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.
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.
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.