Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Saints v Warrington Wolves - Preview

Unbeaten Saints face a test of their title credentials when they visit Warrington in a BetFred Super League Round 5 clash this Friday (March 9, kick-off 7.45pm).

Justin Holbrook’s side made short work of Salford Red Devils last time out, dominating to the tune of a 34-2 success on Sunday (March 4). That was after the game was postponed from its originally scheduled date of Friday (March 2) as The Beast From The East and Storm Emma wreaked havoc in our green, pleasant and desperately unprepared lands.

One casualty of the Salford win was Jon Wilkin. The former skipper misses out this week, the only change to the 19-man squad named by Holbrook ahead of the Salford win. Wilkin had the misfortune to come off worst in a collision between him and his fellow podcaster Mark Flanagan and is replaced in the 19 by Matty Lees. Wilkin’s absence could see Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook earn a start in the back row after his impressive performance against Ian Watson’s side, with Dominique Peyroux and Zeb Taia free to continue their burgeoning second row partnership.

Lees will fight for a place in the front row along with Kyle Amor and Luke Douglas, with Luke Thompson and Alex Walmsley virtually assured of making the 17. James Roby has been outstanding as ever this year so far and is still unchallenged at hooker, although Theo Fages has proven capable of giving the England man a rest at various stages.

In the backs the only decision remains whether to restore Ryan Morgan to the side. The Australian returned to the 19 last week after a two-game layoff but was not included in the 17 on match day. Instead Holbrook persevered with Tommy Makinson at centre inside Adam Swift, allowing Regan Grace another 80-minutes to try to strike up more of an understanding with Mark Percival on the left edge. Holbrook may go that way again, or else bring Morgan back into the side and choose between Swift and Grace with Makinson moved back out to his right wing berth. Ben Barba has been the difference at key moments this season so far and should again start at fullback.

In the halves Matty Smith was the subject of much public chin-wagging from Holbrook this week, with the coach insisting that the former Wigan badge-smoocher remains in his plans despite having played no part in any match day squad so far in 2018. That would seem to rule out a loan deal elsewhere for Smith, though his chances of shifting either Danny Richardson or Jonny Lomax from the starting halfback positions still appear to be somewhat anorexic.

Warrington are back home after a bruising trip to Hull FC in conditions so bad that their regular supporters club transport was cancelled. That they were made to play the game just the same says something about where we are with the current relationship with the broadcasters, but probably also about the desperation of clubs not to create a fixture back-log in what is an already bloated season. In the end Wire went down 21-12 to the black and whites in a game which saw both Declan Patton and Liam Watts dismissed for varying degrees of lunacy.

Patton has received a five-match suspension for knocking Bureta Faraimo out cold with a swinging arm which hit the Hull winger flush in the face. Amid much hand-wringing about the game having ‘gone soft’, the RFL disciplinary appear to be taking a much needed stance against foul play of this kind. Intent is irrelevant. There is a duty of care to your fellow professionals and Patton deserves to sit down for a fistful of games at least.

Replacing him could be Kevin Brown. The ex-Thatto Heath man was knocked out for the 375th time in his professional career in Warrington’s win over Wigan a fortnight ago but is included in coach Steve Price’s 19-man selection. He will slot into the stand-off role alongside scrum-half Tyrone Roberts if fit, or else Price could move Stefan Ratchford from fullback or else introduce Harvey Livett who has earned a call-up also.

Tom Lineham and Mitch Brown should continue on the wings with Bryson Goodwin fit to resume in the centres alongside comedy legend Ryan Atkins. The front row is strong with Chris Hill and Mike Cooper leading the way either side of hooker Daryl Clark. In the back row Jack Hughes, Ben Westwood and Ben Murdoch-Masila provide a useful mix of experience and physicality. Much to the disgust of the former Mayor of Warrington both George and Toby King are included in Price’s squad as is Dom Crosby after showing no ill effects from Watts’ lame attempt to head-butt him at the KCom last week.

Saints used to have a comical hold over Warrington in Super League but the ledger has been more even in recent seasons. Saints will be keen to make up for the fact that they were whacked 40-18 at the Halliwell Jones in 2017 but also to maintain that 100% record that has everyone tipping them to wear the crown this time around. Warrington must try to bounce back after their run of two wins in a row was halted by defeat on Humberside last time out.

These two usually produce a good, open game which is rarely short of incident. Expect nothing else here, even if there could be a fair degree of five-drives-and-a-kick rubbish in the early stages. That’s just Super League in the current climate. Predictions are ludicrous where both sides are concerned but given the recent form of both I’d be tempted to suggest that Saints will just about come a way with a narrow win. Saints by four.


Warrington Wolves;

1. Stefan Ratchford, 2. Tom Lineham, 3. Bryson Goodwin, 4. Ryan Atkins, 6. Kevin Brown, 7. Tyrone Roberts, 8. Chris Hill, 9. Daryl Clark, 10. Mike Cooper, 12. Jack Hughes, 13. Ben Murdoch-Masila, 14. Dominic Crosby, 17. Joe Philbin, 18. Toby King, 19. George King, 20. Harvey Livett, 21. Mitch Brown, 22. Morgan Smith, 34. Ben Westwood.
St Helens;

1. Jonny Lomax, 2. Tommy Makinson, 3. Ryan Morgan, 4. Mark Percival, 5. Adam Swift, 6. Theo Fages, 7. Matty Smith, 8. Alex Walmsley, 9. James Roby, 10. Kyle Amor, 11. Zeb Taia, 13. Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, 14. Luke Douglas, 16. Luke Thompson, 17. Dom Peyroux, 18. Danny Richardson, 19. Regan Grace, 20. Matty Lees, 23. Ben Barba.

Referee: James Child

Monday, 5 March 2018

5 Talking Points From Saints 34 Salford Red Devils 2

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.

Friday, 2 March 2018

St Helens v Salford Preview

It’ll be a little later than planned, but Saints still hope to face Salford Red Devils in Round 4 of the BetFred Super League this weekend.

The match had been scheduled for this Friday (March 2) at 8.00pm but was called off on Thursday due to the freezing temperatures brought about by the Beast From The East. However, there are plans in place to stage the game on Sunday (March 4) with a 4.00pm kick-off time.

Unaware of the postponement at the time Saints coach Justin Holbrook named a 19-man squad on Wednesday which featured just one change from that which travelled to Huddersfield for last week’s 26-12 win over the Giants. Matty Lees misses the cut this time out as Ryan Morgan returns. The Australian centre has not been seen since the opening round win over Castleford but is expected to be involved should the game against the Red Devils get the go-ahead.

If he does he will feature in a back-line with Mark Percival and Tommy Makinson in front of fullback Ben Barba, with Holbrook then faced with a choice between Regan Grace and the resurgent Adam Swift for the remaining spot on the left wing. Alternatively, Morgan could be left to kick his heels for another week while Makinson stays in the centre to allow both Grace and Swift to retain their places. Danny Richardson and Jonny Lomax will form the halfback partnership with Theo Fages likely to get the nod for the bench spot ahead of the as yet unseen Matty Smith.

Up front Morgan Knowles serves the second of his two-game suspension, although another postponement would complicate things further for the Welshman. With Lees out expect both Kyle Amor and Luke Douglas to make the 17, one to start at prop alongside Luke Thompson and the other to occupy the bench with wind-up metre-muncher Alex Walmsley. James Roby is unchallenged at hooker not only in St Helens but in most places outside Melbourne, while Zeb Taia was another key performer for Saints in the win over Rick Stone’s side and should start again in the second row. Dominique Peyroux and Jon Wilkin will make up the back row, although Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook is also likely to play a key role in that area from the bench.

Salford come in off the back of their first win of the season, a 36-12 success over Hull KR. Prior to that they had struggled, taking a 40-12 beating by Wigan in their opener before being edged 14-12 by Wakefield Trinity in front of the Sky cameras in Round 2. Coach Ian Watson has named an unchanged squad, with only George Griffin, Ryan Lannon and Kris Brining the notable absentees. Former Saints Gareth O’Brien, Josh Jones, Mark Flanagan and Lama Tasi are all among Watson’s 19-man party.

O’Brien has developed into one of the most exciting fullbacks in the country since his loan spell at Saints as a halfback, while Salford’s backline also contains the exciting talents of Niall Evalds and Junior Sa’u. Robert Lui and Jack Littlejohn form the halfback partnership while the forward pack includes former Wigan pair Lee Mossop and Logan Tomkins as well as other ‘other’ Burgess brother Luke and the veteran Craig Kopczak.

Salford’s last visit to St Helens produced one of the modern classic Super League clashes last June. Down and almost out, Saints produced three tries in a dizzying eight-minute spell before Lui inexplicably chipped into the arms of McCarthy-Scarsbrook who fed Smith for a breath-taking 40metre drop-goal on the hooter to complete a memorable 25-24 win. It was the start of a slump for Watson’s men who having been as high as fourth in the table slipped out of contention, winning just one of their last four regular season games and just one more in the Super 8s phase before finally finishing seventh.

They have been tipped by many to do far worse than that this year with former owner Marwan Koukash no longer providing the funding and with stars like Michael Dobson and Ben Murdoch-Masila having passed through the exit door. A top eight spot should still be the aim for the Red Devils but they are unlikely to get any change of what looks a more focused and driven Saints side under Holbrook in 2018.


St Helens;

1. Jonny Lomax, 2. Tommy Makinson, 3. Ryan Morgan, 4. Mark Percival, 5. Adam Swift, 6. Theo Fages, 7. Matty Smith, 8. Alex Walmsley, 9. James Roby, 10. Kyle Amor, 11. Zeb Taia, 12. Jon Wilkin, 13. Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, 14. Luke Douglas, 16. Luke Thompson, 17. Dom Peyroux, 18. Danny Richardson, 19. Regan Grace, 23. Ben Barba.

Salford Red Devils;

1. Gareth O’Brien, 2. Greg Johnson, 3. Kris Welham, 4. Junior Sa’u, 5. Niall Evalds, 6. Robert Lui, 7. Jack Littlejohn, 8. Craig Kopczak, 9. Logan Tomkins, 11. Josh Jones, 12. Weller Hauraki, 13. Mark Flanagan, 14. Lama Tasi, 16. Luke Burgess, 17. Tyrone McCarthy, 18. Ben Nakubuwai, 19. Josh Wood, 23. Lee Mossop, 24. Jake Bibby.

Referee: Scott Mikalauskas

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

5 Talking Points From Huddersfield 12 Saints 26

5 Talking Points From Huddersfield Giants 12 Saints 26

Oh What An Atmosphere.....

According to his nauseating 1984 hit Russ Abbott loved a party with a happy atmosphere. He'd have loved to have been in amongst the travelling Saints contingent at the John Smith's Stadium on Friday night then. Even if he'd have had to wait 45 minutes in the queue for a cup of tea in temperatures that Alistair MacLean couldn't have imagined. Still, at least Russ wouldn't have suffered the indignity of getting to the front of the queue only to find that his wheelchair wouldn't fit through the fixed barriers which divide the queues at each till. Thanks to the kind lady who helped me out there by the way.

Saints fans talk a lot among themselves on forums and social media about the lack of atmosphere at the stadium formerly known as Langtree Park. Common consensus is that it was a mistake to put the standing area behind the posts rather than along one of the touchlines. That's as maybe. I'm obviously not an expert in standing and its associated benefits. All I do know is that a couple of thousand people located behind the posts at the John Smiths Stadium made a fearful din throughout the 80 minutes and were instrumental in the team's success, as referenced by Danny Richardson and Zeb Taia to name but two on Twitter.

Among the ditties belted out by the Saints fans were a version of 'Glad All Over' in homage to Ben Barba, the oft-trotted out James Roby song and a version of Spandau Ballet's 'Gold' dedicated to Morgan Knowles. The same Morgan Knowles who wasn't even playing thanks to a four-game suspension. The point I am coming round to with all the speed and efficiency of Cooperman is that if we can make this much racket on our travels from behind the sticks what is to stop us from repeating that at home against Salford on Friday?

It's easy to remember Knowsley Road as a constant cauldron of excitement but the truth is there were just as many quiet days there as there are since the move. The answer to the conundrum is more likely to be about expectation. At home Saints are expected to win against almost anyone. As a consequence we are perhaps guilty of waiting for the team to do something dazzling before we start losing our minds. Away from our form in 2017 was utterly wretched during the regular season. Maybe going into this season there has been an acknowledgment from the fans that we need to be the catalyst for upping the intensity. Victories in our first two away games suggest that whatever it is, it's working.

Grace Under Fire As Morgan Must Play

For the second game in succession Ryan Morgan was absent from the side. There was some talk that he had yet to recover from the nose injury he picked up in the opening round win over Castleford, but Justin Holbrook seemed to pooh-pooh that when he declared Morgan fit and available in a press interview on the day of the squad announcement.

Tommy Makinson has filled in admirably but if he is fit to do so then Morgan should come back in for the visit of Salford on Friday (March 2). Anything else is exactly the kind of square peggery that played a key role in the departure of Keiron Cunningham from the top job. Makinson is a pure runner and finisher but he lacks the passing skills and the tactical discipline to be a natural centre. How often have we seen him abandon his position on the right edge to go crabbing across the field looking for a gap that only appears once in every 20 games? That might be understandable given that Saints are still decidedly lop-sided in attack. We saw again here how heavily they rely on that left edge as first Taia and then Mark Percival crossed early in the second half to effectively put the game beyond Rick Stone's side. But if you are going to have a balanced attack it starts with having the right players in the right positions. Makinson needs to go back on the wing and be patient, something that if the rest of his career is anything to go by he won't have a problem with.

If Holbrook restores Morgan to the side he must then choose between Adam Swift and Regan Grace for the left wing slot. Nobody is suggesting that they should both play at Makinson's expense. Grace had been the one under pressure ahead of this one after Swift's excellent return to form in the win over Catalans Dragons in Perpignan, and the Welshman's 35 metres on 10 carries hardly screams 'pick me!'. Meanwhile Swift fell just one metre short of 100 on 13 carries and, missed no tackles in defence and made no errors with ball in hand. If the team really is picked on form then Grace could well be looking at a spell on the sidelines.

Barba On Top 1 v 1

One of the key battles in this one was always going to be between the two fullbacks. Barba has started the season impressively for Saints while the Giants' Jake Mamo was one of the best exponents of the role in 2017 before injury curtailed his season. There was no doubt about who came out on top.

Barba's performance has been questioned in some quarters. It's been suggested that he didn't enjoy the bitterly cold conditions and that he wasn't interested. That's not the Barba I saw. As good as he is Barba is not going to go on the blockbusting runs you've seen on YouTube every week. I saw a player playing a little bit within himself but with the calm assurance of someone who knows exactly what he's doing and in a lot of cases exactly what is going to happen next. Defence was again a feature of Saints performance and Barba organised it beautifully, while in attack he may have only carried the ball five times but he made three tackle busts. The first defender is not going to get him very often.

By contrast Mamo made more metres (95 to 41) but he endured a mostly frustrating evening. He made three handling errors and missed 30% of his 10 tackle attempts. His annoyance at some poor handling reached a comical conclusion near the end of the game, when another ruined Giants attack on the Saints line provoked Mamo into the kind of arm-waving, foot-stamping tantrum normally reserved for the sweets aisle at Tesco. We may have not quite seen the brilliant best of Barba but he was plenty good enough to teach Mamo a thing or two.

What Does The Future Hold For Theo Fages?

Remember when Theo Fages was a stand-off? This Saints team under Holbrook is suddenly difficult to get into, and nobody illustrates that more than the French captain. Where once be was an integral part of everything Saints did in attack, Fages has become a bit-part player. He appeared for just over 10 minutes at the end of this one, managing precisely 0 metres from 0 carries. It's fair to say he wasn't an attacking threat when he emerged from the bench.

It was interesting that he did not replace Roby, with the latter still occupying a 'middle' role which in the dim and distant past might have been described as a loose forward position. Before Australian coaches killed the traditional 13 role stone dead. Using Fages as a back-up hooker or loose forward might be the best thing for the team at the moment but from Fages' point of view it may be viewed as a phenomenal waste of his attributes. He could be forgiven for believing he needs to play somewhere he can get not only more minutes, but where he can get his mitts on the rock and create.

Saints already have one potentially unhappy half on their hands. Matty Smith has yet to even make it into the 17 so far this season and will no doubt be considering his future if that continues. Which frankly it should. But are we in danger of alienating Fages also, and going from a situation in which four halves fighting for two slots becomes an over-reliance on Richardson and Jonny Lomax?

Thompson coming of age…..but still has areas to improve.

For the last few season it’s been accepted wisdom that Alex Walmsley is Saints best prop forward. Not only Saints best, but one of the best in Super League or anywhere on the planet. That still holds true, and we were all as chuffed as Ian Holloway’s badger at the start of mating season when Walmsley decided to sign a new four-year deal with Saints rather than try his luck in the NRL. Yet while it is has been a modest start to the season for the former Batley man, another young Saints prop is emerging as a real catalyst for a meaner, more efficient front row.

That man is Luke Thompson, who has been at Saints since the age of 11, making his first team debut in 2013. Since then there have been peaks and troughs in his form. He was a member of the 2014 Grand Final winning squad, but later found himself a little bit in the wilderness as Keiron Cunningham experimented with the idea of a team almost entirely bereft of good home grown youngsters. There were times when many wondered whether Thompson would ever really fulfil the potential he always looked to have.

Under Justin Holbrook he is finally beginning to do that. He led Saints with 160 metres in this one, and was the first one with his hand up to carry the fight when the Giants dominated the territorial battle early on. Thompson is ninth overall in Super League in metres made and could, if he stays injury free, be set for a real breakthrough season in terms of becoming one of the true stars of the game. He may even turn the head of England coach Wayne Bennett for forthcoming tests with New Zealand in June and in the autumn, although prop is a position in which the national team still has something of an embarrassment of riches.

If he is to press his way into Bennett’s plans there are still areas he will need to tidy up. Thompson missed five tackles against the Giants, more than anyone in the Saints ranks except for Dominique Peyroux. Those two have the dubious honour of leading the team in missed tackles overall this season, with Peyroux missing 14 and Thompson 10. That half of Thompson’s missed tackles were in this one game perhaps suggests that this was a mere defensive aberration from the 22-year-old.

One thing Bennett will like about Thompson is that he is not fond of an offload. As much as offloading props is very much the Saints way and something that the fans would love to see him develop, the fact that Thompson has yet to register an offload this entire season is an indicator that he has a deep respect for possession of the ball. Maybe we have something to be thankful to Keiron Cunningham for after all, aside from 17 glorious years as the best hooker in the world, that is. Thompson has made only one error in Saints opening three outings and is becoming one of the more reliable performers in an improving pack.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Super League 2018 Preview - Widnes Vikings

Assuming there is going to be any relegation from Super League in 2018 the name on everyone’s lips when asked who might be most likely to suffer the drop is that of Widnes Vikings. Yes folks, as the season gets under way we still don’t know what the structure of the competition will look like for 2019 which is a bit like going to the barbers, sitting down and telling him to just start cutting bits of your hair off until you decide what you want it to look like.

With the possibility of relegation still just about on the agenda Widnes do look among the most vulnerable. Not helped by England international Kevin Brown’s departure to Warrington, Widnes toiled in 201. With no replacement recruited for Brown Widnes finished bottom of the pile at the end of the regular season and only spared themselves from the Million Pound Game when they beat Catalans Dragons in the south of France on the final weekend of the Qualifiers. Instead it was Leigh Centurions who went down after losing out to the Dragons in the relegation decider, leaving coach Dennis Betts and the Vikings with another opportunity to get it right at the top level.

To do that Betts has brought in the imposing Albert Brothers, Stanton and Wellington from PNG Hunters. Stanton is a 23-year-old prop while Wellington is a year older and has played not only in the front row but also at loose forward and on the wing. All of which might seem like a strange combination but actually seems perfectly reasonable in the modern game in which wingers might as well be prop forwards given the amount of carries they now take early in sets, especially in their own half.

Enough of the tactical masterclass then. Widnes have also brought in Krisnan Inu from Catalans Dragons. The New Zealand-born three-quarter played 46 times for the French side between 2015-17 and before that had spells in the NRL with Parramatta, New Zealand Warriors and Canterbury Bulldogs, amassing a total of 139 appearances and scoring 65 tries in that time. He’s an exciting player at his best and should add some much needed strike to the Vikings’ backline. Also in is the versatile forward Sam Wilde, whose career at Warrington had somewhat stalled leading to loan spells with Rochdale and London Broncos. The move offers the 22-year-old another shot at the top flight and a chance to fulfil the early promise he showed at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.

On their way out of the Select Security Stadium are Chris Bridge and Eamon O’Carroll who have retired, prop Manese Manuokafoa who has moved to French side Racing Club Albi XIII and try-scoring winger Corey Thompson who joins NRL outfit Wests Tigers. Thompson scored 37 tries in 52 appearances for the Vikings in his two seasons at the club and his whitewash-bothering instincts will be missed this year. Tom Armstrong has joined Toronto Wolfpack as has Australian prop Jack Buchanan after being released.

Widnes start with a repeat of that final Qualifier against the Dragons, only this time on home soil. Then they go to League Leaders Shield winners Castleford Tigers in Round 2 before hosting Warrington Wolves in the first Cheshire derby of the season in a clash brought forward from Round 12 because of the Vikings’ earlier involvement in the Challenge Cup. After that is the visit of champions Leeds Rhinos while Round 5 brings a trip to the DW Stadium to face Wigan Warriors. It’s a very tough start for a side already expected to struggle in what will almost certainly be Betts’ last season in charge should they endure another difficult season. Betts has been in charge of the Vikings for eight years without really threatening to turn them into a contender. They still lack a credible replacement for Brown although in the likes of Danny Walker and Tom Gilmore they do have some creative spark. Inu will be key to how the three-quarter line performs as will Stefan Marsh and Charly Runciman. Rhys Hanbury is a hugely talented fullback while Joe Mellor can lead the side around the park if he can avoid a repeat of the injuries that meant he only managed 17 appearances in 2017.

With Manuokafoa gone the pack is led by Alex Gerrard and MacGraff Leuluai, with Aaron Heremaia also around to help Walker along in his development. The Albert brothers will hopefully add something and there is also the experience of Hep Cahill and Chris Dean to call on.

It probably won’t be enough, however. With the best will in the world it is hard to see anything but another bottom four finish for the Vikings who might have it all on to avoid finishing bottom of the table again after 23 Rounds. Then it will depend if they can hit form in the Qualifiers to decide whether we see them in Super League in 2019 and beyond.

Assuming there is relegation, that is. Oh yes, I remember now. Short back and sides, please.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Super League 2018 Preview - Wigan Warriors

For the first time since Shaun Wane were a lad, wearing short pants and just getting his first taste of pie and pea-wet, nobody fancies Wigan to do well in Super League this year. The Warriors missed the 2017 semi-finals, eventually finishing a disappointing sixth. Disappointing for them, that is. I’m still chuckling. As a result they are expected by everyone but the bookies to struggle again in 2018 but you know, it’s them. You can’t write them off.

Unlike the similarly useless Warrington, the baby has not gone out with the bath water in Wigan. Changes have been kept to a minimum in terms of the playing staff and Wane remains in charge. In fairness to the Pie Minister 2017 was an injury ravaged campaign with all of Sam Tomkins, Dom Manfredi, Oliver Gildart, Ben Flower, Joel Tomkins, John Bateman and of course the permanently crocked Sean O’Loughlin spending significant amounts of time on the treatment table. That allowed youngsters like Tom Davies, Liam Forysth and Liam Marshall to come through and gain first team experience which will be invaluable to them for the challenge ahead. Yet it also placed too much of a burden on the puddings in the squad, with Taulima Tautai, copy and paste’s Frank-Paul Nuuausala and Willie Isa perhaps not of the required quality that is synonymous with the name on the badge. Yet this is a squad which it should be remembered is still the World Club Champions having beaten Cronulla Sharks 22-6 on home soil last February.

All those mentioned remain, with only Michael McILorum and Anthony Gelling the really significant departures. McILorum has surprisingly been allowed to join Catalans Dragons, which you hope for their sakes doesn’t turn out the way that Matty Smith surprisingly being allowed to return to Saints from Wigan did in 2017. McIlorum will be joined in the south of France by Lewis Tierney following his loan spell with Steve McNamara’s side.

Gelling needed to return home to New Zealand for family reasons and is replaced by former Wigan…no wait….current Wiga…what….oh I don’t know, he’s replaced by Dan Sarginson. You remember him? He had three decent seasons with Wigan between 2014-16, making 81 appearances and scoring 27 tries before flopping hopelessly in a one-year stint with Gold Coast Titans which yielded just six appearances. As is the tradition honoured by the likes of both Tomkins brothers, Thomas Leuluai and Joe Burgess he returns to the DW Stadium to save the man in charge of recruitment from having to think too hard. This being Super League, he’ll probably go ok. This being Wigan, he’ll probably get picked for England. Joining Sarginson is 20-year-old utility forward Gabriel Hamlin who arrives from South Sydney Rabbitohs. However, most of his experience is with the NRL side’s under-20s side so it may be that he is one for the future and not somebody that we will see slot straight into the side for the season opener on February 2 at the AJ Bell Stadium.

That opener is followed by the controversial Round 2 fixture with Hull FC, which for reasons best known to Ian Lenaghan’s vanity has been moved to WIN Stadium in Wollongong. The Warriors will get a weekend off after that as the World Club Challenge takes centre stage before they have to visit what should be a rejuvenated Warrington on February 23. Widnes will probably provide a gentler assignment in Round 4 before last year’s surprise package Wakefield Trinity visit Wigan on March 11. The last meeting between these two was on the final day of last season’s Super 8s when, with Wigan fans taking out their calculators to try to work out how many points they would need to win by to oust Saints from the final semi-final spot, Chris Chester’s side instead handed the cherry and whites a rib-tickling 32-0 shellacking.

With key players coming back into the fold and perhaps staying fitter for longer periods the Warriors should make a better first of things than they did in 2017. Yet there is still a major style issue particularly with their attack which has become almost as tired and predictable as a joke about Wigan in one of my opening paragraphs. Sam Powell is being tipped by many to partner George Williams in the halves this year with Sam Tomkins hopeful of a return to form at fullback and Leuluai filling in for the absent MciLorum at hooker. Powell played a lot of junior rugby in the halves but playing there in Super League is an altogether different proposition. Wane does have the option to use Morgan Escare at fullback and inject Tomkins back into the halves but the feasibility of that plan depends very much on Sam’s crumbling knees and how much he wants it versus how much he’d rather just be in the Sky Sports studio. He’s fast becoming the Jon Wilkin of Wigan, although to be fair to the crust munchers he is unlikely to get booed off any time soon. For shame, Saints fans, for shame.

So will Wigan make the four? Well obviously we hope not. Nobody wants to go through the rigours of a Super League and Super 8s season only to find that you have an away semi-final at the Pie Dome refereed by Ben Thaler who has forgotten that he is still holding his Wigan rattle as he walks out on to the field with his cherry and white whistle. However, they cannot be ruled out as there is enough quality within their squad to turn around last year’s underwhelming performance. If they cannot, it might be that Wane’s career path displays eerie echoes of that of Keiron Cunningham.

Super League 2018 Preview - Warrington Wolves

Not only was 2017 not Warrington Wolves’ year, it was an unqualified disaster. Highly fancied by many (including this idiot tipster who backed them to carry off the League Leaders Shield) Wire showed early promise with an impressive World Club Series win over Brisbane Broncos before falling in a stupendous heap once the league programme kicked in. Tony Smith’s side missed the top eight, albeit only by a point, and had to rescue their Super League status via the Qualifiers.

That embarrassment was Smith’s cue to leave the building. After an eight-year spell which had brought with it three Challenge Cup wins and three appearances in the Grand Final, Smith parted company with the Wolves to be replaced by former St.George-Illawarra Dragons coach Steve Price. Though Smith never won a Grand Final he arguably leaves the club in better shape than it was when he found it and still, despite the struggles of last term, in a reasonable position to challenge for major honours.

Not that there wasn’t a need for a little bit of fresh blood and some new ideas. Smith had gone stale at the Halliwell Jones Stadium and so had many of his squad. A whole pack of Wolves have departed, two of whom will join another Wolf pack as Joe Westerman and Ashton Sims head for Toronto. Brad Dwyer is one of the brightest prospects at hooker in all of Super League but he will now ply his trade for Leeds Rhinos, while Rhys Evans (Leigh Centurions), Peta Hiku (New Zealand Warriors), Ben Pomeroy (Lezignan Sangliers) and Sam Wilde (Widnes Vikings) are among the other big names to board the Good Ship Do One. Kurt Gidley’s guile and experience in the halves will be missed after his retirement while Matty Blythe also calls time on his career. Enigmatic winger Kevin Penny has been released. Again. He’ll probably be back. It’s like Fatal Attraction.

So who has Price brought in to replace this raft of rugby league revolutionaries? Tyrone Roberts from Gold Coast Titans is probably the headline capture. Roberts has picked up an injury and may miss the start of the season but with 138 NRL appearances to his name in spells with Newcastle and the Titans the 26-year-old halfback is proven quality and should light up the Super League when fit. If Roberts can form an exciting halfback partnership with Kevin Brown then things could get exciting in Cheshire, what with the three-quarter line now including Bryson Goodwin who joins after making 99 appearances and scoring 33 tries for South Sydney Rabbitohs. Goodwin is a former New Zealand international and certainly one to watch in an area where Warrington looked a little short of options last time around. Ryan Atkins may not be everyone’s hot beverage of choice but the two of them could form an impressive attacking partnership for the Wolves with Tom Lineham and Matty Russell offering further options ahead of Stefan Ratchford. Mitch Brown has joined from Leigh Centurions also and will look to challenge for a spot in the backs also.

The main addition to the pack is Ben Murdoch-Masila, snapped up from Salford Red Devils after some stellar performances for the AJ Bell Stadium side over the last two seasons. At 26 he is another entering the peak of his career and who has NRL experience having played over 50 times in spells with Wests Tigers and Penrith Panthers. Sitaleki Akalu’ola is slightly less NRL experience in his career with those two clubs but could be another useful addition to the Wolves back row. Those two are added to a forward group that already includes my annual Man Of Steel tip Chris Hill following his excellent World Cup with England, 2014’s Daryl Clarke at hooker and the fit-again Ben Currie. The 23-year-old missed almost all of last season with a serious knee injury and was a huge miss for the Wire pack. If he can get back to his pre-injury form then he is another who could inspire Warrington to better things in 2018.

Warrington host the first game of the new Super League season when they welcome Leeds Rhinos to the Halliwell Jones Stadium on February 1. They couldn’t really have asked for a tougher start than a visit from the champions, before they make the journey to West Yorkshire to take on Rick Stone’s Huddersfield Giants. Then it is a Cheshire derby with what looks a sub-standard Widnes Vikings side in Round 3 (which they’re calling Round 12 as it has been brought forward from that date to allow Widnes to slum it Round 5 of the Challenge Cup) before Wigan Warriors visit in Round 4 (which they are calling Round 3 because…yeah, you get the picture….). The Warriors may be vulnerable as they will be just back from their needless and vain trip to Australia to face Hull FC in the game that the locals are already calling A Rugby League Match. Wigan aren’t really Wigan at present with nobody but the bookmakers fancying their chances of making the top four. Bookies are rarely wrong but in rugby league they seem to just sit with their feet up watching Jeremy Kyle while writing the Warriors’ name at the top of their list because well…..they’re Wigan.

Back to Warrington. It’s probably not their year again. They will go a lot better than they did in 2017 but there is just the nagging suspicion that there has been just a little too much upheaval at the club for a genuine tilt at the title. They may be a reasonable tip for the Challenge Cup, however, depending on the draw and whether they can afford any major injuries along the way.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Super League Preview 2018 - Wakefield Trinity

Two years on from a season in which they won just three of 23 regular season games Wakefield Trinity pushed more traditional giants all the way for a top four spot in 2017 before just missing out.

It wasn’t until Scott Grix’s infamous air-swipe allowed Jonny Lomax to touch down and earn Saints a last-gasp win on September 7 that Chris Chester’s side saw their hopes start to go slightly awry. Before then impressive Super 8s wins over Salford Red Devils and Leeds Rhinos had put Trinity in pole position to oust both Wigan and Saints for that final semi-final spot. Defeat by a single point at Hull FC a week on from the Saints loss took it out of Trinity’s hands and despite a resounding and giggle-inducing 32-0 walloping of Wigan on the final day of the Super 8s the team formerly known as the Wildcats came up short.

Yet that hasn’t stopped many from tipping them to go just as close if not closer this time around. Recruitment has been shrewd, with Australian giant Pauli Pauli so good they named him twice and hopeful of making a big impact after an injury hit spell with Newcastle Knights. Also on board are Leigh Centurions’ former Wigan and Castleford utility back Ryan Hampshire as well as forward Jordan Baldwinson who joins from Leeds Rhinos but having played much of his rugby league on dual registration with Featherstone Rovers. However the most impressive addition to the squad is perhaps New Zealand-born back rower Justin Horo. The 31-year-old impressed in a two-year spell with Catalans Dragons, scoring 12 tries in 45 appearances and providing plenty of go-forward for the French outfit. The prospect of both he and the enigmatic David Fifita running at the line is not one that many Super League defences will relish.

Horo will more than make up for the released Micky Sio, while former Hull KR prop Mitch Allgood also leaves the club having made just eight appearances. In the backs Sam Williams may well be missed after he decided to return to Canberra Raiders but in Jacob Miller, Liam Finn and Hampshire Trinity retain a good mix of experience and creativity in the engine room. Tom Johnstone is one of the fastest and best wingers in the competition and will be like a new signing for Chester following his return from a long-term injury, while in Mason Caton-Brown, Bill Tupou and Reece Lyne there is pace right throughout the Wakefield backline.

A good start will be essential for Wakefield who have been given one of the kinder schedules to start the season. They kick-off at newly-promoted Rovers on February 2 before hosting a Salford side not expected to repeat the heroics of last season which saw them finish the regular season in the top four before fading away in the Super 8s. Then it is a trip to a Catalans Dragons side which was one game away from the Championship at the end of last term before things heat up a little with a West Yorkshire derby at home to improving Huddersfield Giants in Round 4. It is not until the March 11 visit to Wigan Warriors in Round 5 that Wakefield have to mix it with one of the traditional heavyweight sides in Super League so no doubt Chester will be looking to pick up as many points as possible in that early run to set his side up for another tilt at the final four.

A good start eluded Wakefield in 2017 as they lost to both Hull FC and Huddersfield in their opening fixtures, finally earning their first win on one of the most wretched nights of Saints season in Round 3. That set them on a run of five wins from their next six and they never really looked back from then on, but how different their tale could have been had they picked up a win or two more at the start of the season. They have the perfect opportunity to put that right with the 2018 schedule.

Although the Trinity squad looks deeper than in recent seasons there has to be a doubt about whether it can sustain another top four challenge. If the opening looks gentle they face all of Leeds, Saints and Hull FC in the final five games before the end of the regular season. That will be tough enough, but added to that is the fact that their performance last term has ensured that they have lost that element of surprise. No longer will anyone take them lightly. They’ll be considered a genuine contender for the four, and as such will be a target for fallen giants such as Wigan and Warrington in particular as they try to get back into the after-show party.