A Bad Day At The Office
Justin Holbrook called this 8-6 home defeat by Hull FC ‘one of the worst games I have been involved in’ and it is hard to argue with that assessment. All but the most optimistic and rose tinted Saints fans would have viewed most of this turgid affair through the gaps between their fingers as both sides came up with mistake after mistake in the wet conditions.
In all Saints came up with 23 handling errors, more than double their average for the season to this point. And when you consider that we have butter-fingered, concentration-dodging Zeb Taia in the side it pulls that statistic into even sharper focus. Hull fared only slightly better, coming up with 15 errors of their own. Anybody watching this one would not have supposed that these were two teams fighting to be in the top four and contest the semi-finals come September. The conditions are mitigation to an extent, but still the error count is extraordinary for two sides at this level.
And yet the defeat is not fatal to Saints hopes. It rather bursts the bubble in terms of the side’s good form over the last few weeks, and you could also argue that it negates last week’s excellent win at Castleford to an extent. Yet Saints remain only a point behind fourth placed Wakefield, and that only due to Chris Chester’s side’s shock flogging of Leeds Rhinos on Thursday night (August 10). Saints and Wakefield still have to meet again before the end of the Super 8s and with five games left overall it is still all to play for. Best just put this one down to a bad day at the office and move on.
Friday’s game was not broadcast on Sky which, while acting as an extreme blessing for the rugby league armchair audience who were spared having to sit through this monumentally poor affair, also highlighted again the folly of having different officiating conditions for games in the same competition. Those closest to it in the West Stand complained that Marc Sneyd’s first half try should not have been given as the halfback seemed to bounce the ball in trying to ground it in the attentions of several Saints defenders. Yet referee James Child, unable to use the referee’s best friend that is the video technology, had to make a decision there and then and so chose to award the try.
My honest assessment is that I don’t know if it was a try or not. My vantage point in the stadium is far too far away from where the incident took place to have been able to see it clearly and make a judgement. Even television replays seem inconclusive but that is without the multitude of angles that are afforded to incidents which take place in a televised game. The central point though is that it continues to be absolute folly to have a scenario in which two or three games in any competition round have the benefit of video refereeing while the rest do not. In those circumstances it is not too fanciful to suggest that you are almost playing a different sport when video refereeing is not used compared with when it is. Another ref on another day might have disallowed Sneyd’s effort even without the technology, but that would be easier to swallow if all games in Super League were subject to the same reliance on the man in the middle. Either we use video refereeing in all Super League games or none at all.
Swift Or Grace?
Among the scores of errors made by Saints nobody made more than Regan Grace’s five. The young winger has established himself as a first team regular since his explosive Super League debut at Wigan on Good Friday, and is keeping Adam Swift out of the team at the moment. Yet with every game he doesn’t play Swift is becoming a better player, in the way that players do when they have been out of the side for a while. Everyone seems to forget about the errors they have been making, especially if the man in possession of the shirt currently is making even more.
Grace has become a target for opposing sides, who pepper him with high balls under which he looks decidedly nervous at times. He also struggles to hold on to possession in contact against the bigger forwards when trying to make metres deep in his own half. Often, because of his diminutive frame, he will take a high shot which will be royally ignored by the official, but whether it is his fault or not the Welshman is going through a tough, testing time.
And yet there is an argument to be made against the idea of either Swift or Grace being asked to carry the ball in those situations so often. The extra workload may have had something to do with how light we are in the front row since Holbrook decided to allow the troubled Adam Walker to leave for Wakefield and to let Greg Richards join Leigh. Luke Douglas’ injury has left Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook and Luke Thompson in starting prop roles that are unfamiliar to them, with Holbrook preferring to keep specialists Alex Walmsley and Kyle Amor on the bench for impact. Not that the latter makes much impact, managing just 37 metres on eight carries in this one. Perhaps we need more from the forwards to help us get away from having to use lightweight backs to carry the ball away from our own line. The other option would be to recruit a bigger, stronger winger of the type that seems ever more prevalent in the modern game. Yet for me it would be a shame to give up on the traditional speedster out wide in favour of another boring, auxiliary prop in that position.
There are those who believe it is time to bring back Swift. There is certainly a strong argument that he would have taken the golden try-scoring opportunity that Grace scuppered shortly after opening the scoring. He was offered a fairly sharp pass out wide which, had he taken it, would have seen him fall over the line for his second try of the game. Yet he could not hold on to it. At this level you need to be able to take those opportunities. Especially in a game so tight as this one. It is this failure that is the more worrying one for me but it should be remembered that Grace is still in the early stages of his Super League career and has much to learn. There’s a danger that dropping him now would undermine his confidence and set back his development even further. All players go through bad spells, especially early in their careers so maybe it is time to cut Grace some slack and have the faith in him that he will improve. Yet on the flipside of that, if the concept of competition for places in Holbrook’s squad is a genuine one then Swift, who picked up a knock in a reserve game against Wigan at the weekend, should be in contention if he is fit again for the trip to Leeds Rhinos on Friday night (August 18).
Other Selection Headaches
If Holbrook has a decision to make between Grace and Swift he has even more to ponder in the coming weeks in terms of his team selection. For the second week in succession both Danny Richardson and Matty Smith made the matchday 17 and both featured heavily. By the end, with Saints chasing the game, both were on the field at the same time alongside Theo Fages and James Roby. That commitment to more creativity might have paid off late on had Mark Percival not taken the bizarre decision to kick ahead having made a break down the left hand channel with less than a minute remaining. It was early in the count but there was still enough time to complete the set of six when Percival, whose ingenious flick and acrobatic dive for the corner won the game last time FC visited in July, took the gamble and lost.
Yet clearly the presence of so many ball handling pivots on the field at the same time is a temporary and somewhat desperate measure, reserved for emergencies late in the game. Holbrook probably needs to make a firm decision between Richardson and Smith to start at scrum-half and give the remaining bench spot to a forward or perhaps, when Ben Barba enters the equation in September, to Jonny Lomax who can cover in a number of positions. The problem is that Saints are light in the forwards at present as we know, with only Tommy Lee and the as yet unused Matty Lees offering plausible options there with Douglas still out. The lack of that extra forward in the ranks was exposed against Lee Radford’s side who, when they awoke from their own slumber, played the conditions better than Saints thanks to their greater depth in the pack. I’m not advocating a return to the tactics we had to endure during the reign of Keiron Cunningham, but there is a difference between one-out trundling come what may and making sure you are properly equipped should conditions turn a game into a forward battle.
Marching On To Leeds
Right, let’s forget about Hull FC. Let’s call it an aberration. Form has been good lately and if you are staying positive you can make an argument that everyone has an off night every once in a while and ours was due after a good recent run. Next up is a visit to Leeds Rhinos in another one that looks like a must-win in the race for top four places.
Leeds go in off the back of a frankly embarrassing 38-6 pasting by Wakefield last time out and, while that may suggest that they are there for the taking, it should also be remembered that this much improved Leeds side is unlikely to turn in a performance as bad as that two weeks in a row. They are not second in the table for nothing. Yet Saints too are surely going to be focused on ensuring that there is no repeat of the miserable performance against FC. It was a close contest last time Saints met the Rhinos at Headingley, with the visitors losing out by just two points in a 24-22 reverse. Losing Smith early in that game due to that nasty eye injury he suffered did not help. Now fully recovered, Smith will be keen to make some rather better memories at the Leeds ground if he is afforded the opportunity ahead of Richardson.
Two away wins in 2017 does not inspire confidence in Saints for this one but recent fortunes on the road have been better with victories at both Wakefield and Castleford helping to haul Holbrook’s side back into top four contention. With Salford and Wakefield breathing down Saints’ necks another loss could really set nerves jangling, especially with a post-cup final Wigan set to visit Saints in a fortnight. As was the case against Hull defeat at Leeds might not be the end for Saints’ hopes but it would leave them with very little margin for error as the Super 8s enters its final few weeks after the Wembley interlude.