A different kind of win
The razzle-dazzle of the opening weekend rout of Castleford was replaced by a different sort of performance as Saints continued their winning start to 2018. Ben Barba’s break to set up Jonny Lomax’s first minute score pointed towards another feast of flowing rugby but it never transpired. Catalans where dogged and physical, and actually had the edge in terms of metres gained and offloads. They starved Saints of possession particularly in good field position and were on a different planet from their abject showing at Widnes in Round One.
But it’s points that count not stats, and Saints came through largely because they were more clinical than Steve McNamara’s side. After Barba’s effort they had few chances but took them when they came through Regan Grace and Adam Swift. More on those two later. As well as a clinical approach to attack Saints most eye-catching asset was their outstanding defence. Their willingness to scramble and help each other in keeping the Dragons out was final four standard, and we are only in February. Insert your own jokes about peaking too early, but if the aim is to build and improve throughout the season Saints could be virtually impregnable by September.
James Roby led the way with a Roby-rific 61 tackles while Jon Wilkin (44), Zeb Taia (42) and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook (40) put in a double shift also. Of the little flair on show it was perhaps the latter’s dummy and pass around the corner to Theo Fages which stood out, leading to the penalty which finally sealed a hard-fought win and leading to me requiring a lie down in a dark room. This wasn’t Saints at their prettiest, but what it did show is that they can find more than one way to win.
Morgan Knowles had to go
Saints’ task was made all the more difficult in Perpignan with the second half dismissal of Morgan Knowles. The Welsh international was shown a red card for a dangerous tackle on Thibault Margalet with half an hour still to play and Saints holding on to a slender 12-6 lead. Some have suggested that the lack of malice in Knowles’ challenge should have saved him from a red card but that is somewhat one-eyed. How outraged would we be had one of our players landed head first into the turf as a result of an opponent’s tackle, intentional or not? What if it had been a certain Catalans hooker with a Wigan past making such a challenge on one of our boys? There would be some recommending custody.
Irrespective of club bias the game has a duty of care to the players. Margalet should be fine but this kind of challenge has the potential to be life changing. I can assure you, paralysis isn’t always fun. We must protect the players who are already putting their bodies on the line by playing this great game within the rules. There can be no place in the game for a tackle like the one Knowles made on Margalet. Only this week former Wigan player Ian Roberts has publicly discussed the brain damage that he believes he suffered as result of playing rugby league while the injury suffered by Newcastle Knights’ Alex McKinnon in 2014 should act as a cautionary tale. The red card and a subsequent ban is the only deterrent the game has to stop players from making these highly dangerous tackles. Intent is irrelevant. Knowles got his technique all wrong. Two or three weeks watching from the stands should encourage him to work towards eliminating poor technique from his game.
Swift Or Grace? Or Both?
Another player with a head injury is Ryan Morgan. He was ruled out of this one thanks to the concussion he picked up in last week’s win over Castleford so in came Swfit on to the wing with Tommy Makinson switching to the centre. It was a fantastic return to form for Swift who scored what proved to be the decisive try, taking Makinson’s pass and holding off two defenders to score. Swift was excellent all night, making 114 metres on 18 carries and two tackle busts. Importantly he made no errors. Butter-fingery had been one of the biggest flaws in Swift’s game that had led to Grace taking the starting shirt from him last season. Yet in this one he was solid and reliable in possession even when required to continue Saints infuriating strategy of using their smallest players to take carries close to their own line early in the set.
All of which raises the question of whether Swift should keep his place in the side. Saints are not in action next week due to the World Club Challenge and some friendlies that we are told are absolutely not part of the World Club Series. So with the week off Swift could be in contention for a place in the starting line-up when Saints go to Huddersfield Giants on February 23. Morgan will hopefully be well recovered from his concussion by then having been close to fitness for the trip to Perpignan, but may not get his place back thanks to Swift’s form. Swift’s attitude while out of the first team has apparently been exemplary and it would be hard to argue that he does not deserve another crack. However, Morgan did little wrong in the 40 minutes of action he saw against the Tigers, while Grace opened his try-scoring account against McNamara’s men and was his usual productive self, speed-skating his way to 105 metres on 15 carries and busting out of five tackles as he did so. His finish from Barba’s pass was exactly the sort of opportunity he was failing to take at times last season and which had this writer sagely muttering to anyone that would listen that ‘Swift would have walked in there’.
So who misses out? Grace has been the subject of some criticism for the heinous crime of dropping one bomb in this one, while Morgan has consistently attracted top level whingeing since his arrival from Melbourne. He was scandalously abused in some quarters for conceding the penalty which sent last year’s semi-final with Castleford into extra-time, and it is difficult to escape the feeling that his absence from the side would be the popular choice. Yet it is Justin Holbrook’s choice to make and he will have to weigh up Morgan’s potential contribution with that of Makinson at centre. The 26-year-old had a fine game there against Catalans but has been found wanting in that position previously due to his limited passing ability. Yet he will not miss out altogether. He is one of Saints top and most consistent performers so should Holbrook decide to go with both Swift and Grace it will be Morgan who misses out in all likelihood.
Amor, Douglas, or new blood?
With Knowles likely to pick up a suspension there is a squad place up for grabs for the visit to the John Smith’s Stadium. Kyle Amor paid the price for an ordinary performance against the Tigers by missing out in France, while Luke Douglas returned in his place having been left out of the opener. The former Gold Coast man hardly went around bothering trees, making just 50 metres on six carries which is considerably less than Amor’s effort in Round One from a statistical point of view. He did weigh in with 26 tackles defensively but then the nature of this more bruising contest was always going to force the forwards to put in a bit more work in the tackling department.
It’s a toss of a coin between those two to the point where it scarcely matters. Like deciding whether you are going to watch Switzerland v China or Norway v USA in the Curling and then suddenly realising that it is 3.45am and you have forgotten to go to bed. So would Holbrook be better off introducing some new blood? James Bentley has yet to make his competitive Saints debut having joined from Bradford Bulls at the end of last season, while Matty Lees showed great promise in a couple of first team appearances at the back end of 2017. Both featured in a Saints Select XIII which saw off North Wales Crusaders a week ago and both could add something to a Saints pack which for most of last year was too reliant on Roby and Alex Walmsley. It would be no surprise to see one or the other of Bentley and Lees included in the squad to face Rick Stone’s side.
A week off is a good thing
Last week Alex Walmsley told the local press exactly what he thought about the lack of time available for rest at the end of a long, hard season. For players like Walmsley who featured in the World Cup in Australia there was very little down time after the December 2 final before pre-season training began ahead of the February 2 start to Super League. The former Batley man revealed that he had only had two weeks off in that time, which he rightly also suggested was not enough if we are serious about player welfare and the quality of the product on the pitch.
He’ll be happy then that the World Club Challenge (and associated friendlies which are absolutely not the World Club Series. I stress that again as we must never forget) offers most Super League sides a break next week. Mediocre outfits like Warrington will be pressed into action as they make up time for what will be their early entry into the Challenge Cup, but for the sides finishing in last year’s top eight who are not in Australia it is put your feet up time. Crack open that bottle of wine and stick some more Curling on the telly, Alex. The rest could prove vital not just in preparation for Huddersfield but also for the season as a whole. A week off at this point could really help refresh a few battered bodies and get them ready to go again for what will be a long haul between now and the start of October provided we can make the semi-finals in Super League and avoid our annual Challenge Cup disaster.
Of course it is probably not enough and the length of the off season is something that still needs looking at. We don’t know what format the competition will take in 2019 yet (which is itself a whole other article which we won’t start right now) but perhaps the concerns of players like Walmsley will be considered when it comes to agreeing any changes. The NRL has a rule that guarantees at least six weeks break for their players which is all very sensible but which also currently acts a hindrance to the development of the international game. The Australians are so keen for their players to rest that they have flat out refused to play any test matches in 2018. This abstinence cannot be the way forward but is perhaps an understandable reaction to an issue which everyone else appears to be doing very little about. Perhaps Super League clubs can lead the way by coming up with a structure which shortens the season but still offers fans value and that still generates important revenue. Can it also ensure that players have the time to rest that they need in order to keep performing to a high level every week? I know, I’m not hopeful either.