Saints must launch a last-ditch bid to save their floundering top four hopes when they visit Wakefield Trinity in Round 5 of the BetFred Super League Super 8s on Thursday night (September 7, kick-off 8.00pm).
Last week’s 26-16 home defeat by Wigan was incredibly damaging, and not just in the way that losing to our oldest foes is always damaging. It wasn’t just about the indignity of having to face your pie-munching mates at work on the Monday, it was about a whole season turning to dust. It was a result which took Wigan two points clear of Saints in the race for semi-final places but perhaps more crucially, left Saints three behind Trinity. They now have the opportunity to all but knock Saints out of the race with a win in this one. There are still endless possible permutations but defeat to Wakefield would leave Saints five points behind Chris Chester’s side with only two games left to play. At that point, a single point for Hull in any of their matches against Wigan, Wakefield or Castleford would be enough to see Saints off. Even if Lee Radford’s side lost all three, Saints would still need Wigan to lose their last two fixtures against Castleford and Wakefield.
None of which is going to happen. If there is a likely route back into the semi-finals for Saints it starts with winning all of their remaining three games. After the visit to Wakefield they face a home game with Huddersfield and an away trip to Salford. Both of those are perfectly winnable, though it should be remembered that Saints failed to beat the Giants at home earlier in the season when a 14-14 draw finally brought the tatty old curtain down on Keiron Cunningham’s coaching tenure. It’s not a given. Whichever way you dice this one, Saints are a long shot for the semi-finals and look set to miss out on a playoff series for the first time since they were re-introduced in 1998.
But let’s go all Phil Clarke for a moment and control the control-ables. The matter in hand is a win at Wakefield and to do that Saints coach Justin Holbrook needs to find the right balance in his side. It was all a bit of a muddle last time out against Wigan, when Theo Fages missed out completely and Jonny Lomax operated alongside Matty Smith in a fairly blunt halfback partnership. Lomax’s move was due to the introduction of Ben Barba at fullback, and for all the problems the side had last week we can fully expect the former Cronulla man to stay as the last line of defence. Tommy Makinson, Regan Grace, Mark Percival and Ryan Morgan should make up the three-quarter line, although there might be a slight doubt around Morgan who picked up a head injury last week. Should he miss out Dominique Peyroux seems the most likely candidate to slot into that right centre position.
So just who will Holbrook choose in the halves this week? Holbrook Halfback Bingo began in earnest when the former Roosters man recalled Danny Richardson to the 19-man squad. With Smith, Fages and Lomax all also included someone is probably going to find himself on the bench. Will the Lomax-Smith combination get another go? Will Holbrook opt to have a back on the bench or will the spaces be filled by second rowers again? Peyroux and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook got the nod last week which meant no place at all for Fages.
One slightly surprising omission from the pack is Kyle Amor. The ex-Wakefield man will be bitterly disappointed to miss out against his former club but in truth his recent form has not really justified his inclusion. He’s not alone in that, but it is noticeable that he was being controlled too easily by the Wigan defence, struggling to either make good metres or get Saints moving with a quick play-the-ball. Luke Douglas doesn’t seem to offer much more but has been spared and should feature. Luke Thompson and Alex Walmsley are Saints’ only form props, and it will be interesting to see if Holbrook persists with the policy of keeping the latter on the bench from the start after the horrific start against Shaun Wane’s side which saw Saints concede two tries in the first 10 minutes. Unleashing Walmsley from the beginning may be the best way to ensure that Saints make the kind of start they need.
With McCarthy-Scarsbrook and Peyroux likely to be in contention only for bench spots Jon Wilkin, Zeb Taia and Morgan Knowles look a likely starting back row. For all the discussion about Saints’ problems in the halves the back row is another area in which major improvement is required. Taia aside there is no attacking creativity there, the knock-on effect of which is usually to take Saints’ right-sided three-quarters out of the game. We need more from this area just as we need more in the halves than we saw against the Sky Eaters.
Wakefield will be without one of their main creative sparks in the shape of halfback Sam Williams, while the speedy Tom Johnstone is also out. Kyle Wood and Mitch Allgood are absent from the pack but Chester can still call on a strong squad that will be a real test for a Saints team that must be lacking a bit of confidence after three straight league defeats. Scott Grix has been revitalised this year at fullback, while in the three-quarters Mason Caton-Brown, Bill Tupou and Ben Jones-Bishop are all major threats with genuine pace and power. With Williams out Jacob Miller and Liam Finn will pull the midfield strings behind a pack that features the giant if erratic David Fifita, Tinirau Arona, Craig Huby and the reliable veteran Danny Kirmond.
And so this is it, as someone once said. Huey Lewis, wasn’t it? Basically do or die barring miracles elsewhere. Those worried about Saints’ away form can at least console themselves with the knowledge that Wakefield is one of the few places where the Red Vee have managed to get up in 2017, and indeed the away side won on both occasions that these two met in the regular season. Saints strolled to a 41-16 win in West Yorkshire in July but were absolutely woeful in going down 16-12 at home in March. It was a result which had most observers believing at the time that Saints would definitely miss out on the top four this year. If it happens again this week, they’ll almost certainly be right.
- Scott Grix, 3. Bill Tupou, 4. Reece Lyne, 5. Ben Jones-Bishop, 6. Jacob Miller, 7. Liam Finn, 8. Anthony England, 11. Matty Ashurst, 12. Danny Kirmond, 16. Tinirau Arona, 17. Craig Huby, 18. Joe Arundel, 20. David Fifita, 23. Keegan Hirst, 24. Mason Caton-Brown, 26. Chris Annakin, 32. Dean Hadley, 34. James Hasson, 35. Tyler Randell.
- Jonny Lomax, 2. Tommy Makinson, 3. Ryan Morgan, 4. Mark Percival, 6. Theo Fages, 7. Matty Smith, 8. Alex Walmsley, 9. James Roby, 12. Jon Wilkin, 13. Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, 14. Luke Douglas, 16. Luke Thompson, 18. Dominique Peyroux, 20. Morgan Knowles, 24. Danny Richardson, 28. Regan Grace, 32. Matty Lees, 36. Zeb Taia, 37. Ben Barba.
Referee: Ben Thaler