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.
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.