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.

Friday, 2 March 2018

St Helens v Salford Preview

It’ll be a little later than planned, but Saints still hope to face Salford Red Devils in Round 4 of the BetFred Super League this weekend.

The match had been scheduled for this Friday (March 2) at 8.00pm but was called off on Thursday due to the freezing temperatures brought about by the Beast From The East. However, there are plans in place to stage the game on Sunday (March 4) with a 4.00pm kick-off time.

Unaware of the postponement at the time Saints coach Justin Holbrook named a 19-man squad on Wednesday which featured just one change from that which travelled to Huddersfield for last week’s 26-12 win over the Giants. Matty Lees misses the cut this time out as Ryan Morgan returns. The Australian centre has not been seen since the opening round win over Castleford but is expected to be involved should the game against the Red Devils get the go-ahead.

If he does he will feature in a back-line with Mark Percival and Tommy Makinson in front of fullback Ben Barba, with Holbrook then faced with a choice between Regan Grace and the resurgent Adam Swift for the remaining spot on the left wing. Alternatively, Morgan could be left to kick his heels for another week while Makinson stays in the centre to allow both Grace and Swift to retain their places. Danny Richardson and Jonny Lomax will form the halfback partnership with Theo Fages likely to get the nod for the bench spot ahead of the as yet unseen Matty Smith.

Up front Morgan Knowles serves the second of his two-game suspension, although another postponement would complicate things further for the Welshman. With Lees out expect both Kyle Amor and Luke Douglas to make the 17, one to start at prop alongside Luke Thompson and the other to occupy the bench with wind-up metre-muncher Alex Walmsley. James Roby is unchallenged at hooker not only in St Helens but in most places outside Melbourne, while Zeb Taia was another key performer for Saints in the win over Rick Stone’s side and should start again in the second row. Dominique Peyroux and Jon Wilkin will make up the back row, although Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook is also likely to play a key role in that area from the bench.

Salford come in off the back of their first win of the season, a 36-12 success over Hull KR. Prior to that they had struggled, taking a 40-12 beating by Wigan in their opener before being edged 14-12 by Wakefield Trinity in front of the Sky cameras in Round 2. Coach Ian Watson has named an unchanged squad, with only George Griffin, Ryan Lannon and Kris Brining the notable absentees. Former Saints Gareth O’Brien, Josh Jones, Mark Flanagan and Lama Tasi are all among Watson’s 19-man party.

O’Brien has developed into one of the most exciting fullbacks in the country since his loan spell at Saints as a halfback, while Salford’s backline also contains the exciting talents of Niall Evalds and Junior Sa’u. Robert Lui and Jack Littlejohn form the halfback partnership while the forward pack includes former Wigan pair Lee Mossop and Logan Tomkins as well as other ‘other’ Burgess brother Luke and the veteran Craig Kopczak.

Salford’s last visit to St Helens produced one of the modern classic Super League clashes last June. Down and almost out, Saints produced three tries in a dizzying eight-minute spell before Lui inexplicably chipped into the arms of McCarthy-Scarsbrook who fed Smith for a breath-taking 40metre drop-goal on the hooter to complete a memorable 25-24 win. It was the start of a slump for Watson’s men who having been as high as fourth in the table slipped out of contention, winning just one of their last four regular season games and just one more in the Super 8s phase before finally finishing seventh.

They have been tipped by many to do far worse than that this year with former owner Marwan Koukash no longer providing the funding and with stars like Michael Dobson and Ben Murdoch-Masila having passed through the exit door. A top eight spot should still be the aim for the Red Devils but they are unlikely to get any change of what looks a more focused and driven Saints side under Holbrook in 2018.


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, 12. Jon Wilkin, 13. Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, 14. Luke Douglas, 16. Luke Thompson, 17. Dom Peyroux, 18. Danny Richardson, 19. Regan Grace, 23. Ben Barba.

Salford Red Devils;

1. Gareth O’Brien, 2. Greg Johnson, 3. Kris Welham, 4. Junior Sa’u, 5. Niall Evalds, 6. Robert Lui, 7. Jack Littlejohn, 8. Craig Kopczak, 9. Logan Tomkins, 11. Josh Jones, 12. Weller Hauraki, 13. Mark Flanagan, 14. Lama Tasi, 16. Luke Burgess, 17. Tyrone McCarthy, 18. Ben Nakubuwai, 19. Josh Wood, 23. Lee Mossop, 24. Jake Bibby.

Referee: Scott Mikalauskas