awful lot of time since the Warrington win fretting about what this column has previously declared a lack of quality at prop in the absence of Walmsley. I've done this partly because it distracts me from anything approaching a real problem, but partly because the back-ups are Kyle Amor, Luke Douglas and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook. Disappointingly we have yet to see Matty Lees since Walmsley's injury.

Yet perhaps I fretted too soon. All of that trio of Amor, Douglas and McCarthy-Scarsbrook have been excellent over the Easter period and all upped their game again in this one. All three broke the 100 metre barrier that simplistic chancers like me consider a minimum for front rowers. With Luke Thompson following suit and now looked upon as something of a leader by example in that group suddenly the void left by Walmsley, while still fairly sizeable, is not one that looks impossible to fill. If the support cast can add consistency to their performance a run of form that has seen Saints win nine of their first 10 Super League games could continue into the second half of the regular season.

Time for a breather

On which subject Saints next assignment sees them go to the laughably named Mobile Rocket Stadium to face Chris Chester's Wakefield Trinity on Sunday (April 15). Ordinarily in action on Fridays, that extra 48 hours preparation is very welcome after an Easter programme that has taken in three games in the space of eight days for Saints and Hull.

Too much is perhaps made of the time clubs have between games. Who isn't tired of seeing Denis Betts or Steve McNamara bang on about 'short turnarounds' after their latest defeat? But following a double header its an issue which maybe takes on greater significance. There's a reason why both Saints and the black and whites looked a bit leggy on Friday night. FC have to go again on Thursday, although fortunately for them they face Widnes. Meanwhile a nine-day break should be enough for Saints to recover from their Easter eggs-ertions (yes I just did that) and look to strengthen their grip on Super League's top spot.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Saints v Hull FC Preview

Table topping, Wigan slaying bundle of positivity Saints face their third league game in eight days when they host Hull FC in a BetFred Super League Round 10 meeting on Friday night (April 6, kick-off 7.45pm).

It was a highly successful Easter for Justin Holbrook's side who edged a thrilling derby 21-18 over Wigan on Good Friday before cruising to a 28-6 win at Widnes on Easter Monday. The double left Saints four points clear at the top of the table and looking like the team to beat in the race to Old Trafford in 2018.

The holiday brought happiness for Hull FC too. After a wobble following their Wigan-inspired trip to Australia the black and whites have won their last three in the league. Their Easter featured a 30-22 win over neighbours Hull KR, achieved despite playing with 12 men for 70 minutes, and a nerve-jangling 27-26 win over Wakefield Trinity thanks to Marc Sneyd's ridiculous 50-metre drop-goal in the last minute. Lee Radford's side are up to fifth and a win in this one will draw them to within four points of Saints.

To achieve that they'll need to get past a very similar set of personnel to that which saw off Wigan and Widnes. Holbrook has again named the same 19-man squad for the match as he did ahead of the Easter fixtures. The only change to the 17 is likely to be the re-introduction of Jonny Lomax, rested for the trip to Widnes. Matty Smith looks the likeliest to miss out in that case after making his first appearance of the season on Monday. That would mean Lomax probably slotting back in at stand-off with Theo Fages returning to a bench role. With Adam Swift still out injured the rest of the back line should be as you were with Ben Barba lighting cigars at fullback behind wingers Regan Grace and Tommy Makinson. Mark Percival and Ryan Morgan should continue at centre with Danny Richardson at scrum-half.

Alex Walmsley remains the big miss in the pack. The only question is whether his long term neck injury will finally afford Matty Lees a chance or whether Holbrook will stick with the front rowers who have upped their game since Walmsley's injury. Luke Douglas rightly avoided suspension following his sin-binning at Widnes and will look to feature alongside Kyle Amor, Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook and the standout Luke Thompson. Crafty Cockney Louie looks set to make his 300th appearance in Super League including his time at London Broncos. James Roby needs one try to match Tommy Makinson's milestone of 100 for the club and leads the side at hooker. Zeb Taia, Dominique Peyroux, Jon Wilkin and Morgan Knowles will be the back row options.

Hull are without Dean Hadley and Jordan Abdull but welcome back all of Jamie Shaul, Carlos Tuimavave and, crucially, Danny Houghton after they along with the also recalled Jordan Lane missed the win over Wakefield. Fetuli Talanoa is Super League's top try scorer with 11, one more than both Barba and Percival. Yet it is stand-off Albert Kelly who Holbrook has identified as a major threat. His speed and craft compliments Sneyd's kicking game in the halves and ensures that men like Talanoa, Tuimavave and Josh Griffin get the service they need.

Houghton is the key in the pack but Radford will hope Sika Manu is able to return after four games out. Mark Minichiello is ageing but genuine Super League quality and with England squad member Scott Taylor in the ranks along with Josh Bowden and Chris Green FC have the grunt up front to trouble a Saints side trying to fill the Walmsley-sized hole in their side.

The match is the first leg of the Steve Prescott Cup, played for between these two former clubs of the much loved international fullback and charity champion. The winner will be decided on aggregate score over the two regular season meetings between the two, with Saints currently the holders thanks largely to their 45-0 walloping of FC at the 2017 Magic Weekend.

In form Saints should be genuinely tested by an improving Hull side but should be confident about making it nine wins out of 10 to start their 2018 campaign.


St Helens;

1. Jonny Lomax 2. Tommy Makinson 3. Ryan Morgan 4. Mark Percival 6. Theo Fages 7. Matty Smith 9. James Roby 10. Kyle Amor 11. Zeb Taia 12. Jon Wilkin 13. Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook 14. Luke Douglas 15. Morgan Knowles 16. Luke Thompson 17. Dominique Peyroux 18. Danny Richardson 19. Regan Grace 20. Matty Lees 23. Ben Barba

Hull FC;

1. Jamie Shaul 3. Carlos Tuimavave 4. Josh Griffin 5. Fetuli Talanoa 6. Albert Kelly 7. Marc Sneyd 8. Scott Taylor 9. Danny Houghton 12. Mark Minichiello 13. Josh Bowden 14. Jake Connor 15. Chris Green 17. Danny Washbrook 20. Brad Fash 21. Sika Manu 22. Jez Litten 23. Mickey Paea 24. Jack Logan 26. Jordan Lane

Referee: Robert Hicks

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

5 Talking Points From Widnes 6 Saints 28

Ton up Tommy

While England's batsmen waft away helplessly in New Zealand there is at least one Englishman besides Jonny Bairstow celebrating a century this Easter. Tommy Makinson's double against Widnes brought up 100 tries for Saints for the 26-year-old since his debut in 2011 and reminded us all that when given the opportunity, Makinson is one of the best finishers in the game.

In many ways Makinson has been a victim of his own versatility. Pre-Ben Barba he stood in for Jonny Lomax at fullback at times and did so expertly, while recently he had been operating at centre as a consequence of Ryan Morgan's absence and coach Justin Holbrook's seeming unwillingness to choose between Regan Grace and Adam Swift on the left wing. But with Swift out Morgan has been restored over the holiday double-header allowing Makinson to revert to the right wing position where he made his name. It remains his best position, illustrated by two trademark athletic finishes and by 141 metres on 19 carries. His kick returning and composure under the high ball have been outstanding. It isn't that Makinson has been doing a bad job in the centres. Far from it. But his move back to the wing has brought better balance to the Saints in both attack and defence. If he gets a run of games there when Swift returns and isn't sacrificed for the team, look for Makinson to add to the three Super League tries he has scored in 2018. Beyond that? Here's to the next 100.

Douglas unlucky to see yellow.

Depleted Widnes were missing 11 of their first team squad and were so bad that they even managed to concede a try with a man advantage. There might be a debate to be had about whether the absence of Luke Douglas for 10 minutes makes Saints any weaker, but the Scotland man can consider himself a little unfortunate to have been sent for a sit down by referee Chris Kendall.

Douglas saw yellow early in the second half for a dangerous 'crusher' tackle on Widnes fullback Danny Craven. Yet in making the challenge along with Morgan Knowles Douglas had almost no control over the pressure applied to Craven's neck. Much of it came about because of the extra weight added to the tackle by the Welshman. There are issues around player safety to consider and there is an argument that players have a duty of care to each other. Yet when there is so little intention, and so little opportunity to avoid placing an opponent in a dangerous position then offenders can consider themselves unfortunate to be punished with anything more than a penalty. The disciplinary body's ruling that no further action is necessary seems to suggest that they have some sympathy with Douglas also.

Kendall not to blame for Barba error

Kendall took a suspiciously long time to decide to use the sin-bin following the Douglas incident, with video evidence provided by the controversy-obsessed broadcaster almost certainly a factor. But the referee was quick to award Barba his 10th try of the season despite the fact that the 625th replay, slowed down to within an inch of its life, seemed to prove that there was a miniscule moment of separation between Barba's hand and the ball as he reached out to ground it.

Multiple replays at full speed offered no evidence of this, and indeed several other freeze-frame angles seemed to show that the fullback had a fingertip on the ball as it hit the ground. Unless we go down the NFL route of reviewing all scoring plays then it is virtually impossible to eradicate these errors. If the pictures have to be slowed down to that extent to pick up the separation is it even desirable to have tries disallowed on that basis? Shouldn't the video referee, if we have to have one at all, be there to clear up the glaring mistakes by officials and not to try to reach the unattainable goal of getting everything 100% right? Maybe that's easy for us to say since we were the beneficiaries on this occasion but Kendall should certainly be absolved of any blame for failing to have a doubt in his mind. in real time, there wasn't any.

Is Smith a genuine option or an Easter stop-gap?

Jonny Lomax was rested for this one as Matty Smith came into the 17 for the first time this season. However, when Smith entered the fray in the second half it was not in the halves in place of either Danny Richardson or Theo Fages but at hooker in place of James Roby.

Smith's stats suggest he did a reasonable job even if some of his distribution from dummy half had eerie echoes of Tommy Lee. Smith ran just once from dummy half for 13 metres but put in 18 tackles, three from marker. Against the lesser sides or in games when Saints have carved out a comfortable lead Smith may be a viable option if we want to give Roby a break.

But is there another agenda? Post-game Holbrook was complimentary about not only Smith's performance but also about his attitude to being left out for so long and his willingness to help his team-mates in any way he can. But Holbrook also acknowledged Smith's frustration at his lack of playing time and that it may be difficult to keep him at the club in those circumstances. Hull KR, Salford and Catalans have all been linked with a loan move for Smith who would almost certainly start for any of those teams.

Optimists will suggest that getting Smith off the wage bill will open up cap space to sign a prop to cover for long term injury victim Alex Walmsley. But in truth all the funds in the world will not magically fashion an available front-rower with anything like the same effectiveness as Walmsley. Saints might be better served holding on to Smith if possible. But that is an 'if'. Smith may not want to stick around if Lomax's return makes his appearance here a one-off, holiday stop-gap.

Fages fails to take his chance

Saints barely got out of second gear here. That's handy given that this one was sandwiched between two massive home games against Wigan and Hull FC. But for Theo Fages his and the team's inability to reach maximum performance levels will be a disappointment.

Fages was offered a first start of the season with Lomax rested. Not only that but the Frenchman got to play at stand-off, a refreshing change from being used as a quasi-13 late in games as we have previously seen him. Conditions were not the best anywhere this weekend for open, flowing rugby but Fages made a couple of pretty basic handling errors and poor decisions. With Barba in the ranks there is a tendancy for our stand-off to be on the periphary a little more now but you might still expect more from a player who should have been desperate to make a big impression. But maybe that's Theo, not wanting to do too much by himself particularly with Holbrook's recent criticism of Jon Wilkin. Whether it was selflessness or sloppiness from Fages it could cost him.

Monday, 2 April 2018

Widnes Vikings v Saints Preview

Saints attempt to make it a very happy Easter when they visit Widnes Vikings in a BetFred Super League Round 9 match-up on Monday (April 9, kick-off 3.05pm).

Justin Holbrook's side vanquished the Evil Empire on Good Friday (March 30) with a heart-stopping 21-18 win sealed by Regan Grace's late try and Danny Richardson's nerveless touchline conversion and drop-goal. But all of that would be considerably less glorious should Saints fail to see off a Widnes side that has not inspired so far in 2018. The Vikings come in off the back of a derby defeat, going down 32-18 to a Warrington side for whom Josh Charnley scored two tries on debut. It was a fifth loss in eight league outings so far for Dennis Betts' side who currently occupy the final top eight berth.

With last season's visit to Widnes in mind there was an expectation that Holbrook would make a few changes to his squad, especially with such a short space of time between the two Easter fixtures. Tommy Makinson was not risked on Widnes' 4G pitch last year which led to a rather fraught appearance for Ricky Bailey, but Makinson is potentially available as Holbrook makes no changes to the 19-man party that took on Wigan. That means only Alex Walmsley and Adam Swift, out with neck and shoulder injuries respectively, are missing from what you might consider Saints strongest available squad.

None of which means Makinson is guaranteed to play. Holbrook can choose to draft in players from outside the 19 if there are medical grounds to do so. We saw Wigan coach do exactly that on Friday when the previously unnamed Morgan Escare came in as a late replacement for the ill Sam Tomkins. But even if Holbrook decides to stick with what he has there is some scope for changes to the match day 17. There has been talk of a first appearance of the season for Matty Smith which could mean a rest for Jonny Lomax ahead of the visit of Hull FC on Friday (April 6). With Swift out resting Makinson is more complex. A reshuffling of the back line would be required with perhaps Ryan Morgan operating on the wing and maybe a return to the centres for Dominique Peyroux.

Ben Barba is another who looked bruised and battered during the derby and is another candidate for a nice long sit down, although since Lomax and Makinson are the only likely candidates to step in at fullback and are themselves arguably in need of a bit of protection Barba may have to soldier on. As will Mark Percival and Grace.

If Smith does play there is still a decision to be made about who partners him in the halves. Holbrook publicly stated before the start of the season that he saw Richardson as more of a stand-off than a scrum half and the coach may take the opportunity to test that theory. Or, assuming that he doesn't stick with Lomax, Holbrook may offer an opportunity to Theo Fages. The Frenchman is probably most comfortable at 6 but has so far only seen action as a tackling machine at loose forward off the bench in 2018. This could be his chance to shine.

With Walmsley out the options are less complex in the pack. Ideally some may favour finding a way to rest James Roby and Fages offers Holbrook that option. But one of the reasons given for appointing Roby as captain was that he was a player that Holbrook wanted the England hooker on the field as much as possible. Roby was certainly influential in the win over Wigan and it may be best to leave well enough alone. Prop duties were carried out by the excellent Luke Thompson as well as Kyle Amor, Luke Douglas and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook on Friday but this one perhaps will see one of those rested to give Matty Lees an opportunity. Zeb Taia, Jon Wilkin and Morgan Knowles offer back row options alongside Peyroux provided he isn't moved to the centres. In many ways it would be a shame to move him out of the second row given the improvement in his performances since Holbrook's arrival.

Betts makes four changes to his squad with the eye-catching absentees being fullback Rhys Hanbury, form centre Krisnan Inu and back rower Chris Houston. Gil Dudson also misses out as Alex Gerrard, Danny Craven, Danny Walker and Wellington Albert all come in. Hanbury hasn't been at his best but leaves a gaping hole at the back for the Vikings while Inu is the club's leading try-scorer with six so far this term. Only Barba, Percival and Fetuli Talanoa of Hull FC have more in Super League so far. Charly Runciman and Stefan Marsh are among those expected to pick up the slack with Joe Mellor and Tom Gilmore operating in the creative department in midfield. Up front Gerrard's return is a boost while MacGraff Leuluai, Aaron Heremaia, Chris Dean and Tom Olbison have much needed experience.

Saints last visit to Widnes ended in a surprise 16-14 defeat, a game which followed the Easter double header and proved a step too far for Saints whose much changed side could not repeat the heroics of an equally surprising Easter Monday win over Castleford. Yet with this year's vintage currently four points clear at the top there should be a greater determination to not get caught short this time at what looks like a fairly mediocre Widnes outfit.


Widnes Vikings;

2. Stefan Marsh 4. Charly Runciman 6. Joe Mellor 7. Tom Gilmore 10. Alex Gerrard 14. Chris Dean 15. Danny Craven 16. Tom Olbison 17. Sam Wilde 19. Greg Burke 20. MacGraff Leuluai 21. Jordan Johnstone 22. Ryan Ince 23. Danny Walker 24. Ed Chamberlain 26 Ed Chapelhow 28. Bradley Walker 30. Keanen Brand 36. Wellington Albert

St Helens;

1. Jonny Lomax 2. Tommy Makinson 3. Ryan Morgan 4. Mark Percival 6. Theo Fages 7. Matty Smith 9. James Roby 10. Kyle Amor 11. Zeb Taia 12. Jon Wilkin 13. Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook 14. Luke Douglas 15. Morgan Knowles 16. Luke Thompson 17. Dominique Peyroux 18. Danny Richardson 19. Regan Grace 20. Matty Lees 23. Ben Barba

Referee: Chris Kendall

Saturday, 31 March 2018

5 Talking Points From Saints 21 Wigan 18

Saving Grace

Up until four minutes before the end of this epic slaying of big fat bully next door it hadn't been the best of days for Regan Grace. The young Welsh international winger dithered early, spilling a bomb to put Saints under pressure and then spent much of his afternoon failing to communicate with Mark Percival, Zeb Taia and Ben Barba as the missed opportunities stacked up.

Grace seemed certain to score a minute before half-time when he jinked inside the Wigan cover only to be brought down inches from the line. Had he gone over there it could have seen Saints go to the break with a potentially decisive 18-2 lead. It's an emotional game but I would guess I'm not the only one who heard a voice in my head telling me that Adam Swift would have scored.

But Swift is not fit. He's out with a shoulder injury picked up in last week's win at Hull KR. There have been suggestions that Grace too is suffering from a knock. Another elusive shimmy away from the defensive line looked great, but was followed by Grace's impression of a man running in treacle when he was confronted with open space. He looked like he might be about to keel over and in truth it is not the first time that we have seen Grace's sprinting ability fail to match his capacity to change direction. Grace needs to back himself more but too often at present ambles down the field with the air of a man expecting to be clobbered.

He went close again in the second half, again dragged down just short of the line before redemption arrived. Saints had levelled the scores at 14-14 through a Danny Richardson penalty when Ryan Morgan's break saw the ball shifted quickly from Tommy Makinson to Jon Wilkin and then Jonny Lomax. The stand-off's looping pass found Grace in just enough space to somersault over in the corner. A happy ending then for Grace, but lots to think about for him between now and Swift's return to fitness.

Ryan Morgan Brings Balance

I told you Ryan Morgan should play, didn't I? The Australian centre returned to the line-up for the first time since the opening day thrashing of Castleford and not only made a telling contribution of his own but made Makinson better in the process. Morgan's late break down the right channel, beautifully crafted by Barba, was arguably the key moment in the game as it set up the position for Grace's try. But it was the effect that Morgan's presence had on Makinson that was most useful to the team effort.

With Morgan back at centre it freed Makinson up to return to the right wing where he looks far more comfortable. It isn't that Makinson did a bad job at centre in Morgan's absence but it is a position which nulifies some of his best qualities. He is among the best kick returners in the game and he showed that here as he ripped Wigan for 131 metres on 14 carries. He was also majestic under the high ball all afternoon and if we are going to persist with the maddening policy of starting sets in our own territory with wingers then Makinson is much more the man for the job than the more error-prone Swift or Grace.

For his part Morgan made 92 metres on nine carries and looked at times like he'd never been away. He makes the first man miss regularly and just brings better balance to a Saints attack that has often been too reliant on its left edge. The argument for his inclusion is compelling for me and so is the case for Makinson to operate on the wing. There may be a tough decision for Justin Holbrook to make when Swift regains fitness.

Roby and LMS carry the fight

After looking the better side in the first 40 minutes Saints were hit by a whirlwind revival from Shaun Wane's side after half-time. The absence of Alex Walmsley was glaring and fairly grave at that time as the Wigan defence exposed the limitations of the reinforcements in the Saints front row particularly. Kyle Amor and Luke Douglas made 159 metres between them and though it is far from an exact science any time your front line props cannot reach the 100 metre mark it is an indicator that they are second best.

That they were not punished is largely down to the toothless effort from the Wigan quartet of props, of whom only Ryan Sutton topped the 100 metre mark, but also down to the efforts of James Roby and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook. Roby chooses his moments rather more as he ages but every time Saints needed a relieving run in that second half the skipper came up with it, swatting of defenders as if they were mere inconveniences. That he was not even worthy of a mention in Sky's man of the match four-man shortlist is unfathomable. An average gain of 12.25 metres per carry is better than that of anyone on the field barring Dominique Peyroux, who the prophet Keiron told you would be a fans' favourite. But it was the timing of Roby's runs and the sheer determination to get his side out of the brown stuff which so impressed.

And so to Louie, who has been praised in this column before this season but caught the eye even more as some of his colleagues floundered during the Wigan fightback. McCarthy-Scarsbrook never stopped pumping his legs regardless of how many defenders had a grasp on him, and that effort translated into 130 metres on 17 carries. With Walmsley out for the forseeable future we are going to need more of the same from the Irish international. He's capable, but on those less inspiring days when Louie is being Louie can the likes of Amor and Douglas step up? Before we leave the topic of grunt and grind behind an honourable mention should go to Wilkin, who is still maddening when he turns into a halfback but who on the occasion of his 400th appearance came up with another 38 tackles in a typically tireless display.

Danny Cool

Saints have had a goal-kicking problem in recent years. That looks to be a thing of the past now with the emergence of Danny Richardson. With Saints legend and goal-kicking expert Mal Meninga watching on Richardson recovered from an uncertain start to play his full part in managing this performance. Richardson comically failed to find touch with an early penalty, learning his lesson to whack every subsequent touch-finder to the back row of the stand. But it was his coolness under pressure with the boot that ultimately helped to seal Saints first Easter win over Wigan since 2009.

Grace's try opened up a four-point lead for Saints but it was Richardson's unnerring conversion from the south stand touchline that made sure that Saints would not lose this one. Moments later, he slotted a drop-goal which he knew, judging by his celebration, had put the result beyond doubt despite Joel Tomkins' second try just before the hooter. Richardson still has a way to go to fulfil his huge potential but if he can maintain the level of composure on show in the final minutes of this one, his first derby let's not forget, he will find that journey a whole lot smoother.

Surprisingly Few Changes For Widnes

Easter means backing up with two games in the space of three days. The debate about what this does for player welfare will no doubt rage, with losing coaches more likely to grumble. Holbrook doesn't appear too worried if his 19-man selection for the Easter Monday visit to Widnes is anything to go by. He has named exactly the same squad that was on duty for the derby, a policy which severely limits his ability to freshen up his match day 17.

Makinson is a candidate to be left out as the Vikings' 4G pitch is viewed as a danger to his tender knees, while Lomax also could benefit from a period of recovery. There were times when even Barba hobbled around like he had just left his local A & E department, though not when he was rounding Morgan Escare with laughable, joyful ease to score Saints first try. His afternoon was a mixture of brilliance and displays of discomfort and irritation and he too might be better served being held back for next week's visit of Hull FC.

But unless Holbrook intends to draft anyone in late in the day then only two of the 19 will be able to sit it out against Dennis Betts' side. Talk persists that Matty Smith may figure for the first time in 2018 which could be at the expense of Lomax, but the omission of Makinson would lead to an awkward reshuffling of the threequarter line just when that section of the team looks to be at its most cohesive.

Whoever is required to back up they should do so knowing the importance of building on the derby win. We all enjoyed a great Good Friday but wouldn't defeat to one of the poorest teams in the top flight be like taking a piece of Australian sandpaper to the shine of a hard fought and glorious win over our cherry and white brethren....

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

St Helens v Wigan - Preview

Forget about eggs, oversized rabbits and religious pap, the only thing worth bothering with this Easter weekend is the Round 8 BetFred Super League clash between Saints and Wigan at the stadium with the worst name in sport. With due deference to Wakefield fans. Saints and Wigan go at it this Good Friday afternoon (March 30, kick-off 3.15pm) with Super League’s top spot on the line.

Both sides go into this one with just one defeat on the 2018 record. Saints won all of their first five outings before suffering a home defeat to Leeds on March 16, but got back on the proverbial nag with an impressive 30-6 demolition of Hull KR at KCom Craven Park last time out. Meanwhile Wigan started well with wins over Salford and Hull FC but suffered an early and quite mirth-inducing loss to a Warrington side still defining the term ‘team in transition’ at the end of February. Shaun Wane’s Evil Empire are unbeaten since in a run that has included wins over Widnes, Wakefield and Huddersfield. Scary. Aside from the Wolves, Wigan’s only other real test would have been a visit to Castleford on March 18 but the Yorkshire snow put paid to that one.

Saints have played Castleford, and despatched them with embarrassing ease in a 46-6 Round 1 romp over Daryl Powell’s 2017 League Leaders Shield winners. Yet in truth they have been less convincing since, with dogged displays away from home seeing off Catalans Dragons and Huddersfield preceding more encouraging efforts in beating Salford at home and Warrington away. Saints were very much the form side before that Leeds setback and are looking to re-establish their early season dominance.

That ambition is made more complicated by the loss of Alex Walmsley. The England forward has not played since the win over Warrington on March 9 in which he fractured a bone in his neck following a collision with Mitch Brown. He is set to be out for the vague-sounding ‘long term’ and the awful truth is that other than Luke Thompson Saints do not have another prop forward that might even sit awake at night considering holding a candle to Walmsley. Coach Justin Holbrook spoke of giving youth a chance ahead of the visit to Hull KR but did not do so, choosing to go by experienced committee of Luke Douglas, Kyle Amor and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook alongside Thompson with Matty Lees missing out on the match day 17. All are included in this week’s initial 19-man selection but on the back of that thumping of Hull KR it would be a major surprise to see Lees break in.

James Roby continues to run roughshod over both the other hookers in the competition and his own age and will again be key for Saints, while in the back row Morgan Knowles' return from suspension last week was a major boost for Holbrook. The Welshman offers a genuine alternative at 13 to former skipper and class naughty boy Jon Wilkin, who after staying for detention following the Leeds game put his kicking boots away in East Yorkshire to concentrate on the business of running over defenders. Let’s hope he does so again to add to the contributions from the always excellent and always somehow pilloried Zeb Taia and the improving if mystifyingly still present Dominique Peyroux.

In the backs Ben Barba will no doubt relish his first Good Friday derby, especially after his impression of the boy who got picked last in primary school on the occasion of his first meeting with the pie munchers towards the end of last season’s Super 8s. Wane and the boys will find the Barba of 2018 a significantly different proposition, as seven tries in his opening seven league encounters will attest to. Adam Swift has suffered some cruel luck in picking up a shoulder injury and so misses out having fought so hard to regain his place since the emergence of Regan Grace. Ryan Morgan has been seen in St Helens less than former MP Shaun Woodward since his brief cameo against Castleford ended with a bust nose but returns to the squad here. Anything else but his restoration into the centres alongside Mark Percival with Tommy Makinson moving back out to the wing to partner Grace would be outright madness and could just happen. Jonny Lomax was forced into action in the thee-quarters at Rovers because of Swift’s injury and acquitted himself superbly in the way that Jonny Lomax always acquits himself superbly. Yet for my money he is best used either as a halfback partner for the exciting if somewhat erratic Danny Richardson or off the bench from where he can cover a number of positions and still be at least the equal of McCarthy-Scarsbrook or Peyroux. Expect Lomax to start at stand-off with Theo Fages, who can also play in a variety of positions though probably only one as well as Lomax, catching fire as and when required. In what is now becoming a tiresome tradition Matty Smith is named in the 19 but will be nowhere near the first team unless their pre-match meal is laced with something that sends you to the bathroom every three minutes. Rumours of a loan move to Salford persist, with a lot of people seemingly in favour of a deal which could bring Craig Kopczak to Saints in a bid to make up for Walmsley’s absence by stock-piling props that are not as good as he is.

And so to our visitors. I know, you don’t give a toss but let’s be professional and take you through who might be standing in our way of a first Good Friday derby victory since Charlie George lay on the turf at Wembley. Or so it seems. Saints last Easter win over Wigan was actually in 2009. Sam Tomkins is a fullback these days and plays behind a three-quarter line featuring starlet Tom Davies and recently Joe Burgess, although Liam Marshall is in the 19 and will hope to displace the former Sydney Rooster. Oliver Gildart is one of the best young centres in the game but with former London Bronco and NRL bench-warmer Dan Sarginson injured Wane may have to emulate Wayne, and opt for the Bennet-esque ploy of naming bad tempered bulldog and occasional world class second rower John Bateman at centre. Let’s hope so, eh?

In the halves George Williams and Sam Powell are forming a budding partnership while former scrum-half Thomas Leuluai now operates in Powell’s old hooking role. Wane could put the Incredible Hulk at 9 and Saints would still have an edge in this area but in Williams he has a genuine weapon who should probably be playing more for Bennett’s England side. It’s a triumvirate that appears to be working well for Wigan who have scored 184 points this season and conceded just 82, second only to Saints in both categories having played a game less. If we are talking averages Saints rack up 29.5 points per game while Wigan are just over the 30 mark. Though they have the advantage of having played Huddersfield Giants at home. Defensively, Saints concede only just over 11 points per game while Wane’s alehouse tactics produce defensive dividends to the tune of only 13.6 points per game also. Make no mistake that this one is a meeting between the two sides that are the class of the field so far in 2018 with the winner likely to go into Easter Monday’s fixtures on top of the pile.

Up front Wigan have not only Leuluai but also pantomime villain Ben Flower alongside 2015’s Grand Final up and under exponent Tony Clubb. Ryan Sutton and Taulima Tautai add further weight but precious little finesse to the pack while in the back row Joel Tomkins or Willie Isa will likely partner under-sized, under-rated Ginger Pearl Liam Farrell. Sean O’Loughlin will play because this game is Very Important Indeed.

Off the bench at home to the Giants last week Wigan had Joel Tomkins, Sutton and Tautai and speedy French fullback Morgan Escare. The latter is not in the 19 this week which has to limit the options for Wane in terms of how to get the best out of Sam Tomkins and how to change the game offensively if it is not going his way. Romain Navarette is another Frenchman who will seek an opportunity while Josh Woods also makes the 19.

I’m not entirely confident of a victory without Walmsley and the lack of game time at centre of either Morgan or Lomax is a worry also. Yet I can’t seriously be expected to put down in black and white that I think we will lose another Good Friday game, especially at home, so I am going for Saints to edge this one by four. I'd pray for it but that is religious pap.


St Helens;

1. Jonny Lomax, 2. Tommy Makinson, 3. Ryan Morgan, 4. Mark Percival, 6. Theo Fages, 7. Matty Smith, 9. James Roby, 10. Kyle Amor, 11. Zeb Taia, 12. Jon Wilkin, 13. Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, 14. Luke Douglas, 15. Morgan Knowles, 16. Luke Thompson, 17. Dom Peyroux, 18. Danny Richardson, 19. Regan Grace, 20. Matty Lees, 23. Ben Barba.

Wigan Warriors;

1. Sam Tomkins, 2. Tom Davies, 4. Oliver Gildart, 5. Joe Burgess, 6. George Williams, 7. Sam Powell, 8. Tony Clubb, 9. Thomas Leuluai, 10. Ben Flower, 11. Joel Tomkins, 12. Liam Farrell, 13. Sean O’Loughlin, 14. John Bateman, 15. Ryan Sutton, 17. Taulima Tautai, 19. Willie Isa, 22. Liam Marshall, 25. Romain Navarrete, 34. Josh Woods.

Robert Hicks

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Hull KR v Saints Preview

Saints will look to bounce back from a first setback of 2018 when they visit Hull KR in a Betfred Super League Round 7 clash on Friday night (March 23, kick-off 8.00pm).

Saints were rudely prodded in the backside last time out. Undefeated in their first five league games of the season they went down 28-20 at home to Leeds Rhinos on Friday night (March 16). It was a result which reminded us all that this season won't be a stroll and that there are teams out there who can and will knock us off our perch if we're below par.

That assignment was more difficult by the loss of Alex Walmsley earlier in the week, and when it was revealed by Justin Holbrook after the game that Walmsley will be out for 'months' this week's task also had its degree of difficulty increased. While Luke Thompson has been arguably Saints most consistent prop this week Walmsley, who has fractured a bone in his neck keeping him out for what the club now describe as 'the long term' is still one of Super League's premier props and all but irreplacable in a salary capped sport.

To try and fill the void Holbrook has recalled Morgan Knowles to the squad after his four-match suspension for his red card in the win at Catalans in February came to an end. The Welsh international is a back-rower as opposed to a prop but his inclusion may free up Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook to chip in to a middle unit that looks threadbare without Walmsley. That one or both of Kyle Amor and Luke Douglas will likely start the game and play more minutes is a deep concern as both continue to find punching holes in paper bags somewhat beyond them. Despite this Holbrook has ruled out drafting in a short-term replacement for Walmsley and has instead focused on the opportunity that has now arisen for some of the younger players in the squad. For now that means Matty Lees, who gets another chance to build on his recent first team experience. Knowles will join Zeb Taia, Jon Wilkin, Dom Peyroux and at times McCarthy-Scarsbrook as Holbrook's back row options with another irreplacable in James Roby at hooker.

Knowles replaces Ryan Morgan in the initial 19-man selection as Holbrook chooses to bolster his pack to try to cover the loss of Walmsley. That should mean Tommy Makinson remaining in Morgan's favoured centre position with both Adam Swift and Regan Grace continuing on the wings. Mark Percival will complete the three-quarter line ahead of fullback Ben Barba. In the halves there have been calls for change after underwhelming performances against the Rhinos from both Jonny Lomax and Danny Richardson but Holbrook strikes you as the kind of coach who will give players a chance to right the wrongs of one poor result. If he does we will again have to wait for Theo Fages to appear from the bench while there is again likely to be no place in the match day 17 for Matty Smith.

Rovers were tipped by most observers to struggle in 2018 after returning to Super League from the Chanpionship and they haven't done a great deal to change many minds. They have just two wins from their first six matches but do come in with a bit of confidence having thrashed Huddersfield Giants 38-6 last week. Names to look out for in Tim Sheens' squad include three former Saints in fullback Adam Quinlan, prop Mose Masoe and hooker Tommy Lee. Shaun Lunt's continued absence is a big loss but Danny McGuire and Justin Carney add great experience while Chris Atkin's halfback partnership with McGuire has looked very promising.

Saints did not miss Rovers while they were away from the top flight in 2017. They have a woeful record at what may or may not still be called Craven Park, having not won in eight consecutive visits before a 31-22 success stopped the rot in 2016. Repeating that won't be straightforward and with an Easter date with Wigan seven days later it is to be hoped that attention doesn't shift there too soon. Without Walmsley I'm fearful and would take the scruffiest one-point win in the history of the game if offered it right now.


Hull KR;

1. Adam Quinlan 3. Thomas Minns 4. Andrew Heffernan. 5. Ryan Shaw 7. Danny McGuire 10. Mose Masoe 11. Maurice Blair 12. James Greenwood 13. Ben Kavanagh 15. James Donaldson 17. Chris Clarkson 18. George Lawler 19. Tommy Lee 21. Robert Mulhern 22. Liam Salter 24. Christopher Atkin 28. Will Dagger 29. Jordan Walne 36. Justin Carney
St Helens;

1. Jonny Lomax 2. Tommy Makinson 4. Mark Percival 5. Adam Swift 6. Theo Fages 7. Matty Smith 9. James Roby 10. Kyle Amor 11. Zeb Taia 12. Jon Wilkin 13. Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook 14. Luke Douglas 15. Morgan Knowles 16. Luke Thompson 17. Dominique Peyroux 18. Danny Richardson 19. Regan Grace 20. Matty Lees 23. Ben Barba

Referee: Liam Moore

Sunday, 18 March 2018

5 Talking Points From Saints 20 Leeds Rhinos 28

We're not as good as we think we are....

Amid the desperate clamour on social media to blame referee James Child for Saints first defeat of the Super League season one truth cannot be hidden. We are not as good as we think we are. Patchy, scruffy wins over Catalans Dragons and Huddersfield Giants in particular in recent weeks were taken as an indicator that this Saints team is now so good that it doesn't even have to concern itself with the business of playing well to keep the win column ticking over. Far more polished efforts in dismissing Castleford, Salford and Warrington were considered to be more like what we could expect in 2018. And then the champions turned up.

This was a rude awakening. Like having the lights turned on at 6.00 in the morning at Whiston Hospital just so they can take your blood pressure. Saints weren't awful, but they weren't good enough by any means to see off a determined Rhinos team shorn of a few regulars but still chock full of quality. Saints dominated the first half but that they went into the break level at 12-12 was somewhat ominous. They'd failed to make their dominance count and would pay the price in the second 40.

This 28-20 loss may do Justin Holbrook's side some good. The prospect of going through the regular season unbeaten always seemed fanciful. There are always bumps in the road. This defeat has taught Saints that if they ever doubted it. It may help to refocus minds with a visit to notorious bogey side Hull KR next up followed by the home derby with Wigan a week later.

Walmsley injury could be a serious setback.

At the risk of sounding like Jose Mourinho at a 12-minute press conference the loss of Alex Walmsley in the build-up to this one was a serious blow. The former Batley man was ruled out with the neck and shoulder problem that he sustained at Warrington last week. Worse news came after the Leeds defeat when Holbrook announced that it is likely to be 'months' before the big England prop can return to action.

This presents Saints with a huge problem. It's a loss they simply can't cover, not against the best sides in Super League at any rate. Luke Thompson has improved out of sight under Holbrook. He is now arguably the form prop in the competition and has elevated himself to the point where he has earned England Knights selection and is in the conversation for inclusion in a senior squad which currently contains some of the best props in world rugby. Yet Thompson, like most other modern day props, cannot go for 80 minutes. If Saints don't have one of Thompson or Walmsley on the field they are significantly weakened. The Help just isn't of the required standard against the Leeds Rhinos and, dare I say it, Wigan Warriors of this world. Kyle Amor continues to trundle around underwhelmingly, a shadow of the player who first joined Saints from Wakefield and who was a major force in helping Saints win the 2014 Grand Final. Luke Douglas is another who can't be relied upon and who would probably already be on dual registration at Sheffield if he was a local product rather than an NRL import from glamorous Gold Coast.

Solutions to this problem are thin on the ground. Matty Lees runs hard and shows great promise but is not yet at the stage of his career when he can carry the fight consistently against the very best. Morgan Knowles is due to return from suspension this week which should allow Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook to put in the odd shift at prop, but while always game and committed and much improved this year the former London Bronco is not exactly a watchword for reliability. The loss of Walmsley has the potential to turn a blip and a wake-up call into something more troubling.

Stick with Danny...

Now it would be incredibly rude to beat about anybody's bush so let's just come out and say it. Danny Richardson was incredibly poor in this one. Beyond bad. The young half turned the game in the second half at Warrington, sending Daryl Clark out for a paper and a loaf before kicking precisely for Mark Percival to complete his hat-trick. He'd arrived. All those hysterical comparisons to Sean Long starting to make some sort of sense.

Even here his brilliant contribution to Adam Swift's try was a moment to dazzle. Chasing his own bomb Richardson found himself back in posession but walking a tightrope by the sideline. His no-look, one-handed pass inside to Tommy Makinson bewildered everyone except Saints makeshift centre (what is he still doing there, Justin?) who brilliantly shifted the ball on for Swift to cross. But that's as good as it got for Richardson whose second half in particular was a litany of misplaced passes and bad decisions. As the senior of the two halves Jonny Lomax copped all of the heat on social media, where it remains sacrilege to criticise Richardson. But the fact of the matter is that Richardson stunk every bit as rancidly in that second half as Lomax.

But this is not a call to have Richardson bassooned out of the starting line-up. Saints have Matty Smith growing ever older and probably colder on the sidelines, desperate no doubt for an opportunity to show that he can still get the job done. Yet think back to when the majority of us called for Richardson to be given his chance ahead of Smith. The general consensus was that we would accept a few mistakes from the youngster, and even a few defeats if it means that Richardson gets the experience he needs to develop into the superstar we know he can be. This is a test of our patience with Richardson and we must stick with him.

Holbrook and the halves....

No, not a 1950s barber shop quartet but a reminder that despite the need to keep faith in Richardson the coach still has some appealing in-game management options at his disposal. With both Lomax and Richardson having the kind of day at the office normally reserved for Reggie Perrin it seems pertinent to ask why better use wasn't made of Theo Fages? The Frenchman now seems to be used only sparingly in what can perhaps best be descibed as a loose forward role. At the moment he's sharing getting-in-the-way duties with Jon Wilkin, none of which did anything in this one to ease the burden on the struggling Richardson and Lomax.

It's still the case for me that Fages has played his best rugby for Saints in the halves. Why not, on nights like this when they aren't getting it done, hook one of Richardson or Lomax and give Fages the chance to influence the game more and from a more familiar position? Isn't that the reason why we keep four specialist halves on the books, to give ourselves options to change the game where necessary? As this game slipped away, Saints previously obvious desperation to defend their line having deserted them, Holbrook seemed guilty of sitting on his hands a little, and of the classic error of allowing his side to do the same thing while expecting a different result.

Ash Handley...Again....

For all of this sometimes there are players who just have what cricketers call 'the wood' over you. Ash Handley has twice scored hat-tricks before to help Leeds to wins over Saints in Super League, and he helped himself to two more in this one. Playing in the centres on this occasion and only because of an injury to Jimmy Keinhorst, Handley tore off 89 metres on 18 carries and had a couple of tackle busts. But whereas the 22-year-old's pace had done all the damage to Saints on those two previous occasions it was his ability to be in the right place at the right time and his nose for an opportunity which proved decisive this time around.

Let's hope Handley is elsewhere when these two sides meet again at Headingley on June 15, by when it is to be hoped also that the harsh lessons of this defeat will have been learned.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Saints v Warrington Wolves - Preview

Unbeaten Saints face a test of their title credentials when they visit Warrington in a BetFred Super League Round 5 clash this Friday (March 9, kick-off 7.45pm).

Justin Holbrook’s side made short work of Salford Red Devils last time out, dominating to the tune of a 34-2 success on Sunday (March 4). That was after the game was postponed from its originally scheduled date of Friday (March 2) as The Beast From The East and Storm Emma wreaked havoc in our green, pleasant and desperately unprepared lands.

One casualty of the Salford win was Jon Wilkin. The former skipper misses out this week, the only change to the 19-man squad named by Holbrook ahead of the Salford win. Wilkin had the misfortune to come off worst in a collision between him and his fellow podcaster Mark Flanagan and is replaced in the 19 by Matty Lees. Wilkin’s absence could see Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook earn a start in the back row after his impressive performance against Ian Watson’s side, with Dominique Peyroux and Zeb Taia free to continue their burgeoning second row partnership.

Lees will fight for a place in the front row along with Kyle Amor and Luke Douglas, with Luke Thompson and Alex Walmsley virtually assured of making the 17. James Roby has been outstanding as ever this year so far and is still unchallenged at hooker, although Theo Fages has proven capable of giving the England man a rest at various stages.

In the backs the only decision remains whether to restore Ryan Morgan to the side. The Australian returned to the 19 last week after a two-game layoff but was not included in the 17 on match day. Instead Holbrook persevered with Tommy Makinson at centre inside Adam Swift, allowing Regan Grace another 80-minutes to try to strike up more of an understanding with Mark Percival on the left edge. Holbrook may go that way again, or else bring Morgan back into the side and choose between Swift and Grace with Makinson moved back out to his right wing berth. Ben Barba has been the difference at key moments this season so far and should again start at fullback.

In the halves Matty Smith was the subject of much public chin-wagging from Holbrook this week, with the coach insisting that the former Wigan badge-smoocher remains in his plans despite having played no part in any match day squad so far in 2018. That would seem to rule out a loan deal elsewhere for Smith, though his chances of shifting either Danny Richardson or Jonny Lomax from the starting halfback positions still appear to be somewhat anorexic.

Warrington are back home after a bruising trip to Hull FC in conditions so bad that their regular supporters club transport was cancelled. That they were made to play the game just the same says something about where we are with the current relationship with the broadcasters, but probably also about the desperation of clubs not to create a fixture back-log in what is an already bloated season. In the end Wire went down 21-12 to the black and whites in a game which saw both Declan Patton and Liam Watts dismissed for varying degrees of lunacy.

Patton has received a five-match suspension for knocking Bureta Faraimo out cold with a swinging arm which hit the Hull winger flush in the face. Amid much hand-wringing about the game having ‘gone soft’, the RFL disciplinary appear to be taking a much needed stance against foul play of this kind. Intent is irrelevant. There is a duty of care to your fellow professionals and Patton deserves to sit down for a fistful of games at least.

Replacing him could be Kevin Brown. The ex-Thatto Heath man was knocked out for the 375th time in his professional career in Warrington’s win over Wigan a fortnight ago but is included in coach Steve Price’s 19-man selection. He will slot into the stand-off role alongside scrum-half Tyrone Roberts if fit, or else Price could move Stefan Ratchford from fullback or else introduce Harvey Livett who has earned a call-up also.

Tom Lineham and Mitch Brown should continue on the wings with Bryson Goodwin fit to resume in the centres alongside comedy legend Ryan Atkins. The front row is strong with Chris Hill and Mike Cooper leading the way either side of hooker Daryl Clark. In the back row Jack Hughes, Ben Westwood and Ben Murdoch-Masila provide a useful mix of experience and physicality. Much to the disgust of the former Mayor of Warrington both George and Toby King are included in Price’s squad as is Dom Crosby after showing no ill effects from Watts’ lame attempt to head-butt him at the KCom last week.

Saints used to have a comical hold over Warrington in Super League but the ledger has been more even in recent seasons. Saints will be keen to make up for the fact that they were whacked 40-18 at the Halliwell Jones in 2017 but also to maintain that 100% record that has everyone tipping them to wear the crown this time around. Warrington must try to bounce back after their run of two wins in a row was halted by defeat on Humberside last time out.

These two usually produce a good, open game which is rarely short of incident. Expect nothing else here, even if there could be a fair degree of five-drives-and-a-kick rubbish in the early stages. That’s just Super League in the current climate. Predictions are ludicrous where both sides are concerned but given the recent form of both I’d be tempted to suggest that Saints will just about come a way with a narrow win. Saints by four.


Warrington Wolves;

1. Stefan Ratchford, 2. Tom Lineham, 3. Bryson Goodwin, 4. Ryan Atkins, 6. Kevin Brown, 7. Tyrone Roberts, 8. Chris Hill, 9. Daryl Clark, 10. Mike Cooper, 12. Jack Hughes, 13. Ben Murdoch-Masila, 14. Dominic Crosby, 17. Joe Philbin, 18. Toby King, 19. George King, 20. Harvey Livett, 21. Mitch Brown, 22. Morgan Smith, 34. Ben Westwood.
St Helens;

1. Jonny Lomax, 2. Tommy Makinson, 3. Ryan Morgan, 4. Mark Percival, 5. Adam Swift, 6. Theo Fages, 7. Matty Smith, 8. Alex Walmsley, 9. James Roby, 10. Kyle Amor, 11. Zeb Taia, 13. Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, 14. Luke Douglas, 16. Luke Thompson, 17. Dom Peyroux, 18. Danny Richardson, 19. Regan Grace, 20. Matty Lees, 23. Ben Barba.

Referee: James Child

Monday, 5 March 2018

5 Talking Points From Saints 34 Salford Red Devils 2

Better late than never…..

Saints 34-2 win over Salford Red Devils took place two days later than scheduled. The original date for the clash was Friday March 2 but the Beast From The East put paid to that idea. Temperatures dropped well below zero in the days leading up to the game, leaving the pitch frozen despite attempts to protect it from the elements with covers.

All of which was very frustrating for fans used to getting their rugby league fix on a Friday night, particularly those for whom the change of date meant that they were then unable to attend. Ten thousand and eight people braved the slightly less harsh conditions on Sunday (March 4) and were treated to some moments of magic from Saints in what otherwise was a fairly scrappy affair.

Yet for all the inconvenience the decision to postpone the game was the right one. Even if the pitch had thawed out in time the wind chill factor on Friday would have left fans exposed to temperatures which felt like around -7 degrees which, despite the protestations of the old school fans who just think everyone else is ‘mard’, posed a possible health risk for many spectators. The players also need to be taken into account and it is unlikely we would have seen any kind of quality had the game gone ahead on Friday as planned. It was perfectly sensible to wait a couple of days, although had the big freeze persisted there was a high risk of fixture congestion later in the season.

Defence wins championships

Saints are top of the early Super League table with four wins out of four. Only Wakefield Trinity can match that record as Saints have seen off the challenge of Castleford, Catalans, Huddersfield and now Salford Red Devils. Justin Holbrook’s side haven’t quite hit the heights in attack that they did in the opener against the Tigers on February 2, but their success has been built on their ability to be clinical with their chances when they come along and a new found desperation in defence.

Saints have conceded only 32 points in their first four outings, an average of only eight points per game. Wakefield are the only other side to have conceded less than 40 in the opening month while Salford and Catalans have already shipped in 100. Saints have missed just 108 tackles in their unbeaten start, and when the line is broken you can already see that there is a far greater desire to funnel back and stop a try from being scored than was on display in recent years.

Individually James Roby is fourth in Super League’s list of leading tacklers on 193, just behind Warrington’s Daryl Clarke and Widnes pair Hep Cahill and Matt Whitley, all of whom have played a game more than Saints. Taken as an average, Roby makes a ridiculous 48.25 tackles per game while Clark is just behind on 48. Cahill and Whitley follow on 42 and 39.8 respectively.

On the other side of the ledger Dominique Peyroux is the only Saints who features in the top 10 for missed tackles in Super League, with Luke Thompson just outside that in 11th. You have to go all the way down to 48th to find Saints next worst offender, Zeb Taia, who has butchered a mere nine attempts. If Saints can maintain this sort of form without the ball then they must be a leading contender for honours this term.

Was a chance missed to blood some youngsters?

Salford at home is the kind of game you turn up expecting Saints to win, whatever the conditions. Though the salary cap has levelled out the competition over the last few years, it has not really helped Salford in their quest for a win in Saints territory. They came close last year, when Matty Smith’s last-gasp drop-goal completed a stunning comeback for the home side to seal a 25-24 win, but by and large Saints have handled Salford at home with some degree of ease. Nothing different was expected this time around and nothing different happened, with Ian Watson’s side unable even to cross for a single, solitary try.

No game is a gimme, but if there is one that offers the chance to give an opportunity to one or two fringe players then this would have been it. Neither Matty Lees nor James Bentley made the 19-man squad this week, and neither have featured in a first team game so far in 2018. Both have been out on dual registration at Sheffield Eagles where to be quite frank it hasn’t been going all that well. Bentley was named on the wing (?) in Sheffield’s last encounter, a 58-14 drubbing at Featherstone Rovers on February 25. Lees featured in a 30-10 beating at Halifax on February 11, as did Jack Ashworth and Jake Spedding. The question has to be asked about how much these young potential stars are learning from taking a weekly shellacking with an Eagles side looking increasingly out of its depth in the Championship. It would be foolish to throw them all into the Saints first team at once, but surely fixtures like Salford at home are exactly the sort of games where one or two should be getting game time to aid their development?

The next opportunity may not arrive until Easter Monday (April 2) when Saints travel to Widnes. Before then the schedule looks too tricky to be taking risks with younger players, with visits to Warrington and Hull KR as well as home games with Leeds Rhinos and Wigan on the horizon. More about those later….

The resurgence of LMS

For so long now this column has been the place to go if you want to laugh at something disparaging about Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook. When he wasn’t giving away penalties or dropping the ball, McCarthy-Scarsbrook spent much of his time getting involved in handbag-swinging with any number of front row opponents. Yet this is a new and improved LMS under Justin Holbrook in 2018. The former London Bronco ripped it up against the Red Devils to the tune of 131 metres on 19 carries, with five tackle busts, one clean break and just the one error.

He took his try superbly well, busting through the tackles of former Saint Mark Flanagan and Other Tomkins Brother Logan as if neither were really there at all. He’s the sixth leading tackler on the Saints staff so far, ahead of such luminaries as Alex Walmsley, Kyle Amor and Luke Douglas while there are eight Saints who have missed more than the six tackles that McCarthy-Scarsbrook has fallen off. Only Thompson, Walmsley and Taia have made more metres in a Saints jersey in 2018 so far, while he leads the pack in clean breaks with a pair alongside Jon Wilkin. Fancy Dans Mark Percival, Ben Barba and Regan Grace lead the list there with 8, 6 and 3 respectively.

Yet perhaps most impressive is LMS’ low error and penalty count, clangers of the kind which had previously built the Ireland man’s reputation in the eyes of this writer. He has made just two handling errors in his first four outings and given away just one penalty. Whisper it, but the man I would have driven to Wigan myself this time last year is becoming a more consistent performer and something of an asset.

Will Saints go MARCHing in?

After a solid start Saints face a real test of their title credentials in the month of March. It has started gently enough with this comfortable win over Salford in which Barba trounced the opposition in his pipe and slippers, but it is about to get an awful lot tougher, on paper at least. This Friday sees Saints visit Warrington, a ground where they have a formidable record in recent years but where they were pasted 40-18 on their last visit in 2017. And that was after Holbrook arrived so we can’t blame Keiron Cunningham for that. Wire have made a patchy start to the season, losing to Leeds and Huddersfield in the opening two rounds but bouncing back with wins over Widnes and Wigan before going down at Hull FC amid the red card madness last time out. Steve Price has them more organised and playing much tougher defensively than in recent seasons, but arguably has yet to get an 80-minute performance out of his troops. If he does so this week then Saints will face their toughest assignment yet.

After which it gets even trickier, with Leeds Rhinos the visitors to Saints on March 16. The Rhinos have had their start to the season disrupted by their involvement in the World Club Challenge and the postponement of last weekend’s clash with Catalans Dragons. They will have been very disappointed to lose at Widnes too, but have shown enough in victories over Warrington and Hull KR to serve notice that, as always, they will be quality opposition that will be hanging around thirstily when the pots are handed out in the autumn.

A trip to Hull KR doesn't sound too taxing on March 23 but Saints recent record at KCom Craven Park is nothing short of abysmal. They haven’t missed Rovers while they have been slugging it out in the Championship this past year, but now they return to provide what will almost certainly be another tough away day for Saints. Holbrook’s side do appear to be made of sterner stuff this year though, and a victory at one of their bogey grounds would be a perfect statement to reaffirm that.

And so to Wigan. March ends with the visit of our favourite other Super League team from across the lump. Their needless jaunt to Australia cost them last week when they went down to Warrington, but it is their only defeat of the season so far having seen off Salford, Hull and Widnes. The Vikings held a 16-point lead at the DW Stadium this weekend, only to be blown away by 32 unanswered points in the second half from Shaun Wane’s side. Their form is pretty good then, but anyway regardless of form the Good Friday derby is always one that really could go either way. A place where guts and desire often take precedence over skill and flair. Barba could be the difference in that one, but certainly by the end of March we will have a far greater idea of how much this Saints side has improved from last year and whether it justifies its current team-to-beat tag.