If you had any doubts that things were going to be different at Saints under Justin Holbrook then the announcement of James Roby as the new club captain should erase them.
Having joined Saints in early May, slap and indeed bang in the middle of a Super League season Holbrook wisely chose to keep things ticking along without any drastic changes. He made a few tweaks here and there to instil a bit of confidence in the side after the trauma of the Keiron Cunningham era but for the most part he was merely trying to right the ship. The ship had not so much veered off course under Cunningham as ran completely aground. Despite that the most significant change Holbrook made was perhaps the impressive signing of Ben Barba from French rugby union. Yet it would be months before the Australian star could have an impact on the side thanks to a 12-game ban picked up for testing positive for cocaine following the 2016 NRL season. Holbrook would have to go with what he had for the final months of the season.
Holbrook’s approach worked to a degree as Saints found themselves just seconds away from the Grand Final. Before Ryan Morgan’s unfortunate aberration and before Luke Gale’s extra-time drop-goal behind a couple of NFL offensive linemen cunningly disguised as his Castleford Tigers team-mates. Yet despite the heroism of that performance it was clear that Holbrook was going to have to stamp his mark on the side in order for it to complete the transformation from bumbling top four hopefuls under Cunningham to self-assured two-two contenders. This was a side that needed to get its swagger back.
Holbrook hasn’t been able to add many more faces to his squad for 2018. A plethora of confused decisions over player retention under Cunningham has tied the new coach in knots in that regard. Only James Bentley from Bradford Bulls joins Barba in the list of new boys for 2018. Yet with Danny Richardson, Luke Thompson, Regan Grace and Morgan Knowles having all gained valuable experience throughout 2017 the side should still look somewhat different than it did a year ago. In addition to those emerging talents Holbrook has managed to mould the squad slightly by offloading a few of those who were unlikely to feature in his plans. Two-step anti-Roby Tommy Lee has joined Hull KR, Greg Richards heads for Leigh Centurions and Matty Fleming has signed for London Broncos.
There will be tactical changes as the philosophy that Holbrook started to introduce last term evolves further, but the appointment of Roby as captain sends out a message that there may be a cultural change on the way. Roby replaces Jon Wilkin in the role, with Holbrook explaining that the decision was taken based on the fact that the latter will be playing less minutes in 2018 while Roby will be on the field for the majority of the time provided he stays fit. He also pointed out how much Roby deserves to be promoted to the role having served the club with such great distinction over the last decade or so, turning in man of the match performances so regularly that they become almost unnoticed. Nine out of ten from Roby is a given every week.
Which contrasts slightly with the form of Wilkin who has been shunted around the side from the halves to the second row and loose forward positions whenever there has been a gap to fill. His performances in those roles have not always dazzled and he was the victim of some pretty unnecessary abuse during the last home game of the 2017 Super 8s against Huddersfield Giants when he was substituted and walked off to a chorus of boos from the less discerning element of the support. It was always a little unfair. Wilkin seems to have been paying the price for some years now for the crime of simply not being Paul Sculthorpe. Comparisons early in his career to the oft-injured Saints great have set Wilkin up for a fall. He has always given his all in whatever position he has been shoe-horned into. When he eventually does retire he will be remembered perhaps not as a great in the class of Sculthorpe, Cunningham, Sean Long or Paul Newlove, but as a very very good player and a loyal servant to the club he joined some 16 years ago.
Yet the decision to replace Wilkin as skipper looks a positive one. There’s still an argument that the role of captain is not as complex as some suggest, but that’s exactly why Roby might flourish as a leader. There were those that said he should not have the role because he is a quieter presence on the field but he can lead by example. He does not need to be bawling everyone out for every little mistake, or pumping them up for a response with an impassioned rant behind the posts every time a try is conceded. Great sides contain players who are responsible for their own game, who operate within and so cultivate a winning culture. Wilkin prospered in that kind of environment in his early years at the club and that is perhaps one reason why his leadership style was a tad more relaxed than some fans would have liked. Yet Chris Joynt was a very successful captain for the club without the need for what Cunningham might have described as tubthumping. Roby offers similar qualities and his level of consistency should ensure that if he does have to have a quiet word with any under-performing players he is not open to the classic retort that he should look after his own game. Be assured that he will, and an armband on his sleeve will be no hindrance to that.
Roby was left out of the recent friendly win over Sheffield Eagles as Matty Smith was tried in the hooking role. Clearly Holbrook wants to keep this in mind as an option but in making Roby captain, and doing so partly because he expects him to be on the field for much of the time, Holbrook has perhaps indicated that Smith will only be used in that role if it is absolutely necessary. All of which may worry those who think that Roby should be protected as he ages. He’s 32 years old now and may only have a season or two left in him at Super League level.
There is some merit in the theory that a season or two could become three or four seasons if Saints had managed to pick up a reliable, quality hooker to come in and share the load. Smith may turn his hand to the role in the way that Rob Burrow did in his later years at Leeds but perhaps the more likely outcome is that Saints will need to make a genuine number nine top of their shopping list at the end of the current season.