Like the proverbial buses Saints waited a while for an away win and when it finally came others have started to follow. Four months separated Saints’ first regular season away win of 2017 at Catalans Dragons and their second at Wakefield. That success was quickly followed up by this pulsating if sometimes dogged performance against Daryl Powell’s League Leaders Shield winners in waiting.
Cas will have to wait a little longer to have that success confirmed thanks largely to the defensive effort from Justin Holbrook’s side. The Aussie coach correctly identified that much of the Tigers’ most potent attacking threat comes down their left edge even in the absence of 34-try Greg Eden. With that in mind Holbrook instilled an air of desperation in his players to work hard for each other to nulify that strength. This placed extra pressure on the much maligned former NRL pair Ryan Morgan and Dominique Peyroux but they stood up to it admirably. Between them they made 39 tackles from those wide defensive positions. On the rare occasions that they did miss Saints always had one, two or even three men fighting hard to repair the damage. Jonny Lomax, Tommy Makinson and Theo Fages all popped up repeatedly to save the day as Cas failed to capitalise on the weight of possession given to them by a Saints team still guilty of some pretty fundamental errors with ball in hand. With 42 missed tackles throughout the team the determination to recover sufficiently to repair that damage, to bend and not break, was perhaps the most vital attribute on display.
Is There A Halfback Controversy
Followers of the NFL will be familiar with the phrase ‘quarterback controversy’. This occurs most often when a starting quarterback sustains an injury allowing the back-up to shine in his absence and so provoke fierce debate about who should start when both are fit and available. A similar situation could be developing at Saints in regards to halfbacks Matty Smith and Danny Richardson. Smith made the high profile move back to Saints from Wigan at the end of 2016 and with a long term deal in the bag looked set to start unchallenged for the next couple of seasons at least.
Yet the nasty eye injury that Smith picked up in the defeat at Leeds at the end of June offered Richardson an opportunity. He took that chance, playing a full part as Saints enjoyed wins over Hull FC, Catalans Dragons and Wakefield to drag themselves back into top four contention ahead of the start of the Super 8s. Smith’s return to the 17 in this one had come earlier than expected given the nature of his injury, but rather than take the Keiron Cunningham route and immediately reinstate the more experienced man Holbrook kept faith with Richardson as a starter while opting for the insurance of Smith on the bench. As fate would have it Richardson suffered a head injury close to half time at the Mend-A-Hose Jungle forcing Smith into action. In many ways it was the perfect situation for a scrum half of Smith’s type. A steady presence and good game manager able to kick for territory when the yards became tough to make. He added a touch of cunning too, neatly slicing a kick through the defence for Lomax to score and restore a two-score advantage just after Adam Milner had taken advantage of a rare defensive lapse to pinch a try from dummy half.
If Richardson is fit to face Hull FC this week does he remain the man in possession? He had done nothing wrong before his untimely exit from this one and would arguably be hard done by were he to lose his place. Yet as soon as Smith’s name appeared among the interchanges before kick-off there seemed an inevitability about his introduction for Richardson, injury or not. We are likely to see both in the 17 against Lee Radford’s side. If Smith is on the bench again will it undermine Richardson’s confidence knowing that he is likely to receive the shepherd’s crook at some point? Or will it prove a useful weapon to have two genuine halfbacks in the 17 and so retain the potential to change the game while others persist with the four-pronged battering ram approach to bench selection.
What Is Offside Anyway?
I meant to mention this a few weeks ago after the win over Hull FC. That night Morgan Knowles had a try disallowed because Peyroux was within 10 metres of the FC player attempting to field a raking kick, which he subsequently fluffed. Peyroux had no part to play in that mistake, making no attempt to play the ball or the man for the simple reason that he was too far away for any of that. But according to the rules he was not far enough away, straying within that all-important 10 metres.
That seemed like madness at the time, and there was a similar example of how the offside rule can confuse and confound in this one. Alex Foster was penalised for being within the 10 following a Luke Gale cossfield kick which was seized upon by Jy Hitchcox. No Saints defender got anywhere near a position from which he might have been able to field the kick, a fact which Sky Sports waffler Stuart Cummings believed would render the offside Foster irrelevant. Cummins argued that the 10-metre rule did not apply in those circumstances, even though Foster came considerably closer to playing the ball from his offside position than Peyroux had a few weeks earlier.
The video referee did not agree with Cummins, disallowing Hitchcox’s effort. He may or may not have been right to do so. Heck, who takes Cummins’ interpretation of the rules as solid fact? The central point that is slowly chugging its way to this paragraph is that maybe, just maybe we shouldn’t be calling players offside until they perform an action that gives them an advantage. Neither Peyroux nor Foster were even remotely threatening to get to the ball, nor even to engage any defenders with an opportunity to do so. Yet both were penalised. In a game already blighted by 50 shades of video referee tomfoolery this is an area that perhaps needs some greater clarification.
Are Cas A Temptation For Alex Walmsley?
While team defence was the key to this victory Alex Walmsley came up with another top performance. Quietly, understatedly he racked up 101 metres on 14 carries, while putting in 26 tackles. He would have topped 30 had he not managed to miss five. Nobody has made more than Walmsley’s 3286 metres in Super League in 2017 and a second Man Of Steel nomination may await the former Batley man.
None of which will have escaped the notice of Powell who, if you believe what you read and hear up and down the rugby league grapevine, has a genuine interest in taking Walmsley to West Yorkshire for next season. Walmsley has moved somewhat to dispel this idea by confirming that he is looking forward to being with Saints in 2018, but with suggestions that the Tigers are set to announce the signing of an England international forward this week -one that will make you say ‘wow’ no less – speculation is growing.
It would seem an unlikely move to make. Despite Saints win in this one there is no dispute that the Tigers have been the best side in Super League so far this year. When the League Leaders Shield is finally secured it will be richly deserved. Yet even in a salary capped sport it is questionable whether they have the potential to continue to challenge at the top of Super League over a sustained period as Saints have. Their ramshackle if quaint home at Wheldon Road doesn’t exactly shout superpower at you and even should they finally move to a new stadium their fan base is unlikely to match that of Saints in terms of numbers. Walmsley is already at one of the two or three biggest clubs in the country and unless he has had an extroardinary financial offer as a marquee player it is hard to see any long term benefits for him in such a move.
Are The Super 8s Actually Super?
Safe to say we are all enjoying Saints’ recent resurgence. When Justin Holbrook arrived at Saints the expectation was that he would steady the ship following the turbulent end to Cunningham’s reign, guarantee the club’s Super League status with a top eight finish and then rebuild for a real challenge next year. Since when the new man has steadily, slowly instilled an improvement in the side to the extent that a top four finish – once the fanciful dream of the rose tinters who go through the fixture list and write a big fat ‘W’ next to the name of every opponent – has become something of an expectation. Home games with Hull, Huddersfield and a cup-distracted Wigan all look very winnable while trips to Salford and Wakefield now look easier after the alarming dip in form suffered by both in recent weeks. Only another visit to a revitalised Leeds holds any real fears before the playoffs arrive.
Four of five wins out of the next six should see Saints comfortably in the four. Yet considering how bad they have been at certain times this year what does that fact say about the current structure? Even Wigan, laughably languishing at the bottom of the Super 8s pile after the first round of fixtures, cannot be discounted. Every minute was supposed to matter when the Super 8s were introduced, but if Saints and/or Wigan do get in then the troubling reality is that it will have been possible to hobble along unconvincingly for much of the season and still benefit from a relatively short run of form at the right time. It’s exciting now but it could create a blueprint for clubs to follow which could see the regular 23-round season lose much of its competitive edge.
Imagine what those 23 rounds would feel like if, as some would advocate, points won at that stage were reset to zero at the start of the Super 8s. I’m trying to stifle a yawn at the thought….