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.