5 Talking Points From Saints 28 Catalans Dragons 24
Credit Where Credit Is Due
Every time Saints have turned in a poor, uninspiring, directionless performance in recent seasons (and there have been many during Keiron Cunningham’s reign) the head coach has come in for some fierce criticism. This column has repeatedly lamented his seeming reluctance to allow his players to express themselves and instead stay wedded to a safety first approach which hasn’t even brought the results which may justify it. Yet if Keiron is to blame for two years of grinding, energy battling and other such garbled post-game coach-speak he should also get his share of the credit when things go well.
Which they did yesterday in Perpignan (March 18). This column does not like to say it told you so but it told you so. A quick glance at last week’s offering in the wake of the defeat at Hull FC will show that there was always a feeling that success in the south of France was not the Mission Impossible it is often thought to be. The Dragons were coming in off the back of a fearful pasting at Leeds and had shown in the draw with Widnes Vikings a fortnight ago that the Stade Gilbert Brutus is not an impenetrable fortress.
And so it proved as an almost unrecognisable Saints threw off the shackles in an entertaining first half in which they crossed for four tries, three of which came about as a result of giving good ball to the three-quarters in wide areas. We are still woefully unbalanced in attack with the vast majority of our threat coming down our left flank but Theo Fages and Ryan Morgan showed more than enough to prove that when we do get the ball to their side of the field good things can happen. Meanwhile all of Adam Swift, Mark Percival and Morgan got over in the opening 40 minutes while Adam Walker’s more enterprising brand of prop forward play was rewarded with his first try for the club. Defensively there were problems as the teams went tit-for-tat in a half which saw seven tries scored. Yet while Morgan and Dominque Peyroux were guilty of misreads many have been saying all throughout Keiron’s tenure that what they want to see is a return to the traditional Saints philosophy of whatever you score…we’ll score more.
We saw that in the first half though it is difficult to shake the feeling that Keiron wasn’t all that happy to enjoy the ride and that he might have ordered the return of his structure for the second half. Certainly Saints seemed to get less brave in attack as the minutes ticked by and the tension grew, but in fairness both sides improved defensively after the break. Typifying that was Tommy Makinson who, continuing at fullback in the absence of Jonny Lomax, smashed Thomas Bosc into Tuesday week as the Frenchman attempted to field a Jon Wilkin bomb on the Dragons’ goal-line. It forced a momentum changing drop-out, and followed two first half try-savers on Iain Thorniley. There were some dodged bullets. Jason Baitieri’s obstruction of Kyle Amor denied Richie Myler a try which he may have scored without the illegal assistance, while the decision to disallow a Bosc try for a forward pass from Brayden Williame to Myler seemed harsh.
Yet the win was a deserved one, so credit should go where it is due.
Winning Is Not A Bad Thing
In a recent episode of his excellent series Modern Life Is Goodish Dave Gorman talked about the concept of the exctractor fan. This is someone who follows someone or something keenly but just can’t wait to suck the joy out of it the moment everyone else starts to join in. The kind of people who think that David Bowie ‘sold out’ when his last album shot to the top of the charts after his untimely death. I have learned over the last 24 hours that Saints have their fair share of extractor fans, those who just won’t let themselves or others (especially others) enjoy the moment. Those who have to find fault with it, promise that it won’t last, or insist that those against whom they have an agenda deserve no credit even if they do cop the blame for all that goes wrong.
Incredibly, there are an alarming number of Saints fans on social media who seem genuinely disappointed about our team’s victory. Angry even. The rationale behind it is that with every Saints win their stated goal of removing Keiron from his position gets further away. Now, let’s not be hypocritical. I called for Keiron to step down after the pitiful home loss to Wakefield but for some it’s a daily obsession. When it gets to the point when you get angry about your team winning and playing well you have to ask yourself what you want from your team. Are you so anti-Keiron that you don’t want him in his job even if he is providing the entertainment and wins that you claim is all you want? Keiron has it all to prove. This type of performance has to become the norm and not an isolated incident. We’ve been here before, in particular following a thrilling win over Leeds at Langtree Park a year ago which proved to be the falsest of dawns. But if we can win regularly playing the way we did against Laurent Frayssinous side what does it matter what the name of the coach is? Just enjoy it.
Walmsley Brings The Storm
Ahead of the trip to Hull last weekend Alex Walmsley gave us all a rather rueful chuckle as he talked up his own form and promised that he and his team-mates would ‘bring the storm’ to the KCom. Walmsley performed admirably in that defeat but was still partly culpable for it after a total loss of marbles which inspired him to slide knees first into the scoring Carlos Tuimavave and gift FC an extra two-points in a tight contest. So, perhaps eager to atone for that error Walmsley brought the storm and then some this time.
The former Batley prop was everywhere on the night, rampaging through the Dragons defence on his way to another 165 metres on 26 carries. That last stat shows just how willing he was to put in the hard yards and was perhaps an indication that his fitness is improving with each passing week. We seemed to see far less of Swift, Morgan, Jack Owens and Mark Percival hitting it up on tackle one, two or three and a lot of that can be attributed to Walmsley’s all-action performance. Heck, he even got three offloads away including one absolute gem which sent Morgan away on one of the runs that allowed him to rack up 113 metres in what was certainly his best attacking performance in a Saints shirt so far. Yet perhaps the biggest difference of all in Walmsley’s performance compared with his contribution last week was that he made just one error in possession and gave away no penalties. More of the same please, Alex.
It’s no secet to regular readers that I don’t like rugby union. I won’t have it in the house. It’s a turgid borefest the existence of which is doing nothing for the good of rugby league. Leaving aside the politics of it and what you think of the concept of players dating royalty, one of the reasons I don’t like it is that there seems to be an over-reliance on goal-kicking. Whenever I have tried to watch it (and I have, I really have) I’ve always been put off by the lack of running rugby and try-scoring opportunities which make the goal-kicking duties so important. I mean, what sort of a sport awards three points for a drop-goal or a penalty? In rugby league coaches tear their hair out when they see their halves kick drop-goals instead of using their boots to get repeat sets, while fans boo and break out into ironic strains of Swing Low Sweet Charriot when their side opts to kick for goal from the award of a penalty. Rugby union reminds me of a quote often credited to Pele who is alleged to have opined that ‘a penalty is a cowardly way to score’.
All of which is a roundabout way of pointing out that sometimes goal-kicking is important. Even in rugby league. When Saints lost at home to Wakefield Trinity on March 3 they did so deservedly. Yet they outscored Chris Chester’s side three tries to two. Had Percival converted all of those tries Saints would have snatched the win. Similarly, had he not managed to land four out of five conversion attempts in Perpignan then all the good attacking rugby could have all been for nothing, especially given that former Saint Luke Walsh kicked four out of four for his new side. Sometimes there are fine margins however well you play or otherwise. A high percentage of successful goal attempts might seem a small thing in a game in which tries are the dominant currency, but could nevertheless prove the difference between success and failure.
The Waiter Serves It Up
Leaving the best for last we just have to talk about Theo. In the early to mid 1990s the Chicago Bulls were an NBA powerhouse. Led by the sport-transcending Michael Jordan and with the likes of Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman in their ranks they won three titles in a row during that period. They also had a less limelight-loving chap from Croatia named Toni Kukoc. He was not a heavy scorer, leaving that to Jordan and Pippen, but was in the team for the multiple and interesting ways he found to create opportunities for his more celebrated team-mates. His astronomical assist-count and the way in which it was accumulated earned him the nickname ‘The Waiter’. He served it up, over and over again.
Which brings us to Fages. Playing against the club with whom it all started for him he had already had a hand in Swift’s opening score and put Morgan through a gaping hole for his. One further break was too quick for the French TV director and although that eventually came to nothing Fages Kukoc moment was coming. It arrived late but it arrived surely as Fages, supporting another burst from Morgan, took the Australian’s pass and then….falling….produced a physics-defying moment of magic for the ages….scooping the ball somehow, perfectly and brilliantly into the arms of Owens who gleefully accepted the invitation to leave a positive stamp of his own on proceedings. There were still a few minutes for Saints to hold out and although Thorniley again went close for the Dragons there was always a sense that Fages’ moment of inspiration would be good enough. It was once said of a goal by former Real Madrid and Mexico star Hugo Sanchez that it was so good that they should have just stopped the game and popped open a bottle of Champagne. The same seemed to apply here.
The waiter had served it up.