Tuesday, 27 February 2018

5 Talking Points From Huddersfield 12 Saints 26

5 Talking Points From Huddersfield Giants 12 Saints 26

Oh What An Atmosphere.....

According to his nauseating 1984 hit Russ Abbott loved a party with a happy atmosphere. He'd have loved to have been in amongst the travelling Saints contingent at the John Smith's Stadium on Friday night then. Even if he'd have had to wait 45 minutes in the queue for a cup of tea in temperatures that Alistair MacLean couldn't have imagined. Still, at least Russ wouldn't have suffered the indignity of getting to the front of the queue only to find that his wheelchair wouldn't fit through the fixed barriers which divide the queues at each till. Thanks to the kind lady who helped me out there by the way.

Saints fans talk a lot among themselves on forums and social media about the lack of atmosphere at the stadium formerly known as Langtree Park. Common consensus is that it was a mistake to put the standing area behind the posts rather than along one of the touchlines. That's as maybe. I'm obviously not an expert in standing and its associated benefits. All I do know is that a couple of thousand people located behind the posts at the John Smiths Stadium made a fearful din throughout the 80 minutes and were instrumental in the team's success, as referenced by Danny Richardson and Zeb Taia to name but two on Twitter.

Among the ditties belted out by the Saints fans were a version of 'Glad All Over' in homage to Ben Barba, the oft-trotted out James Roby song and a version of Spandau Ballet's 'Gold' dedicated to Morgan Knowles. The same Morgan Knowles who wasn't even playing thanks to a four-game suspension. The point I am coming round to with all the speed and efficiency of Cooperman is that if we can make this much racket on our travels from behind the sticks what is to stop us from repeating that at home against Salford on Friday?

It's easy to remember Knowsley Road as a constant cauldron of excitement but the truth is there were just as many quiet days there as there are since the move. The answer to the conundrum is more likely to be about expectation. At home Saints are expected to win against almost anyone. As a consequence we are perhaps guilty of waiting for the team to do something dazzling before we start losing our minds. Away from our form in 2017 was utterly wretched during the regular season. Maybe going into this season there has been an acknowledgment from the fans that we need to be the catalyst for upping the intensity. Victories in our first two away games suggest that whatever it is, it's working.

Grace Under Fire As Morgan Must Play

For the second game in succession Ryan Morgan was absent from the side. There was some talk that he had yet to recover from the nose injury he picked up in the opening round win over Castleford, but Justin Holbrook seemed to pooh-pooh that when he declared Morgan fit and available in a press interview on the day of the squad announcement.

Tommy Makinson has filled in admirably but if he is fit to do so then Morgan should come back in for the visit of Salford on Friday (March 2). Anything else is exactly the kind of square peggery that played a key role in the departure of Keiron Cunningham from the top job. Makinson is a pure runner and finisher but he lacks the passing skills and the tactical discipline to be a natural centre. How often have we seen him abandon his position on the right edge to go crabbing across the field looking for a gap that only appears once in every 20 games? That might be understandable given that Saints are still decidedly lop-sided in attack. We saw again here how heavily they rely on that left edge as first Taia and then Mark Percival crossed early in the second half to effectively put the game beyond Rick Stone's side. But if you are going to have a balanced attack it starts with having the right players in the right positions. Makinson needs to go back on the wing and be patient, something that if the rest of his career is anything to go by he won't have a problem with.

If Holbrook restores Morgan to the side he must then choose between Adam Swift and Regan Grace for the left wing slot. Nobody is suggesting that they should both play at Makinson's expense. Grace had been the one under pressure ahead of this one after Swift's excellent return to form in the win over Catalans Dragons in Perpignan, and the Welshman's 35 metres on 10 carries hardly screams 'pick me!'. Meanwhile Swift fell just one metre short of 100 on 13 carries and, missed no tackles in defence and made no errors with ball in hand. If the team really is picked on form then Grace could well be looking at a spell on the sidelines.

Barba On Top 1 v 1

One of the key battles in this one was always going to be between the two fullbacks. Barba has started the season impressively for Saints while the Giants' Jake Mamo was one of the best exponents of the role in 2017 before injury curtailed his season. There was no doubt about who came out on top.

Barba's performance has been questioned in some quarters. It's been suggested that he didn't enjoy the bitterly cold conditions and that he wasn't interested. That's not the Barba I saw. As good as he is Barba is not going to go on the blockbusting runs you've seen on YouTube every week. I saw a player playing a little bit within himself but with the calm assurance of someone who knows exactly what he's doing and in a lot of cases exactly what is going to happen next. Defence was again a feature of Saints performance and Barba organised it beautifully, while in attack he may have only carried the ball five times but he made three tackle busts. The first defender is not going to get him very often.

By contrast Mamo made more metres (95 to 41) but he endured a mostly frustrating evening. He made three handling errors and missed 30% of his 10 tackle attempts. His annoyance at some poor handling reached a comical conclusion near the end of the game, when another ruined Giants attack on the Saints line provoked Mamo into the kind of arm-waving, foot-stamping tantrum normally reserved for the sweets aisle at Tesco. We may have not quite seen the brilliant best of Barba but he was plenty good enough to teach Mamo a thing or two.

What Does The Future Hold For Theo Fages?

Remember when Theo Fages was a stand-off? This Saints team under Holbrook is suddenly difficult to get into, and nobody illustrates that more than the French captain. Where once be was an integral part of everything Saints did in attack, Fages has become a bit-part player. He appeared for just over 10 minutes at the end of this one, managing precisely 0 metres from 0 carries. It's fair to say he wasn't an attacking threat when he emerged from the bench.

It was interesting that he did not replace Roby, with the latter still occupying a 'middle' role which in the dim and distant past might have been described as a loose forward position. Before Australian coaches killed the traditional 13 role stone dead. Using Fages as a back-up hooker or loose forward might be the best thing for the team at the moment but from Fages' point of view it may be viewed as a phenomenal waste of his attributes. He could be forgiven for believing he needs to play somewhere he can get not only more minutes, but where he can get his mitts on the rock and create.

Saints already have one potentially unhappy half on their hands. Matty Smith has yet to even make it into the 17 so far this season and will no doubt be considering his future if that continues. Which frankly it should. But are we in danger of alienating Fages also, and going from a situation in which four halves fighting for two slots becomes an over-reliance on Richardson and Jonny Lomax?

Thompson coming of age…..but still has areas to improve.

For the last few season it’s been accepted wisdom that Alex Walmsley is Saints best prop forward. Not only Saints best, but one of the best in Super League or anywhere on the planet. That still holds true, and we were all as chuffed as Ian Holloway’s badger at the start of mating season when Walmsley decided to sign a new four-year deal with Saints rather than try his luck in the NRL. Yet while it is has been a modest start to the season for the former Batley man, another young Saints prop is emerging as a real catalyst for a meaner, more efficient front row.

That man is Luke Thompson, who has been at Saints since the age of 11, making his first team debut in 2013. Since then there have been peaks and troughs in his form. He was a member of the 2014 Grand Final winning squad, but later found himself a little bit in the wilderness as Keiron Cunningham experimented with the idea of a team almost entirely bereft of good home grown youngsters. There were times when many wondered whether Thompson would ever really fulfil the potential he always looked to have.

Under Justin Holbrook he is finally beginning to do that. He led Saints with 160 metres in this one, and was the first one with his hand up to carry the fight when the Giants dominated the territorial battle early on. Thompson is ninth overall in Super League in metres made and could, if he stays injury free, be set for a real breakthrough season in terms of becoming one of the true stars of the game. He may even turn the head of England coach Wayne Bennett for forthcoming tests with New Zealand in June and in the autumn, although prop is a position in which the national team still has something of an embarrassment of riches.

If he is to press his way into Bennett’s plans there are still areas he will need to tidy up. Thompson missed five tackles against the Giants, more than anyone in the Saints ranks except for Dominique Peyroux. Those two have the dubious honour of leading the team in missed tackles overall this season, with Peyroux missing 14 and Thompson 10. That half of Thompson’s missed tackles were in this one game perhaps suggests that this was a mere defensive aberration from the 22-year-old.

One thing Bennett will like about Thompson is that he is not fond of an offload. As much as offloading props is very much the Saints way and something that the fans would love to see him develop, the fact that Thompson has yet to register an offload this entire season is an indicator that he has a deep respect for possession of the ball. Maybe we have something to be thankful to Keiron Cunningham for after all, aside from 17 glorious years as the best hooker in the world, that is. Thompson has made only one error in Saints opening three outings and is becoming one of the more reliable performers in an improving pack.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Super League 2018 Preview - Widnes Vikings

Assuming there is going to be any relegation from Super League in 2018 the name on everyone’s lips when asked who might be most likely to suffer the drop is that of Widnes Vikings. Yes folks, as the season gets under way we still don’t know what the structure of the competition will look like for 2019 which is a bit like going to the barbers, sitting down and telling him to just start cutting bits of your hair off until you decide what you want it to look like.

With the possibility of relegation still just about on the agenda Widnes do look among the most vulnerable. Not helped by England international Kevin Brown’s departure to Warrington, Widnes toiled in 201. With no replacement recruited for Brown Widnes finished bottom of the pile at the end of the regular season and only spared themselves from the Million Pound Game when they beat Catalans Dragons in the south of France on the final weekend of the Qualifiers. Instead it was Leigh Centurions who went down after losing out to the Dragons in the relegation decider, leaving coach Dennis Betts and the Vikings with another opportunity to get it right at the top level.

To do that Betts has brought in the imposing Albert Brothers, Stanton and Wellington from PNG Hunters. Stanton is a 23-year-old prop while Wellington is a year older and has played not only in the front row but also at loose forward and on the wing. All of which might seem like a strange combination but actually seems perfectly reasonable in the modern game in which wingers might as well be prop forwards given the amount of carries they now take early in sets, especially in their own half.

Enough of the tactical masterclass then. Widnes have also brought in Krisnan Inu from Catalans Dragons. The New Zealand-born three-quarter played 46 times for the French side between 2015-17 and before that had spells in the NRL with Parramatta, New Zealand Warriors and Canterbury Bulldogs, amassing a total of 139 appearances and scoring 65 tries in that time. He’s an exciting player at his best and should add some much needed strike to the Vikings’ backline. Also in is the versatile forward Sam Wilde, whose career at Warrington had somewhat stalled leading to loan spells with Rochdale and London Broncos. The move offers the 22-year-old another shot at the top flight and a chance to fulfil the early promise he showed at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.

On their way out of the Select Security Stadium are Chris Bridge and Eamon O’Carroll who have retired, prop Manese Manuokafoa who has moved to French side Racing Club Albi XIII and try-scoring winger Corey Thompson who joins NRL outfit Wests Tigers. Thompson scored 37 tries in 52 appearances for the Vikings in his two seasons at the club and his whitewash-bothering instincts will be missed this year. Tom Armstrong has joined Toronto Wolfpack as has Australian prop Jack Buchanan after being released.

Widnes start with a repeat of that final Qualifier against the Dragons, only this time on home soil. Then they go to League Leaders Shield winners Castleford Tigers in Round 2 before hosting Warrington Wolves in the first Cheshire derby of the season in a clash brought forward from Round 12 because of the Vikings’ earlier involvement in the Challenge Cup. After that is the visit of champions Leeds Rhinos while Round 5 brings a trip to the DW Stadium to face Wigan Warriors. It’s a very tough start for a side already expected to struggle in what will almost certainly be Betts’ last season in charge should they endure another difficult season. Betts has been in charge of the Vikings for eight years without really threatening to turn them into a contender. They still lack a credible replacement for Brown although in the likes of Danny Walker and Tom Gilmore they do have some creative spark. Inu will be key to how the three-quarter line performs as will Stefan Marsh and Charly Runciman. Rhys Hanbury is a hugely talented fullback while Joe Mellor can lead the side around the park if he can avoid a repeat of the injuries that meant he only managed 17 appearances in 2017.

With Manuokafoa gone the pack is led by Alex Gerrard and MacGraff Leuluai, with Aaron Heremaia also around to help Walker along in his development. The Albert brothers will hopefully add something and there is also the experience of Hep Cahill and Chris Dean to call on.

It probably won’t be enough, however. With the best will in the world it is hard to see anything but another bottom four finish for the Vikings who might have it all on to avoid finishing bottom of the table again after 23 Rounds. Then it will depend if they can hit form in the Qualifiers to decide whether we see them in Super League in 2019 and beyond.

Assuming there is relegation, that is. Oh yes, I remember now. Short back and sides, please.