Check your pulse if you are not excited about this one as Saints play host to Wigan Warriors in Round 4 of the BetFred Super League Super 8s on Friday night (September 1, kick-off 8.00pm).
The sides go in locked together on the same points in the race for the top four and that all-important semi-final berth. Saints have a superior points difference to Wigan, but both are still a point behind the surprising Wakefield Trinity and can ill afford to lose any ground here. Despite Wakefield’s lingering presence, there is a distinct feeling that the winner of Friday night’s Saints-Wigan clash could go on to snatch that last playoff berth and earn themselves a
hiding at trip to Castleford Tigers. This could be the biggest derby since the 2014 Grand Final when all hell broke loose in the second minute before Saints eventually claimed a dogged but quite glorious 14-6 win.
If the importance of the game doesn’t quicken the heart rate than how about this. The long, long awaited Saints debut of Ben Barba should finally arrive with the Australian star named in Saints coach Justin Holbrook’s initial 19-man squad selection. Holbrook has been quite vocal in the media about Barba, suggesting that the former Cronulla man will definitely start at fullback rather than in the halves now that he is finally free from his exhaustively discussed ban. There had been suggestions that Barba could operate in the midfield string-pulling department but it is at fullback where he has cemented his reputation as a devastating runner capable of moments of the most outrageous brilliance.
So if Barba is a dead cert to start something has to give somewhere else in the line-up. Amid his declarations about Barba Holbrook also happened to mention that Jonny Lomax will start in the halves. Lomax was the one many expected to drop out of the side for the simple reason that he was the previous incumbent of the fullback role, and so his omission would be the one that caused the least upheaval to the team elsewhere. But frankly this is a side that has been woeful in attack in its last two performances against Leeds Rhinos and Hull FC and it needed a degree of upheaval. The unlucky man appears to be Danny Richardson, who after impressing both in starting roles and in short cameos at scrum-half suddenly finds himself out of the squad. All of which leaves Matty Smith to fight it out with Theo Fages for the likely start at seven, with the smart money on the veteran and former Wigan man to get the nod with Fages on the bench to cover both the halves and possibly for James Roby at hooker. It’s a big call from Holbrook who, despite the fact that he has yet to finish even half a season at Saints, is likely to be the target of what could politely be termed some forthright views about his selections should the result go against him.
No such dilemmas in the rest of the team with Adam Swift again not selected so expect Regan Grace to continue in a three-quarter line with Tommy Makinson, Ryan Morgan and Mark Percival. Luke Douglas returns from injury to add another option to the pack and although the former Gold Coast man has hardly lit up Super League in 2017 he should add a little more in an area where Louie Mcarthy-Scarsbrook and Luke Thompson have been somewhat makeshift starters at times. Kyle Amor could start, or else come off the bench alongside Super League’s top yardage gobbler and apparent impact player Alex Walmsley. McCarthy-Scarsbrook is in with a shout of starting at 13 instead, with Morgan Knowles the man under pressure for his place in the squad from an improving but still underwhelming Dominique Peyroux. Roby is Roby and remains unchallenged in his role, with captain Jon Wilkin likely to continue in the second row alongside Zeb Taia.
You and I would be lying if we said we did not enjoy Wigan’s last outing, an 18-14 defeat to Hull FC in the Challenge Cup final at Wembley last Saturday (August 26). Shaun Wane’s men have it all on to recover from what was a physically and emotionally taxing game against Lee Radford’s side, but there will be no shortage of motivation. They may not have brought the Challenge Cup back with them but they did escape from the capital with a reasonably clean bill of health and can call upon a strong squad for this one. Tom Davies broke down in the warm-up at Wembley and misses out, while 2014 supervillain Ben Flower is a long term absentee alongside Joel Tomkins. Yet those are the only significant absences for Wane as he looks to drag his side up from their Wembley despair in readiness for a real tilt at defending their Super League crown.
A hopefully dry-eyed Liam Marshall is again likely to deputise for Davies in a back division also containing Sam Tomkins, Anthony Gelling, Oliver Gildart and Joe Burgess. George Williams and Thomas Leuluai are the anti-Saints in that they are a settled halfback partnership behind a pack that includes Tony Clubb, Frank-Paul Nu’uausala, Micky McIlorum, Liam Farrell, John Bateman and Captain Clothesline Sean O’Loughlin, fit for two weeks in a row for the first time since he took his GCSE’s. Well, it is that time of the season. In relief of them Wane can call on Taulima Tautai, Willie Isa and Ryan Sutton, none of which should strike fear into even the hearts of Saints’ own band of lightweight knees-and-elbows merchants. Youngsters Nick Gregson and Jack Wells are also included by Wane and will look to sample a taste of what for all it may lack in quality should be some real, high intensity derby action.
Both teams have won on home soil in the two meetings between the sides in 2017 so far. Wigan triumphed 29-18 on Good Friday in a game which saw Amor sent off for an alleged high tackle after only 12 minutes and an explosive Super League debut from Grace, while in May a late Mark Percival try allowed Saints to pull off a narrow 22-19 home win despite a screaming Stuart Cummings’ best efforts to have the score disallowed for a phantom tackle in the air.
It is likely to be as close again this time around.
- Jonny Lomax, 2. Tommy Makinson, 3. Ryan Morgan, 4. Mark Percival, 6. Theo Fages, 7. Matty Smith, 8. Alex Walmsley, 9. James Roby, 10. Kyle Amor, 12. Jon Wilkin, 13. Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, 14. Luke Douglas, 16. Luke Thompson, 18. Dominique Peyroux, 20. Morgan Knowles, 28. Regan Grace, 32. Matty Lees, 36. Zeb Taia, 37. Ben Barba.
- Sam Tomkins, 3. Anthony Gelling, 4. Oliver Gildart, 5. Joe Burgess, 6. George Williams, 7. Thomas Leuluai, 8. Frank-Paul Nu’uausala, 9. Michael McIlorum, 12. Liam Farrell, 13. Sean O’Loughlin, 14. John Bateman, 15. Tony Clubb, 16. Sam Powell, 17. Taulima Tautai, 19. Ryan Sutton, 20. Willie Isa, 23. Nick Gregson, 28. Jack Wells, 35. Liam Marshall.
Referee: Robert Hicks