Monday, 2 April 2018

Widnes Vikings v Saints Preview

Saints attempt to make it a very happy Easter when they visit Widnes Vikings in a BetFred Super League Round 9 match-up on Monday (April 9, kick-off 3.05pm).

Justin Holbrook's side vanquished the Evil Empire on Good Friday (March 30) with a heart-stopping 21-18 win sealed by Regan Grace's late try and Danny Richardson's nerveless touchline conversion and drop-goal. But all of that would be considerably less glorious should Saints fail to see off a Widnes side that has not inspired so far in 2018. The Vikings come in off the back of a derby defeat, going down 32-18 to a Warrington side for whom Josh Charnley scored two tries on debut. It was a fifth loss in eight league outings so far for Dennis Betts' side who currently occupy the final top eight berth.

With last season's visit to Widnes in mind there was an expectation that Holbrook would make a few changes to his squad, especially with such a short space of time between the two Easter fixtures. Tommy Makinson was not risked on Widnes' 4G pitch last year which led to a rather fraught appearance for Ricky Bailey, but Makinson is potentially available as Holbrook makes no changes to the 19-man party that took on Wigan. That means only Alex Walmsley and Adam Swift, out with neck and shoulder injuries respectively, are missing from what you might consider Saints strongest available squad.

None of which means Makinson is guaranteed to play. Holbrook can choose to draft in players from outside the 19 if there are medical grounds to do so. We saw Wigan coach do exactly that on Friday when the previously unnamed Morgan Escare came in as a late replacement for the ill Sam Tomkins. But even if Holbrook decides to stick with what he has there is some scope for changes to the match day 17. There has been talk of a first appearance of the season for Matty Smith which could mean a rest for Jonny Lomax ahead of the visit of Hull FC on Friday (April 6). With Swift out resting Makinson is more complex. A reshuffling of the back line would be required with perhaps Ryan Morgan operating on the wing and maybe a return to the centres for Dominique Peyroux.

Ben Barba is another who looked bruised and battered during the derby and is another candidate for a nice long sit down, although since Lomax and Makinson are the only likely candidates to step in at fullback and are themselves arguably in need of a bit of protection Barba may have to soldier on. As will Mark Percival and Grace.

If Smith does play there is still a decision to be made about who partners him in the halves. Holbrook publicly stated before the start of the season that he saw Richardson as more of a stand-off than a scrum half and the coach may take the opportunity to test that theory. Or, assuming that he doesn't stick with Lomax, Holbrook may offer an opportunity to Theo Fages. The Frenchman is probably most comfortable at 6 but has so far only seen action as a tackling machine at loose forward off the bench in 2018. This could be his chance to shine.

With Walmsley out the options are less complex in the pack. Ideally some may favour finding a way to rest James Roby and Fages offers Holbrook that option. But one of the reasons given for appointing Roby as captain was that he was a player that Holbrook wanted the England hooker on the field as much as possible. Roby was certainly influential in the win over Wigan and it may be best to leave well enough alone. Prop duties were carried out by the excellent Luke Thompson as well as Kyle Amor, Luke Douglas and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook on Friday but this one perhaps will see one of those rested to give Matty Lees an opportunity. Zeb Taia, Jon Wilkin and Morgan Knowles offer back row options alongside Peyroux provided he isn't moved to the centres. In many ways it would be a shame to move him out of the second row given the improvement in his performances since Holbrook's arrival.

Betts makes four changes to his squad with the eye-catching absentees being fullback Rhys Hanbury, form centre Krisnan Inu and back rower Chris Houston. Gil Dudson also misses out as Alex Gerrard, Danny Craven, Danny Walker and Wellington Albert all come in. Hanbury hasn't been at his best but leaves a gaping hole at the back for the Vikings while Inu is the club's leading try-scorer with six so far this term. Only Barba, Percival and Fetuli Talanoa of Hull FC have more in Super League so far. Charly Runciman and Stefan Marsh are among those expected to pick up the slack with Joe Mellor and Tom Gilmore operating in the creative department in midfield. Up front Gerrard's return is a boost while MacGraff Leuluai, Aaron Heremaia, Chris Dean and Tom Olbison have much needed experience.

Saints last visit to Widnes ended in a surprise 16-14 defeat, a game which followed the Easter double header and proved a step too far for Saints whose much changed side could not repeat the heroics of an equally surprising Easter Monday win over Castleford. Yet with this year's vintage currently four points clear at the top there should be a greater determination to not get caught short this time at what looks like a fairly mediocre Widnes outfit.


Widnes Vikings;

2. Stefan Marsh 4. Charly Runciman 6. Joe Mellor 7. Tom Gilmore 10. Alex Gerrard 14. Chris Dean 15. Danny Craven 16. Tom Olbison 17. Sam Wilde 19. Greg Burke 20. MacGraff Leuluai 21. Jordan Johnstone 22. Ryan Ince 23. Danny Walker 24. Ed Chamberlain 26 Ed Chapelhow 28. Bradley Walker 30. Keanen Brand 36. Wellington Albert

St Helens;

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. Dominique Peyroux 18. Danny Richardson 19. Regan Grace 20. Matty Lees 23. Ben Barba

Referee: Chris Kendall

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