Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Saints v Huddersfield Giants - Preview

Saints will look to bounce back from a rude jarring of their collective ego when they host Huddersfield Giants in a BetFred Super League Round 12 meeting on Friday night (April 20, kick-off 8.00pm).

Justin Holbrook’s side suffered only their second loss in 11 league outings in 2018 when they went down 24-20 at Wakefield Trinity last Sunday (April 15). The result has since prompted much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the fans who rounded on portly whistle-blower and hate figure of the week Gareth Hewer. Yet the ugly truth is that Hewer got the two big decisions right, neglecting to award a penalty try when Jonny Lomax was in the vicinity of the try-line and then inviting Mark Percival to sit down for 10 minutes for a petulant bout of gum-flapping after he was obstructed on his way to never in a million years reaching his own kick through.

Percival has paid for that unwelcome expression of his opinion with a one-match suspension and so sits out this one. And that is not all. Saints will also be without the talismanic James Roby, longer term absentees Alex Walmsley and Adam Swift as well as Zeb Taia. The former Catalans man is replaced in the squad by James Bentley, a pre-season signing from Bradford Bulls who has yet to see the light of day in a Saints shirt but of whom big things are expected. Taia’s absence offers a real opportunity for Holbrook to back up comments earlier in the season about giving youth an opportunity but there is still the possibility that he will move Jon Wilkin into the second row to play alongside in-form Dominique Peyroux and promote Morgan Knowles off the bench to start at 13.

The props should remain unaltered with new pack leader Luke Thompson joined by the over-achieving Luke Douglas, Kyle Amor and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook in the rotation, while either Matty Smith or Theo Fages will take Roby’s hooking role. Smith started at Wakefield but there was a feeling that the speed of Saints game went up a notch or three when Fages joined the action. However, that is not to say that Fages should automatically start ahead of Smith. It may be that Fages injection of pace was aided by the fact that he was introduced against tired bodies later in the game and that Smith’s steady presence will be required early on. Along with Bentley, Jack Ashworth makes the 19 and could come into contention in the pack as well as Matty Lees who again finds himself required for first team duty but faces another disappointing omission from the final 17.

What to do about the backs then in Percival and Swift’s absences? Matty Costello retains his place in the 19-man squad and Holbrook has said publicly that it is likely that the youngster will get a run at centre. Whether this will be as a direct replacement for Percival on the left inside of Regan Grace is unknown. Ryan Morgan may swap sides to allow Costello to operate on Saints less busy right hand edge inside of Tommy Makinson. If Holbrook has a change of heart and decides that Costello is not ready for his Super League debut then other options include Lomax, who has played in the centres in emergencies already this term, and Peyroux who joined the club as a centre before finding his best rugby in the second row. The three-quarter line will of course have the luxury of playing in front of the incomparable Ben Barba, who might just beat a banged up Huddersfield team by himself should the mood take him.

Among the absentees for the still coachless Giants are fullback Jake Mamo, England winger Jermaine McGilvary, centre Leroy Cudjoe and the suspended Danny Brough. The latter talked his way into trouble during last week’s 30-12 home defeat to Salford Red Devils and has picked up a three-game ban. Brough was sent off for channelling his inner Percy and gobbing off, this time at a touch judge, and will miss matches against Saints, Warrington and Widnes. Jordan Rankin could step into the fullback role vacated by Mamo, while Innes Senior and Darnell McIntosh operated on the wings against Ian Watson’s side last time out. Former Saint Jordan Turner looks set for a centre berth alongside Aaron Murphy while Brough’s absence gives caretaker coach Chris Thorman a bit of a headache in the halves. Lee Gaskell is another ex-Saint who should feature there but whoever ends up in Brough’s scrum-half role is likely to be inexperienced, playing out of position or both.



The pack looks a little stronger with Sebastine Ikahihifo, Shannon Wakeman and Ryan Hinchcliffe leading the way. Oliver Roberts, Ukuma Ta’ai and Daniel Smith should all feature with Kruise Leeming operating from dummy half. Paul Clough is another who used to earn his living in the red vee and he may start at prop.

In contrast to Saints fast start the Giants have struggled throughout 2018 so far, winning only 2 of their first 11, and having to cope with the upheaval of the sacking of head coach Rick Stone. This side can sometimes be so bad that it loses to Catalans Dragons, a side which you would fully expect to be soundly beaten by the Whipping Boys Select XIII should such a team ever exist and their paths ever cross. It is insanely difficult to see anything but a Saints win even without a few first team regulars, such is the relative depth of the two squads.

The teams have already met once this season, Saints earning a 26-12 success at the John Smith’s Stadium on a cold night in February of the kind that used to decide titles, but now just makes you wonder whether it might not be more pertinent to start the season in April. The Giants had a lot of possession in the first half in that one but even with Brough and company on the field they could not convert that into points against a resolute Saints defence. Without the Scotland halfback and the classy McGilvary it is going to be even more challenging for the Giants who should be handled by a margin somewhere around the 20-point mark.

Squads;

St Helens;

1. Jonny Lomax, 2. Tommy Makinson, 3. Ryan Morgan, 6. Theo Fages, 7. Matty Smith, 10. Kyle Amor, 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, 21. Jack Ashworth, 23. Ben Barba, 24. James Bentley, 30. Matty Costello

Huddersfield Giants;

4. Jordan Turner, 5. Aaron Murphy, 6. Lee Gaskell, 8. Sebastine Ikahihifo, 9. Kruise Leeming, 10. Shannon Wakeman, 13. Ryan Hinchcliffe, 15. Jordan Rankin, 16. Oliver Roberts, 17. Ukuma Ta’ai, 18. Paul Clough, 19. Daniel Smith, 20. Adam Walne, 22. Alex Mellor, 23. Darnell McIntosh, 24. Tyler Dickinson, 25. Corlton Roche, 26. Sam Wood, 33. Innes Senior.

Referee: Scott Mikalauskas

Friday, 13 April 2018

Wakefield Trinity v Saints - Preview

Table-toppers Saints will look to continue their excellent 2018 form when they travel to the ludicrously named Mobile Rocket Stadium to face Wakefield Trinity on Sunday (April 15, kick-off 3.00pm).

Justin Holbrook’s side earned their ninth win from 10 Super League outings so far this season when they beat Hull 26-12 at home last week. By the time this one kicks off they will have had nine full days to recover from the hectic Easter schedule and prepare. That should be enough to recharge the batteries and focus on beating a very decent Trinity side whose form has dipped in recent weeks after a solid start. Yet Trinity’s five defeats in a row over the last month have come by a combined margin of just 30 points at an average of just six points a game. This is a side whose current position of seventh in the league is unflattering.

Beating Chris Chester’s side is made that bit more difficult for Saints by the absence of James Roby. The England hooker has been right up there with Ben Barba as one of the stars of the Saints show so far this term but he misses out this week. He left the victory over Hull FC just after half-time with a rib injury, immediately prompting Holbrook to suggest that Roby’s involvement at Wakefield seemed unlikely. So it has proved, with Matty Costello drafted in to the 19-man squad for the first time this season in the only change from last week’s selection.

You’re way ahead of me I know but the obvious thing to state is that Costello is not a hooker, and therefore not a direct replacement for Roby. Most often Costello is a fullback, which may or may not cast doubts about whether Barba is ready to return having been side-lined through illness for the Hull FC game. Yet Jonny Lomax did a fine job in relief of the Aussie star and would be favourite to do so again should Barba have failed to recover. Barba’s selection seems to suggest a return to stand-off for Lomax with Theo Fages returning to the bench after deputising at 6 with varying degrees of success at Widnes and against Lee Radford’s black and whites. That would leave Tommy Makinson and Regan Grace to occupy the wings with Adam Swift still out with a shoulder injury, and Ryan Morgan and Mark Percival in the centres. Danny Richardson is now the established starter at scrum-half.

The most likely candidate to replace Roby is Matty Smith. The former England scrum-half has slotted in at hooker during both of the last two games and done fairly well in the role. It is impossible to replace what Roby gives you at dummy half but Smith’s tactical nous and passing ability allied to his willingness to work defensively should see him get the nod. Fages is another option in that role while either could be moved into the halves should circumstances dictate. Fortunately for Saints, while they have no specialist hooker to back-up Roby, they do have an array of halfbacks who are adaptable and can be moved around to different positions depending on where the gaps exist.

The forward pack is now missing its two best players with Roby joining the already side-lined Alex Walmsley. Kyle Amor, Luke Douglas and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook have all stepped up admirably in the absence of Walmsley and they will all again look to contribute in support of Luke Thompson. Due to a combination of Walmsley’s injury and his own form Thompson has emerged as Saints most reliable prop in 2018 and will be crucial again for Holbrook’s side. Matty Lees is again named in the 19 but will do well to break into the side with those ahead of him in the pecking order in fine fettle in terms of their form. Behind that group Zeb Taia continues to cop the flak from fans for failing to be Joe Greenwood, but the reality is that the former Gold Coast man bagged another two tries and 145 metres against FC and is arguably Saints most dangerous forward with ball in hand. Jon Wilkin, Morgan Knowles and Dominique Peyroux are a more than adequate support cast.



Wakefield may welcome back Scott Grix at fullback after he missed his side’s 28-26 defeat to Leeds Rhinos last weekend. He replaces Max Jowitt in one of four changes to Chester’s 19-man squad which see all of Liam Finn, Chris Annakin and Anthony England return. As well as Jowitt James Batchelor, Pauli Pauli and Ryan Hampshire miss out as Chester looks to find the right combination to get his side back to winning ways.

Trinity have pace in the backs with Ben Jones-Bishop and Tom Johnstone on the wings and Bill Tupou and Reece Lyne at centre. Finn will look to start in the halves alongside Jacob Miller while the pack includes the vastly under-rated former Saint Matty Ashurst as well as England, Tyler Randell, Justin Horo, Craig Huby and Danny Kirmond. Jordan Baldwinson, Tinirau Arona and Joe Arundel will all look to feature also and the presence of all shows that this is a Wakefield squad which contains far more depth than many of its predecessors in the Super League era.

For most sides Saints have been too hot to handle this season so far and with Wakefield stuck in something of a rut results-wise it is difficult to see how they halt that momentum even at home against a Roby-less Saints outfit. They will be competitive however, and their desperation to end their poor run of form may get an extra 10% out of them as the regular season reaches its half way point and wins become ever more precious. Yet with Barba likely to return and Smith a capable deputy for Roby a 10th win from 11 still seems the most likely outcome. Saints by 6.

Squads;

Wakefield Trinity;


1.Scott Grix, 2. Tom Johnstone, 3. Pio Tupou, 4. Reece Lyne, 5. Ben Jones-Bishop, 6. Jacob Miller, 7. Liam Finn, 9. Kyle Wood, 10. Anthony England, 11. Matthew Ashurst, 12. Daniel Kirmond, 13. Tyler Randell, 14. Justin Horo, 16. Tinirau Arona, 17. Craig Huby, 18. Joseph Arundel, 20. Keegan Hirst, 22. Jordan Baldwinson, 23. Christopher Annakin.


St Helens;


1.Jonny Lomax, 2. Tommy Makinson, 3. Ryan Morgan, 4. Mark Percival, 6. Theo Fages, 7. Matty Smith, 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, 30. Matty Costello.


Referee: Gareth Hewer

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.



Thursday, 5 April 2018

Saints v Hull FC Preview

Table topping, Wigan slaying bundle of positivity Saints face their third league game in eight days when they host Hull FC in a BetFred Super League Round 10 meeting on Friday night (April 6, kick-off 7.45pm).

It was a highly successful Easter for Justin Holbrook's side who edged a thrilling derby 21-18 over Wigan on Good Friday before cruising to a 28-6 win at Widnes on Easter Monday. The double left Saints four points clear at the top of the table and looking like the team to beat in the race to Old Trafford in 2018.

The holiday brought happiness for Hull FC too. After a wobble following their Wigan-inspired trip to Australia the black and whites have won their last three in the league. Their Easter featured a 30-22 win over neighbours Hull KR, achieved despite playing with 12 men for 70 minutes, and a nerve-jangling 27-26 win over Wakefield Trinity thanks to Marc Sneyd's ridiculous 50-metre drop-goal in the last minute. Lee Radford's side are up to fifth and a win in this one will draw them to within four points of Saints.

To achieve that they'll need to get past a very similar set of personnel to that which saw off Wigan and Widnes. Holbrook has again named the same 19-man squad for the match as he did ahead of the Easter fixtures. The only change to the 17 is likely to be the re-introduction of Jonny Lomax, rested for the trip to Widnes. Matty Smith looks the likeliest to miss out in that case after making his first appearance of the season on Monday. That would mean Lomax probably slotting back in at stand-off with Theo Fages returning to a bench role. With Adam Swift still out injured the rest of the back line should be as you were with Ben Barba lighting cigars at fullback behind wingers Regan Grace and Tommy Makinson. Mark Percival and Ryan Morgan should continue at centre with Danny Richardson at scrum-half.

Alex Walmsley remains the big miss in the pack. The only question is whether his long term neck injury will finally afford Matty Lees a chance or whether Holbrook will stick with the front rowers who have upped their game since Walmsley's injury. Luke Douglas rightly avoided suspension following his sin-binning at Widnes and will look to feature alongside Kyle Amor, Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook and the standout Luke Thompson. Crafty Cockney Louie looks set to make his 300th appearance in Super League including his time at London Broncos. James Roby needs one try to match Tommy Makinson's milestone of 100 for the club and leads the side at hooker. Zeb Taia, Dominique Peyroux, Jon Wilkin and Morgan Knowles will be the back row options.

Hull are without Dean Hadley and Jordan Abdull but welcome back all of Jamie Shaul, Carlos Tuimavave and, crucially, Danny Houghton after they along with the also recalled Jordan Lane missed the win over Wakefield. Fetuli Talanoa is Super League's top try scorer with 11, one more than both Barba and Percival. Yet it is stand-off Albert Kelly who Holbrook has identified as a major threat. His speed and craft compliments Sneyd's kicking game in the halves and ensures that men like Talanoa, Tuimavave and Josh Griffin get the service they need.

Houghton is the key in the pack but Radford will hope Sika Manu is able to return after four games out. Mark Minichiello is ageing but genuine Super League quality and with England squad member Scott Taylor in the ranks along with Josh Bowden and Chris Green FC have the grunt up front to trouble a Saints side trying to fill the Walmsley-sized hole in their side.

The match is the first leg of the Steve Prescott Cup, played for between these two former clubs of the much loved international fullback and charity champion. The winner will be decided on aggregate score over the two regular season meetings between the two, with Saints currently the holders thanks largely to their 45-0 walloping of FC at the 2017 Magic Weekend.

In form Saints should be genuinely tested by an improving Hull side but should be confident about making it nine wins out of 10 to start their 2018 campaign.

Squads;

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

Hull FC;

1. Jamie Shaul 3. Carlos Tuimavave 4. Josh Griffin 5. Fetuli Talanoa 6. Albert Kelly 7. Marc Sneyd 8. Scott Taylor 9. Danny Houghton 12. Mark Minichiello 13. Josh Bowden 14. Jake Connor 15. Chris Green 17. Danny Washbrook 20. Brad Fash 21. Sika Manu 22. Jez Litten 23. Mickey Paea 24. Jack Logan 26. Jordan Lane

Referee: Robert Hicks

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

5 Talking Points From Widnes 6 Saints 28

Ton up Tommy

While England's batsmen waft away helplessly in New Zealand there is at least one Englishman besides Jonny Bairstow celebrating a century this Easter. Tommy Makinson's double against Widnes brought up 100 tries for Saints for the 26-year-old since his debut in 2011 and reminded us all that when given the opportunity, Makinson is one of the best finishers in the game.

In many ways Makinson has been a victim of his own versatility. Pre-Ben Barba he stood in for Jonny Lomax at fullback at times and did so expertly, while recently he had been operating at centre as a consequence of Ryan Morgan's absence and coach Justin Holbrook's seeming unwillingness to choose between Regan Grace and Adam Swift on the left wing. But with Swift out Morgan has been restored over the holiday double-header allowing Makinson to revert to the right wing position where he made his name. It remains his best position, illustrated by two trademark athletic finishes and by 141 metres on 19 carries. His kick returning and composure under the high ball have been outstanding. It isn't that Makinson has been doing a bad job in the centres. Far from it. But his move back to the wing has brought better balance to the Saints in both attack and defence. If he gets a run of games there when Swift returns and isn't sacrificed for the team, look for Makinson to add to the three Super League tries he has scored in 2018. Beyond that? Here's to the next 100.

Douglas unlucky to see yellow.

Depleted Widnes were missing 11 of their first team squad and were so bad that they even managed to concede a try with a man advantage. There might be a debate to be had about whether the absence of Luke Douglas for 10 minutes makes Saints any weaker, but the Scotland man can consider himself a little unfortunate to have been sent for a sit down by referee Chris Kendall.

Douglas saw yellow early in the second half for a dangerous 'crusher' tackle on Widnes fullback Danny Craven. Yet in making the challenge along with Morgan Knowles Douglas had almost no control over the pressure applied to Craven's neck. Much of it came about because of the extra weight added to the tackle by the Welshman. There are issues around player safety to consider and there is an argument that players have a duty of care to each other. Yet when there is so little intention, and so little opportunity to avoid placing an opponent in a dangerous position then offenders can consider themselves unfortunate to be punished with anything more than a penalty. The disciplinary body's ruling that no further action is necessary seems to suggest that they have some sympathy with Douglas also.

Kendall not to blame for Barba error

Kendall took a suspiciously long time to decide to use the sin-bin following the Douglas incident, with video evidence provided by the controversy-obsessed broadcaster almost certainly a factor. But the referee was quick to award Barba his 10th try of the season despite the fact that the 625th replay, slowed down to within an inch of its life, seemed to prove that there was a miniscule moment of separation between Barba's hand and the ball as he reached out to ground it.

Multiple replays at full speed offered no evidence of this, and indeed several other freeze-frame angles seemed to show that the fullback had a fingertip on the ball as it hit the ground. Unless we go down the NFL route of reviewing all scoring plays then it is virtually impossible to eradicate these errors. If the pictures have to be slowed down to that extent to pick up the separation is it even desirable to have tries disallowed on that basis? Shouldn't the video referee, if we have to have one at all, be there to clear up the glaring mistakes by officials and not to try to reach the unattainable goal of getting everything 100% right? Maybe that's easy for us to say since we were the beneficiaries on this occasion but Kendall should certainly be absolved of any blame for failing to have a doubt in his mind. in real time, there wasn't any.

Is Smith a genuine option or an Easter stop-gap?

Jonny Lomax was rested for this one as Matty Smith came into the 17 for the first time this season. However, when Smith entered the fray in the second half it was not in the halves in place of either Danny Richardson or Theo Fages but at hooker in place of James Roby.

Smith's stats suggest he did a reasonable job even if some of his distribution from dummy half had eerie echoes of Tommy Lee. Smith ran just once from dummy half for 13 metres but put in 18 tackles, three from marker. Against the lesser sides or in games when Saints have carved out a comfortable lead Smith may be a viable option if we want to give Roby a break.

But is there another agenda? Post-game Holbrook was complimentary about not only Smith's performance but also about his attitude to being left out for so long and his willingness to help his team-mates in any way he can. But Holbrook also acknowledged Smith's frustration at his lack of playing time and that it may be difficult to keep him at the club in those circumstances. Hull KR, Salford and Catalans have all been linked with a loan move for Smith who would almost certainly start for any of those teams.

Optimists will suggest that getting Smith off the wage bill will open up cap space to sign a prop to cover for long term injury victim Alex Walmsley. But in truth all the funds in the world will not magically fashion an available front-rower with anything like the same effectiveness as Walmsley. Saints might be better served holding on to Smith if possible. But that is an 'if'. Smith may not want to stick around if Lomax's return makes his appearance here a one-off, holiday stop-gap.

Fages fails to take his chance

Saints barely got out of second gear here. That's handy given that this one was sandwiched between two massive home games against Wigan and Hull FC. But for Theo Fages his and the team's inability to reach maximum performance levels will be a disappointment.

Fages was offered a first start of the season with Lomax rested. Not only that but the Frenchman got to play at stand-off, a refreshing change from being used as a quasi-13 late in games as we have previously seen him. Conditions were not the best anywhere this weekend for open, flowing rugby but Fages made a couple of pretty basic handling errors and poor decisions. With Barba in the ranks there is a tendancy for our stand-off to be on the periphary a little more now but you might still expect more from a player who should have been desperate to make a big impression. But maybe that's Theo, not wanting to do too much by himself particularly with Holbrook's recent criticism of Jon Wilkin. Whether it was selflessness or sloppiness from Fages it could cost him.

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.

Squads;

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

Saturday, 31 March 2018

5 Talking Points From Saints 21 Wigan 18

Saving Grace

Up until four minutes before the end of this epic slaying of big fat bully next door it hadn't been the best of days for Regan Grace. The young Welsh international winger dithered early, spilling a bomb to put Saints under pressure and then spent much of his afternoon failing to communicate with Mark Percival, Zeb Taia and Ben Barba as the missed opportunities stacked up.

Grace seemed certain to score a minute before half-time when he jinked inside the Wigan cover only to be brought down inches from the line. Had he gone over there it could have seen Saints go to the break with a potentially decisive 18-2 lead. It's an emotional game but I would guess I'm not the only one who heard a voice in my head telling me that Adam Swift would have scored.

But Swift is not fit. He's out with a shoulder injury picked up in last week's win at Hull KR. There have been suggestions that Grace too is suffering from a knock. Another elusive shimmy away from the defensive line looked great, but was followed by Grace's impression of a man running in treacle when he was confronted with open space. He looked like he might be about to keel over and in truth it is not the first time that we have seen Grace's sprinting ability fail to match his capacity to change direction. Grace needs to back himself more but too often at present ambles down the field with the air of a man expecting to be clobbered.

He went close again in the second half, again dragged down just short of the line before redemption arrived. Saints had levelled the scores at 14-14 through a Danny Richardson penalty when Ryan Morgan's break saw the ball shifted quickly from Tommy Makinson to Jon Wilkin and then Jonny Lomax. The stand-off's looping pass found Grace in just enough space to somersault over in the corner. A happy ending then for Grace, but lots to think about for him between now and Swift's return to fitness.

Ryan Morgan Brings Balance

I told you Ryan Morgan should play, didn't I? The Australian centre returned to the line-up for the first time since the opening day thrashing of Castleford and not only made a telling contribution of his own but made Makinson better in the process. Morgan's late break down the right channel, beautifully crafted by Barba, was arguably the key moment in the game as it set up the position for Grace's try. But it was the effect that Morgan's presence had on Makinson that was most useful to the team effort.

With Morgan back at centre it freed Makinson up to return to the right wing where he looks far more comfortable. It isn't that Makinson did a bad job at centre in Morgan's absence but it is a position which nulifies some of his best qualities. He is among the best kick returners in the game and he showed that here as he ripped Wigan for 131 metres on 14 carries. He was also majestic under the high ball all afternoon and if we are going to persist with the maddening policy of starting sets in our own territory with wingers then Makinson is much more the man for the job than the more error-prone Swift or Grace.

For his part Morgan made 92 metres on nine carries and looked at times like he'd never been away. He makes the first man miss regularly and just brings better balance to a Saints attack that has often been too reliant on its left edge. The argument for his inclusion is compelling for me and so is the case for Makinson to operate on the wing. There may be a tough decision for Justin Holbrook to make when Swift regains fitness.

Roby and LMS carry the fight

After looking the better side in the first 40 minutes Saints were hit by a whirlwind revival from Shaun Wane's side after half-time. The absence of Alex Walmsley was glaring and fairly grave at that time as the Wigan defence exposed the limitations of the reinforcements in the Saints front row particularly. Kyle Amor and Luke Douglas made 159 metres between them and though it is far from an exact science any time your front line props cannot reach the 100 metre mark it is an indicator that they are second best.

That they were not punished is largely down to the toothless effort from the Wigan quartet of props, of whom only Ryan Sutton topped the 100 metre mark, but also down to the efforts of James Roby and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook. Roby chooses his moments rather more as he ages but every time Saints needed a relieving run in that second half the skipper came up with it, swatting of defenders as if they were mere inconveniences. That he was not even worthy of a mention in Sky's man of the match four-man shortlist is unfathomable. An average gain of 12.25 metres per carry is better than that of anyone on the field barring Dominique Peyroux, who the prophet Keiron told you would be a fans' favourite. But it was the timing of Roby's runs and the sheer determination to get his side out of the brown stuff which so impressed.

And so to Louie, who has been praised in this column before this season but caught the eye even more as some of his colleagues floundered during the Wigan fightback. McCarthy-Scarsbrook never stopped pumping his legs regardless of how many defenders had a grasp on him, and that effort translated into 130 metres on 17 carries. With Walmsley out for the forseeable future we are going to need more of the same from the Irish international. He's capable, but on those less inspiring days when Louie is being Louie can the likes of Amor and Douglas step up? Before we leave the topic of grunt and grind behind an honourable mention should go to Wilkin, who is still maddening when he turns into a halfback but who on the occasion of his 400th appearance came up with another 38 tackles in a typically tireless display.

Danny Cool

Saints have had a goal-kicking problem in recent years. That looks to be a thing of the past now with the emergence of Danny Richardson. With Saints legend and goal-kicking expert Mal Meninga watching on Richardson recovered from an uncertain start to play his full part in managing this performance. Richardson comically failed to find touch with an early penalty, learning his lesson to whack every subsequent touch-finder to the back row of the stand. But it was his coolness under pressure with the boot that ultimately helped to seal Saints first Easter win over Wigan since 2009.

Grace's try opened up a four-point lead for Saints but it was Richardson's unnerring conversion from the south stand touchline that made sure that Saints would not lose this one. Moments later, he slotted a drop-goal which he knew, judging by his celebration, had put the result beyond doubt despite Joel Tomkins' second try just before the hooter. Richardson still has a way to go to fulfil his huge potential but if he can maintain the level of composure on show in the final minutes of this one, his first derby let's not forget, he will find that journey a whole lot smoother.

Surprisingly Few Changes For Widnes

Easter means backing up with two games in the space of three days. The debate about what this does for player welfare will no doubt rage, with losing coaches more likely to grumble. Holbrook doesn't appear too worried if his 19-man selection for the Easter Monday visit to Widnes is anything to go by. He has named exactly the same squad that was on duty for the derby, a policy which severely limits his ability to freshen up his match day 17.

Makinson is a candidate to be left out as the Vikings' 4G pitch is viewed as a danger to his tender knees, while Lomax also could benefit from a period of recovery. There were times when even Barba hobbled around like he had just left his local A & E department, though not when he was rounding Morgan Escare with laughable, joyful ease to score Saints first try. His afternoon was a mixture of brilliance and displays of discomfort and irritation and he too might be better served being held back for next week's visit of Hull FC.

But unless Holbrook intends to draft anyone in late in the day then only two of the 19 will be able to sit it out against Dennis Betts' side. Talk persists that Matty Smith may figure for the first time in 2018 which could be at the expense of Lomax, but the omission of Makinson would lead to an awkward reshuffling of the threequarter line just when that section of the team looks to be at its most cohesive.

Whoever is required to back up they should do so knowing the importance of building on the derby win. We all enjoyed a great Good Friday but wouldn't defeat to one of the poorest teams in the top flight be like taking a piece of Australian sandpaper to the shine of a hard fought and glorious win over our cherry and white brethren....