A Spectacular Death
If Saints season was going to eventually die it was always going to be in spectacular fashion. Every game Justin Holbrook’s side has played has felt like a must-win since some time around the middle of June. Yet although there have been losses in that period Saints somehow survived as their top four rivals crumbled in a heap like nameless hatchet men in a Bond movie. So it was going to take something outrageous to finally make it possible to Write Off The Saints. And it was just that.
Trailing 20-10 with less than 10 minutes remaining at the Mend-A-Hose Jungle Saints suddenly began to make the standout team of 2017 and runaway league leaders Castleford look like they had never met each other, let alone played rugby league together. There were three tries in that spell as first Tommy Makinson snaked out an arm to touch down after taking Ben Barba’s pass before Mark Percival went over on the left. The England centre couldn’t convert either which would ultimately prove costly, especially since he could not add the extras either to what many of us jumping around our living rooms and hopping about dementedly in the stands believed to be the winning try from Ryan Morgan. The Aussie centre went over after Alex Walmsley poked through the line and handed on to James Roby to produce an inch-perfect pass from left to right which was several hundred times more difficult than it looked. It was another moment of inspiration from Roby who was indescribably brilliant all evening. By the time the game re-started from the kick-off there were less than two minutes remaining.
This epic semi-final was about to join the many previous examples of Saints’ ability to come back from the dead and leave their distraught opponents floundering. The Ultimate Comeback in the 1996 Challenge Cup Final at Wembley, Wide To West, the Halliwell Jones in 2005. They’d only gone and done it again and this time to secure a place in a record 11th Grand Final. That is until Saints failed to deal with the ensuing short kick-off setting up one last set of six for Daryl Powell’s side. They huffed and puffed without blowing in any houses, before a tame grubber towards the Saints line was dealt with easily by Barba only for referee James Child to penalise Morgan for an obstruction on former Saint Michael Shenton. Time expired as Luke Gale, whose participation in the game was a major doubt following his appendix surgery less than three weeks ago, popped the two points over to take the game into Golden Point extra time.
From then on there was a certain inevitability about the outcome. Gale fired a warning shot just wide of the Saints posts as the contest turned into the expected drop-goal-athon but after Matty Smith screwed an effort low, wide and ugly, Gale made no mistake when his second opportunity arose moments later. No more revivals, no more coming back from the dead. It was time to Write Off The Saints.
Heroes And Villains
Morgan might have known when he signed for Saints from Melbourne Storm at the start of the season that playing in the Red Vee would be an emotional rollercoaster. However, he will not have been prepared for the wild contrast of emotions he must have felt in the space of that two minutes when after sending the visiting fans into raptures with his late try he was brought crashing back down to Earth by a blast of Child’s whistle. It is hard not to feel for Morgan given that he turned in an otherwise outstanding performance, particularly defensively as Shenton failed to get any change out of him all night. His decision to block Shenton off at that inopportune moment looks inexplicable, but in the heat of that moment under that kind of intense pressure it was an understandable mental mistake.
Similarly Percival went from hero to zero when after scoring the second of Saints’ unlikely late trio of tries he failed to land any of the conversions. That ultimately sealed Saints fate, but it is extremely harsh to place any blame for the defeat on Percival. He has been a part-time goal-kicker at best until the exit of the reliable Luke Walsh at the end of last term. Percival has made a decent fist of it too, landing 77% of the attempts he has made in 2017. He was already having an off night with the boot by the time he crossed for his try, and lined it up knowing that if successful it would have levelled the scores at 20-20 with just a few minutes remaining. Even Percival hasn’t been steeped in all things Saints long enough to have known that Morgan would add another score moments later. So the pressure on him at that point, as well as when Morgan crossed, was immense. To put it bluntly he buckled rather, but he as well as Morgan can hold their heads up high after this one knowing that they gave absolutely everything to the cause.
There have been some rather hysterical calls on social media for all kinds of punishments to be handed out to Percival and Morgan, ranging from transfers to Championship clubs to public stonings. Yet these are the kind of people who would solve the problem of a leaky ceiling by burning the entire house down and rebuilding it. Percival remains one of the hottest properties in English rugby league right now, a Dream Team member and a man highly likely to be on the plane down under for the forthcoming World Cup with England. If they stick around, both he and Morgan will have brighter days in the Red Vee.
Should Saints Sign a Goal-kicker for 2018?
Ok so we have established that it is berserk to think about letting Percival go anywhere but his troubles with the boot in this one did raise questions about whether he is the right man for the goal-kicking role. His 77% success rate for the year is not among the top 6 in Super League and this was not the first time this season that Saints had outscored their opponents in terms of the number of tries yet still lost the game. The same fate befell the side back in March at home to Wakefield Trinity, two points which had they gained would have seen Saints avoid Castleford in the semi-finals and instead visit Headingley to take on Leeds Rhinos. There are slender margins in sport sometimes.
Gale is not a significantly more consistent goal-kicker having landed 82% of his attempts this term. Yet his ability to keep his cool under massive pressure marked a stark contrast to Percival’s unfortunate unravelling. Had Gale missed the penalty awarded for Morgan’s check on Shenton it would have been fatal for the Tigers. There must have been tension flowing through every one of his veins as he stepped up to rescue a season which from their point of view needs to yield a Grand Final win if they are to not see it all go to waste. Castleford have not been to a Grand Final before and if you speak to any of their fans I’m sure a good portion of them will admit that they may or may not be in this position again for some time. It could be that the stars are aligning for them if you believe in such things, but equally one false move and their dreams could be shattered indefinitely.
So there is improvement needed for Saints in this department, but does that justify the recruitment of a specialist goal-kicker for 2018? There are obvious areas of the team which need strengthening in Holbrook’s first off-season as Saints boss and it would be prudent for him to focus on securing the services of a running back rower, a prop forward and that old chestnut of a back-up hooker. Goal-kicking is not an oft-discussed topic when rugby league sides analyse their shortcomings but in recent seasons we have seen a definite move towards more shots at goal being taken in situations where in the past teams would routinely take a tap and try to get over for a four-pointer. It’s not quite like the other code just yet but in a league that is getting ever more evenly matched there are more tight games that can be decided by a prolific boot. Yet any new recruit has to be worth his place in the side for his general play, something which Jamie Foster found out to his cost when he was released by his hometown club despite his unerring accuracy from all angles.
Gale’s winning pot-shot sparked pandemonium in the Mend-A-Hose as the tears from the Castleford fans turned from those of sorrow to joy with a head-spinning haste. Yet there has been some disgruntlement among the Saints following at the possibility that the goal was aided by some NFL-style blocking from a couple of Castleford forwards. Jonny Lomax and Ben Barba seemed to have their paths blocked as they rushed out to try to shut down Gale but protests from the Saints players were conspicuous by their absence.
Having had the nerve to penalise Morgan in the waning moments for his obstruction on Shenton you could argue that Child rather wet the bed on this one. Some have suggested that if consistency is to be applied (but when is it?) then Gale’s goal should have been ruled out. Yet that ignores the fact that Dominique Peyroux attempted to do the very same thing moments earlier when Smith found himself with an opportunity to take the one-pointer. The fact that his effort was shanked into the next postcode, hardly leaving the ground as it travelled, has rendered the whole incident fairly forgettable. Perhaps we are just going to have to accept that blocking off at drop goals is something which, while strictly speaking is against the laws of the game, is something that goes on. It would have been a brave and controversial call by Child to rule it out and it is little surprise that he did not.
It is difficult to argue with the call on Morgan earlier. He clearly takes a step towards Shenton and grabs the shirt. On another day he might have got away with it and it is fair to suggest that it is something which other players have done on a number of occasions without punishment. Yet in reaching for the shirt of an opponent without the ball you are running an altogether more dangerous risk than if you are standing in front of a player preparing to take a drop-goal and acting as a shield. Morgan can be forgiven for his instinctive reaction but he would find it difficult to prove his innocence as the laws are applied.
Breaking The Curse
For the third year in succession, the third year of the Super 8s format since its introduction in 2015 Saints found themselves exiting the race at the semi-final stage. It has been their lot in life ever since their last title win in 2014, but there seems to be an altogether different mood surrounding this one than the last two under Kieron Cunningham. This was a glorious failure at the end of a highly commendable effort to save a season which had, at the time of Cunningham’s April departure and for some time afterwards until Holbrook’s arrival, threatened to end with an appearance in the Qualifiers. Having only been in post for less than half a season Holbrook’s time so far has to be judged as a success on that basis, whereas the feeling was under Cunningham that there was a sterility to the tactics which was unlikely to bring about an improvement in results.
Yet going forward Holbrook will find in time that fourth place on a regular basis is not an acceptable level of achievement for this club. This is not Arsenal. We are all guilty of owning a sense of entitlement but the truth is that a club of Saints stature should be aiming for a real challenge for the League Leaders Shield and a home semi-final within this system. Newcastle Knights back rower or centre Peter Mata’utia looks like being the first addition to the squad for 2018 (discounting Barba while praying to the rugby league gods that he does return after the winter) and as Holbrook gets to shape the side more around his vision he will find that the bar is raised in terms of expectation. Trundling around playing one out rugby and limping to a fourth placed finish will not be tolerated, but there are clear signs that Holbrook likes to let his players express themselves a little more than his predecessor did. We may have a more enjoyable journey even if the results don’t improve significantly. But in a club with these aspirations there are tough decisions to be made if Saints are to avoid continuing the trend of making the last four but falling flat.