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....

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