Tuesday, 10 April 2018

5 Talking Points From Saints 26 Hull FC 12

This is not a one man team

In the lead-up to this one I happened to catch wannabe shock-jock and Hull FC fan Adrian Durham gloating about the absence of Ben Barba from the Saints line-up. Barba missed out through illness prompting Durham to declare himself 'very, very happy' at what he saw as an opportunity for his black and whites. But what he and many others had failed to take into account was the fact that Saints had an England international waiting to step in.

Jonny Lomax stepped seamlessly into his pre-Barba role. Safe under the high ball and with the ability to join up with the attack, Lomax claimed 131 metres on 18 carries and assisted Mark Percival's crucial try early in the second half which came after a neat move from a scrum. That gave Saints some much needed breathing space after a tight first 40 in which Zeb Taia's converted try was the only score.

Any team would miss a player of the class of Barba. He has 10 tries to his name already this season and has been at the heart of pretty much everything Saints have done in both attack and defence in the early part of 2018. It was noticable that Saints lacked a little bit of direction in the FC 20-metre zone in an error filled first half but it was encouraging to see Saints fix that up after half-time, with Lomax central to that. This is far from a one man team. Though without Barba it is essentially the same team which was struggling under Keiron Cunningham this time last year, it is difficult to think of too many players who haven't improved under the tutelage of Justin Holbrook. Fans of other clubs would no doubt rather their team face Saints without Barba than with him but they should not get too excited if they don't see the Australian fullback's name on the teamsheet.

But will the squad be tested?

Barba isn't the only man that Saints have to worry about doing without. Alex Walmsley has been ruled out for the long term with a fractured bone in his neck and though no time frame has been set for his return it will be a surprise if Engy the England prop sees action again in 2018. Adam Swift is midway through what was predicted to be a six-week lay-off with a shoulder injury which is doing more to keep Regan Grace in the team than anything the Welshman has mustered in recent weeks. While these absences hardly constitute an injury crisis of 2014 proportions they do indicate that the squad is about to be tested. Four years ago Saints came up with the revolutionary strategy of winning the League Leaders Shield and the Grand Final with Johnny Vegas and Stan Wall in the halves, but this vintage faces some different challenges.

With Barba expected back the key concern ahead of the weekend visit to Wakefield Trinity surrounds James Roby. The skipper left this one early in the second half with a rib injury, with Holbrook calling it 'a big ask' to expect Roby to be fit for the trip east. Where Barba was replaced by another fullback of international pedigree in Lomax, Roby's place will likely go to the previously ostracised Matty Smith. The man who would take us to the Promised Land as a scrum half does not lack the work rate or the tactical nous to do the job, but the bold truth is that he is not a natural hooker. Even if he were he could not hope to compensate for Roby's absence. There isn't another hooker in Super League who could come into a side and play at Roby's level, so to expect a part-timer like Smith to do so is as fanciful as expecting him to take us to the Promised Land as a 7. Theo Fages may also see some action in the role although he has recently been needed at stand-off in the absence of Lomax at Widnes and Barba here. Holbrook has options but you wouldn't like to find out what would happen if we lost one of two more.

THAT forward pass.

Despite it having about as much influence on the result as a running track at West Ham social media has been alight with fury at the award of Hull's first try scored by Albert Kelly. Holbrook had identified the stand-off as one of the main threats pre-game but even he couldn't have envisaged that Kelly would do it disguised as a wide receiver. The pass he collected from Jack Logan before scooting away to score was so far forward it might have qualified Logan for the javelin final at the Commonwealth Games. Yet neither referee Robert Hicks nor his touch judge on the south side of the ground spotted it. Everyone else did, including Wigan cheerleader and self parody Phil Clarke who could only offer Barba's super slo-mo knock on at Widnes on Easter Monday as justification. The largest endorsement of two wrongs equalling a right since Theresa May actually listened to the Amsterdam bridge beer-chuckers and went through with Brexit.

It all begs the question why we cannot use the video evidence to rule on forward passes. Especially since the notion that it all evens itself out over a season is the kind of total bollocks reserved only for those who have recently benefitted from an incompetent decision by a referee. We review everything else, to the point now where players are being yellow carded several hours after an infringement, yet we steadfastly cling on to the idea that 21st century camera technology cannot shed light on whether a pass has left the hands and then travelled in a forward direction. Even the buffoons in rugby union, who seem to do everything later than we do with the exception of organising credible international competition, have cottoned on to the idea that replays are helpful in this regard. It may not have mattered here but a gross error such as this could really cost somebody. If we have to have the annoyance of the video referee at all then ruling on forward passes should be included as a matter of urgency. Otherwise let's just get rid of it altogether and take our chances.

The re-enforcements step up

If I'm honest with you I've spent an awful lot of time since the Warrington win fretting about what this column has previously declared a lack of quality at prop in the absence of Walmsley. I've done this partly because it distracts me from anything approaching a real problem, but partly because the back-ups are Kyle Amor, Luke Douglas and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook. Disappointingly we have yet to see Matty Lees since Walmsley's injury.

Yet perhaps I fretted too soon. All of that trio of Amor, Douglas and McCarthy-Scarsbrook have been excellent over the Easter period and all upped their game again in this one. All three broke the 100 metre barrier that simplistic chancers like me consider a minimum for front rowers. With Luke Thompson following suit and now looked upon as something of a leader by example in that group suddenly the void left by Walmsley, while still fairly sizeable, is not one that looks impossible to fill. If the support cast can add consistency to their performance a run of form that has seen Saints win nine of their first 10 Super League games could continue into the second half of the regular season.

Time for a breather

On which subject Saints next assignment sees them go to the laughably named Mobile Rocket Stadium to face Chris Chester's Wakefield Trinity on Sunday (April 15). Ordinarily in action on Fridays, that extra 48 hours preparation is very welcome after an Easter programme that has taken in three games in the space of eight days for Saints and Hull.

Too much is perhaps made of the time clubs have between games. Who isn't tired of seeing Denis Betts or Steve McNamara bang on about 'short turnarounds' after their latest defeat? But following a double header its an issue which maybe takes on greater significance. There's a reason why both Saints and the black and whites looked a bit leggy on Friday night. FC have to go again on Thursday, although fortunately for them they face Widnes. Meanwhile a nine-day break should be enough for Saints to recover from their Easter eggs-ertions (yes I just did that) and look to strengthen their grip on Super League's top spot.

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