Harsh Words From Holbrook Do The Trick
Let me take you back a week to the afternath of Saints 24-20 defeat at Wakefield Trinity. I know. You'd rather not relive it but it may have been an important signpost on the road to Friday's 12-try demolition of the Huddersfield Giants.
"They worked harder than us." said Holbrook of Chris Chester's side, adding;
"I was really disappointed with our effort today."
As assessments of performance go this is about as damning as it gets. It's one thing to criticise professional players for missing tackles or dropping easy passes, but quite another to suggest that they are not working hard enough. This could and should have stung the Saints players into the response they came up with against Chris Thorman's admittedly struggling side.
An early Jonny Lomax try gave little indication of the avalanche of points that was to follow in a fairly scruffy opening. It wasn't until Ben Barba scooted past half the Giants team for the kind of try seen on his NRL YouTube compilations that the gulf in class became apparent. Despite missing three of their four England squad regulars in Alex Walmsley, James Roby and the suspended Mark Percival Saints added four more tries before the break. At 34-0 at half-time all questions about their work rate had been answered. Six more tries in the second half underlined the point. Holbrook's words had produced the desired effect.
Do we want this kind of miss-match?
This time last year you would turn up to watch a Saints game with very little idea of whether Keiron Cunningham's side was going to win or not. While pithy wordsmiths like this one seethed about this and put the team's inconsistency down to the tactical shackles imposed on them by the then coach, the club party line was that in a salary capped sport the days of dismissing 90% of visitors who dared darken our crumbling old door were as gone as the Knowsley Road ground. We couldn't go back.
But on Friday night we did go back. Or at least it felt like it. Back to the sunny Sunday afternoons of my youth when the fascination was not in whether we would win, but in wondering by how many and who would get over for the tries. Few sides could entertain like Saints 20-30 years ago and all that came flooding back to mind in two dizzying spells at the end of each half.
So is this what we wanted? Saints scored some scintillating tries with Barba's first of two an obvious highlight, Yet not long after he embarked on that mazy run to the Giants line Barba and his team-mates had killed this as a contest. With over half the game remaining the outcome was not in the merest shred of doubt. Saints hoovered up goodies faster than Richard Madeley on a celebrity edition of Supermarket Sweep. A Giants side that was also missing stars such as Danny Brough, Jermaine McGilvary and Sebastine Ikahihifo offered nothing in response.
Which is all very well as a one-off. The salary cap has done a reasonable job of ensuring that winning margins have shrunk significantly in Super League, even if it can be accused of doing so by dumbing down standards at the top. So you pays your money and takes your choice. Ultra-competitive grinds with little or no flair on show or embarrassing towellings which call into question the quality of the league. At the moment we still seem some way off finding a happy medium.
Costello breaks through
Percival's verbal joust with Gareth Hewer during Saints loss at Wakefield gave an opportunity to Matty Costello. The 20 year-old is more comfortable at fullback but slotted into the threequarters nicely. He could not have wished for a better introduction to Super League level as the Giants folded in the face of the heavy onslaught.
Costello's main contribution was try assists for Lomax and Regan Grace, the latter finally having the confidence to back himself all the way to the line for only his third try of the season. It was Saints 11th try of a night in which Costello announced himself with a solid performance. He managed 68 metres on 13 carries and at times suffered from the same inability to link up with Grace that even Percival is still grappling with. Nobody is suggesting that Costello should be a permanent fixture ahead of Percival or even Ryan Morgan who added two scores of his own in the second half. But the important thing to note is that Costello proved able to step up when needed. With Percival due back from suspension at Salford on Thursday night (April 26) it may be a while before we see Costello again. There are two or three players ahead of him for his favoured fullback berth. But he has nevertheless gained vital experience that must surely aid his development.
But Bentley does not break through
With Zeb Taia one of five first team regulars ruled out through injury this might have been the perfect time to blood James Bentley in the Super League. Holbrook could not have known quite how much of a stroll this one was going to be but he must have been expecting his side to get over the top of a battered Giants outfit. Which greatly reduced the risk around including Bentley, signed in the off-season from Bradford Bulls with a reputation as one of the best players in the Championship.
Those that played ahead of Bentley excelled. Dominique Peyroux made a modest 68 metres but managed 21 tackles, missing just two. He burst out of six tackles and came up with a sensational offload for Lomax's second try. Similarly Jon Wilkin was sprayed with a bit of magic dust when his perfectly timed pass put Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook over, and it was Wilkin's offload which sent Barba weaving his way to the line so memorably. Meanwhile Morgan Knowles had a hand in Lomax's opening score, ran for 110 metres and came up with 36 tackles. Anyone trying to make a case for the inclusion of Bentley might well find themselves presented with these impressive feats as evidence that leaving Bentley out was the right call.
Yet if not this game, then when will we see Bentley in 2018? Saints enter the Challenge Cup draw this week and a favourable pairing may offer another opportunity. But if Bentley isn't required when so many stars are missing and when the opponent still looks highly vulnerable it may be a worrying sign that the young back rower has not convinced the coach that he is Super League ready.
They might be Giants....but we can't see them..
Away support is not particularly valued or deemed necessary in some sports. The NFL has no culture of visiting fans and sets no store by it. Similarly the NRL doesn't worry about it, moving games hours away at the drop of a hat safe in the knowledge that they will find someone, anyone, to stick their bum on a seat.
British sporting culture is slightly different and it was alarming to see the entire East Stand devoid of any Giants fans. Only a couple of flags, one depicting a fairly grumpy-looking Giants chairman Ken Davy, were taking up any space in the main section normally reserved for visiting fans. There were some in the north east corner, including the Twitter celebrity that owns the cow bell, but in truth it would be a surprise if more than a couple of taxis were required to get them down the M62 on Friday night.
If this were Catalans or London it would be nothing new. Empty away ends is something that Super League clubs have had to accept down the years to help pursue the goal of ensuring that Super League stretches outside of the northern towns of its stereotyping. But this is Huddersfield. Birthplace of the game itself. League Leaders Shield winners only five years ago. Is it really too much to ask that a few more are willing to travel an hour down the road, even if it is a Friday night and even if their side is expected to lose? Or is Friday night just an excuse that fans hide behind? Would any more have turned up had the game been played on a Sunday afternoon?
It's never made much sense to host games at exactly the same time as others are being televised. You are either eliminating a high portion of your targeted viewing audience or you are giving potential match-goers a reason to make a trip to the off-license their only outside venture on those evenings. That Sky allow it to continue is an unnerving indicator of their apathy towards the sport. Almost as if they don't care if away sections are empty or viewing figures for RL are lower as long as people are still subscribing to see Premier League football. This is an issue which needs to be seriously examined by all parties before the agreement of the next broadcasting deal, negotiations for which are surely to start imminently.