A Long Way From Wembley….Still
For the second year in a row Saints’ dreams of a Wembley appearance ended at the very first hurdle and in similarly humiliating circumstances. Last year Hull FC came to Langtree Park and racked up 47 points against a hapless, beleaguered Saints outfit. This time around it was Castleford Tigers’ turn to prove that Saints are just as far away from Wembley as they were a year ago. Daryl Powell’s highly skilled, pacy and well drilled outfit outshone even Hull’s effort, smashing a woeful Saints side for 53 points. Both of these Challenge Cup tonkings have been witnessed by a sizeable free-to-air audience which only adds to the embarrassment for all of us. Anyone relying on the BBC for their rugby league coverage over the last two seasons can only have concluded that Saints are not very good. Even the commentary team recognised it, avoiding resorting to the same old ‘never write off the Saints’ mythology favoured by their Sky counterparts.
And so another August bank holiday will come and go without Saints taking part in the Wembley showpiece. Nine years without a Challenge Cup final appearance will become 10, the longest spell without a cup final featuring Saints since the 1987 clash with Halifax ended another nine-year wait. Saints lost that too. But at least they competed that day, which is not something you can say about this lame surrender at the Mend-A-Hose Jungle. Here, it was clear by half-time that we could all forget about Wembley for another year. No need to queue up for tickets, no need to book the coach, no need to get out of bed at stupid o’clock and crack open that first beer barely an hour later. We’re just not the sort of team that gives the fans those sorts of experiences any more.
Why Wasn’t Taia’s Try Awarded?
Not that it would have made a difference to the outcome, but Zeb Taia’s disallowed try just served to prove how worryingly shambolic the current video refereeing system is. Aside from the farcical fact that it is only used in televised games thus rendering non-televised games something akin to a different sport, the officials can’t get it right when they are able to use it. Robert Hicks was the man responsible for examining the television evidence in this one and, whether through his own incompetence or through a deeply flawed system, managed to come up with a real steaming stool of a decision on Taia’s effort.
Saints trailed 10-4 at the time and looked set to get the chance to level the scores with a conversion of Taia’s slide over the goal-line. Only referee Phil Bentham wasn’t in a position to see the ball hit the goal-line and so, somewhat arbitrarily, decided to give the benefit of his doubt to the defending team. It was the kind of guess work normally reserved for Diane Abbott in a maths exam and left Hicks needing to find indisputable evidence that Bentham had made the wrong call. Here’s where it gets baffling as Hicks, miked up for the BBC coverage, stated two or three times that the ball had hit the line. All that seemed left was to check to see if Taia was guilty of a double movement. While doing so, something (or maybe someone) persuaded Hicks that he had not seen sufficient evidence that the ball had hit the line after all and he ordered a turnover of possession. Not a penalty for a double movement, you’ll note, but a turnover of possession. This kind of back-tracking had not been seen since Theresa May told Andrew Marr that she absolutely would not call a snap General Election. It was as embarrassing for the sport as Saints’ subsequent collapse was for all of us.
Is This Squad Good Enough?
Ever since Saints’ last title win in 2014 there has been a feeling that while the current squad is not up there with the mid-2000s vintage it is as good as any other doing the rounds in Super League. I’m often hearing and reading that Saints have one of the strongest first choice 17s in the competition but the facts just don’t back that view up any more. That’s not because of one fearful spanking at Castleford. That happens. We’ve all seen some of the best Saints sides played off the park. A 65-12 home loss to Wigan springs readily to mind, as does a 74-0 shellacking at Leeds and a 40-4 hammering at Bradford Bulls.
Yet those sides all bounced back from these rare hidings to achieve great things. For this lot the good performances are the rarities, the anomalies. They have won one game away from home all season, while this thrashing at Castleford follows hot on the heels of last week’s miserable 40-18 crushing at Warrington. It’s a side that has lost to three of the bottom four in Super League and managed only a home draw with the other. Literally any game that this team plays is a potential defeat with more than an outside chance of a desperate thrashing. You can count the number of games they have played well in on one hand in 2017. Leeds at home? Warrington at home? Catalans away? Wigan away (in defeat) and Castleford at home? Maybe those, but that’s it. Going back to last season when along with Hull FC both Salford and the Giants ran up big scores on Saints this squad have proven time and time again that they are not among the best in the division or anything like it. The good performances are nothing more than false hope before they revert to their default position of a group of average players barely worthy of the shirt they wear.
Justin Holbrook Has A Massive Task
With change desperately required we should get it this week as newly appointed Head Coach Justin Holbrook arrives in the UK to begin his new role. It is to be hoped that he has been watching plenty of footage of Saints matches of recent times otherwise he could be in for quite a scare. He will find a squad in desperate need of a rebuild, with up to a dozen of these needing to board the good ship Go Now over the length of Holbrook’s contract. All except Tommy Makinson, Mark Percival, Regan Grace, Alex Walmsley and James Roby look vulnerable. Louie-McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Dominique Peyroux, Jon Wilkin, Tommy Lee, Jack Owens and probably Zeb Taia, Kyle Amor and Luke Douglas must all be gone by the end of Holbrook’s two-and-a-half-year deal if the former Roosters assistant is serious about turning this old banger around and either enjoying success himself or leaving a legacy for his successor to do so. It’s that big a job.
The rest of the squad are maybes and will need an awful lot of improvement to persuade Holbrook that they are worth keeping around. Yet the logistics of a squad rebuild are tricky and will take time and possibly money. All of which leaves Holbrook with the immediate problem of how to get a tune out of them. And not just the occasional and temporary improvement like we saw over the Easter weekend but a more sustainable level of performance. With a battle to stay in the top eight imminent he has to make us at least difficult to beat and that will involve visibly improving the dire fundamental skills of the majority of his squad and somehow trying to instil some confidence into them. Again, not just so they can raise their game now and then but so that they can feel good about their chances of winning on a weekly basis. I don’t envy him right now.
Will We Make The Eight?
There’s no time for Holbrook to settle in and get comfortable. He’s walking straight into a crisis. An emergency room situation. With the cup gone the only focus now is on getting into the top eight in Super League and so avoiding the relegation scrap that is the Middle Eight Qualifiers. If and when he achieves that then Holbrook can use the Super Eights as a time to rebuild and experiment. See what works and what doesn’t. Settle on a structure and style of play across all levels that will be successful and will satisfy the need to uphold the traditions of the club. If he can secure Super League status for 2018 early then the Super Eights will afford Holbrook this luxury without the usual pressure to make the top four and the Grand Final. All but the most deluded among us have already written that off.
The question is, can he avoid the Middle Eights? As things stand Saints are locked on the same points as Warrington and Catalans in the battle for 7th, 8th and 9th. Nobody wants that 9th spot. Warrington handed Saints a lesson last week and can be expected to improve on their terrible start to the season, but Catalans’ problems are Saints-like having just lost 62-0 to Hull FC in their Challenge Cup tie. Their home isn’t quite the fortress it was and they look vulnerable.
Yet the fixture list isn’t kind to Saints in the short term. They face in-form FC at next week’s Magic Weekend at Newcastle, an event at which Saints’ record can most accurately be described as woeful and at which they went down 48-20 to a Middle Eight-bound Huddersfield last year. After that it is a home clash with Wigan on May 25. Shaun Wane’s side are still suffering from a lot of injuries but will no doubt be stronger by then, and in any case will be a very difficult challenge whatever the personnel. It’s a derby and they are currently outside the top four. They need it too.
Just four days after that is a trip to an improving Huddersfield side which recently beat Leeds and was only narrowly edged out by Castleford, all a far cry from the side that was turfed out of the Challenge Cup by Swinton three weeks ago. Then Saints start June with a return to the Mend-A-Hose Jungle for their second league meeting with the Tigers. A repeat of the quality of this performance from Cas would make it difficult to see a Saints win whatever improvements Holbrook can make in the 20 days between now and then. As poor as Saints were yesterday Castleford were superb. Exciting, clinical, speedy. Everything we’re not right now.
It is more than possible that Saints could fail to win any of those next four games in Super League, an outcome that will surely all but guarantee some Championship opposition in August. All a very, very long way from Wembley dreams…..