Holbrook Gets It Right On Barba
Having dished out some criticism of his team selection for last week’s win at Wakefield it is only fair to point out this week that Saints coach Justin Holbrook got it spot on for the visit of Huddersfield Giants.
Ben Barba had muddled his way through the Wakefield game looking unfit, slow and anything but the superstar NRL import that we all know he is. There was concerted pressure on Holbrook to restore Jonny Lomax to the fullback role and use Barba more sparingly from the bench against tiring opponents. Yet Holbrook stuck by Barba and moved Lomax into the halves at stand-off. Not a move that will see him shoot to the top of Theo Fages’ Christmas card list but one which worked out well enough for the team in the end.
Barba was outstanding on the night, picking up the sponsors man of the match award as he ran for 160 metres on 15 carries, one try and one assist. First he broke away down the left and served up a perfectly timed pass for Regan Grace to score untouched, before helping himself to his second try in a Saints shirt in his first three outings as he seared through the line and outpaced the cover to go over in the corner. He made three clean breaks and looked likely to break the line every time he picked up possession, particularly in the first half.
Defensively he was tested surprisingly rarely by the kicking game of Danny Brough but what little he had to do he did far more assuredly than he had managed either at Wakefield or in his home debut against Wigan a fortnight ago. With only one Super 8 game and hopefully a couple of playoff games to go in 2017 it is unlikely that he will catch up with his team-mates in terms of fitness until the start of next year, but he showed enough here to let everyone know that he can still be a hugely effective weapon for Saints down the stretch.
Wilkin Cheers Sour The Evening
There is a debate to be had about whether Jon Wilkin should be in the Saints team right now. There is certainly a debate to be had about whether he is the right man to wear the captain’s armband and lead the side on the field. If you are looking for evidence to support the view that he should not be either of those things then this one was not a bad Exhibit A for your case. Wilkin came up with three errors, mostly while trying to offload in impossible positions, and placed one kick out on the full by shanking it completely off the side of his foot in the manner of a man who had yet to be acquainted with a rugby league ball. He offered up his usual, reliable defensive stint with 32 tackles, missing only once, yet along with the errors 56 metres on 11 carries is not the sort of stat line that you would like to see from someone who is supposed to be playing either at loose forward or as a wide running second row.
Holbrook clearly wasn’t convinced by Wilkin’s performance and so withdrew the skipper from the action not once, but twice. On the second occasion, his departure from the field was met with some very audible, one might even say loud, cheers from certain sections of the crowd. Now, whatever you think about Jon Wilkin’s performances right now there is no doubt that he deserves better than this and that this is not behaviour that supporters of a supposedly world class rugby league outfit should be associating themselves with. Wilkin has given everything for the Saints cause over the last 15 years, made well over 300 appearances in the Red Vee and has won every conceivable honour in the domestic game. He has literally spilled blood for the cause as witnessed in the 2006 Challenge Cup Final victory over Huddersfield when a broken-nosed Wilkin shrugged off the injury to score two tries and help bring the cup back to what was then Knowsley Road.
Wilkin certainly has his limitations as a player but seems mostly to be suffering from his inability to be Paul Sculthorpe. Yet Sculthorpe is a once in a generation player. Being inferior to Sculthorpe does not necessarily make one a useless rugby league player and Wilkin if far from that. If your problem with Wilkin is that he is not as good as Sculthorpe then I wonder whether you will be packing your significant other’s bags when you finish reading this because she, however wonderful she might be, has in all likelihood demonstrably failed to be Natalie Portman.
Wilkin has been shunted around the side, always willing to play in any position asked of him by a plethora of coaches. Had he been able to concentrate on playing in the back row and had Saints employed a system that made better use of a traditional loose forward then we may have seen Wilkin hit even greater heights. As it is and at this particular moment his position in the side is rightly threatened by the upsurge in form of Dominique Peyroux, but his place in Saints’ history should not be altered. Wilkin is not quite a great in the Sculthorpe, Cunningham or Long mould but he has been a very, very good player and a wonderful servant to the club. He deserved better than to be the subject of witless baiting from swathes of people who have never been vigorously challenged by Willie Mason.
The Full Set
It was an ultimately routine victory over Rick Stone’s side which apart from keeping Holbrook’s side in the race for the top four and a semi-final spot was significant because it means that Saints have now beaten every other side in Super League at least once in 2017. Having drawn at Saints and come out on top at the John Smith’s Stadium in the regular season the Giants were the last team on the list. Completing the full set of Super League victims highlights the parity that now exists within the league. While there isn’t anyone in Super League that Saints have failed to beat in 2017, there is only one team (Catalans Dragons) in the competition who have not beaten Saints. The outcome of pretty much every game is in doubt before a ball is kicked which was not always the case in years gone by.
Yet in achieving this the league has taken not so much a hit as a tonking in quality. Saints as we know are no great shakes, yet they stand on the verge of yet another playoff appearance and, despite having lost no fewer than 13 games in the league this year, could still be the team crowned champions at Old Trafford on October 7. Regardless of how many Castleford Tigers fans think otherwise. The merits or otherwise of the system can be debated ad nauseum, and the fact that a new force such as the Tigers could undo all their season’s good work with one slip in the playoffs is not now a reason to revert to the old first past the post system. If the Tigers do not win at Old Trafford they will not be the first team to win the League Leaders Shield and ultimately miss out on the champions title. They might be the best, but that’s the nature of the sport. Everyone knows the rules before the season starts and the introduction of a different system at the start of any given season could very well produce an entirely different outcome to what we have seen. The top teams tend to play the system, but at the same time the top teams can just be plain bad.
A quick glance at Saints record over the regular season and Super 8s against each of the other Super League teams shows just how inconsistent they have been, but equally how they can be a match for any other side in the competition on their day. Will it be enough?
Castleford Tigers: Played 3 – Won 2 Lost 1
Leeds Rhinos: Played 3 – Won 1 Lost 2
Hull FC: Played 4 – Won 2 Lost 2
Wigan: Played 3 – Won 1 Lost 2
Wakefield Trinity: Played 3 – Won 2 Lost 1
Salford Red Devils: Played 2 – Won 1 Lost 1
Huddersfield Giants: Played 3 – Won 1 Lost 1 Drawn 1
Warrington Wolves: Played 2 – Won 1 Lost 1
Catalans Dragons: Played 2 Won 2 Lost 0
Leigh Centurions: Played 2 Won 1 Lost 1
Widnes Vikings: Played 2 Won 1 Lost 1
Back In Our Hands
As alluded to Saints now find themselves, rightly or wrongly, in the enviable position of having their semi-final fate in their own hands. Victory against Salford Red Devils at the AJ Bell Stadium on Thursday night (September 21) will guarantee a last four spot barring a mathematical miracle for Wigan at Wakefield on Saturday. To put the task in perspective, if Saints beat Salford on Thursday then Wigan would need to beat Wakefield by 64 points plus whatever Saints winning margin is at the AJ Bell in order to overhaul the Red Vee.
Still, the fact remains that if Saints lose at Salford they are certain to be sitting at home watching the semi-finals on television. There are no possible combination of results in the games between Castleford and Hull FC and Wakefield and Wigan which could see Saints through with a defeat to Ian Watson’s men. Defeat for Saints would see Hull FC safe before their visit to the Mend-A-Hose Jungle, while the winner of Wakefield and Wigan would climb above Saints into the top four also. A draw between those two wouldn’t save Saints either, as it would move Shaun Wane’s side a point clear of our boys. Should Saints draw with Salford on Thursday the permutations are mind blowing but in the simplest terms it would leave Saints hoping that a by then virtually eliminated Wakefield would be sufficiently motivated to beat the Warriors and send them packing.
It’s a must-win in what has felt like a season of must-win games. Win and you’re in. Lose and you go home. Oh, but if Hull FC could see their way clear to beating Castleford then our qualification, should it happen, would come with the added bonus of seeing our nearest and dearest edged out by the black and whites. We’d all love that, wouldn’t we?
Final Round Kick-Off Times Should Be Simultaneous
Whatever the permutations and the mathematics, the fact that the four sides still in contention for those final two playoff spots are all playing on different days is something of a blight on the sport. Most other sports have dispensed with that notion and now insist on the final round of games in any league-based competition being played out simultaneously so that no team can start their game with the advantage of knowing exactly what they need to progress or achieve their goal.
The watermark here was the infamous 1982 World Cup group game in Spain between the then West Germany and Austria, in which the Germans having been beaten by Algeria earlier in the competition manufactured a 1-0 win that both they and The Austrians knew would take them through to the next stage of the tournament at the expense of the Algerians. The so-called Disgrace Of Dijon saw the Germans take the lead after 10 minutes before the pair contrived to pass the ball backwards, sideways, any way but forwards and with precisely zero ambition to allow both to progress somewhat sleazily.
It is clearly more difficult to manufacture a precise score in rugby league than it is in football but there should be no room for doubt. The mere possibility that sides could ease up knowing that a particular result suits both parties should be eliminated immediately. A certain television company won’t like it but perhaps they can make use of the several new channels that have sprung up on their service in recent months or of their oft-trotted out red button facility to make this happen without losing the right to broadcast anything live. It seems a simple solution and one worth insisting upon by the RFL to protect the integrity of the competition.