Didn’t They Do Well? Er…No…..
Nice to see you, to see you…..nice. What a lovely audience. So much better than last week. Unfortunately you’re here to help me lament another entirely avoidable defeat which left Saints’ semi-final prospects extremely uncertain.
Avoidable because it was undeniably self-inflicted. Just for once after a loss I’d like us to not be that club that blames it all on the referee and the authorities. That doesn’t murmur darkly in absurd xenophobic tones about the ‘Yorkshire Mafia’ whenever we come up against a slightly less incompetent team from over the Pennines. Ben Thaler may have been wrong to award another set of six to Leeds when the ball ricocheted off Mark Percival in the build-up to Adam Cuthbertson’s try but that was his only howler. There is no conspiracy in favour of Yorkshire clubs, and certainly none against Saints. Would we have been able to have won as much silverware as we have over the last 20 years of summer rugby if there was? Bloody RFL are a shambles. Can’t even persecute a club properly.
Everything else Thaler called was correct or marginal. Percival may not have impeded a defender in running around the back of Jon Wilkin in the lead-up to Ryan Hall’s try but to the letter of the law he infringed. It was the most boneheaded piece of play, and not untypical of the England centre who for all his undoubted talent continues to display all the game intelligence of a blindfolded Anthony Gelling. It’s nit-picking but his failure to convert a very kickable penalty goal in the first half ultimately proved costly. Because what do points make? Exactly.
There was an iffy forward pass just before the Cuthbertson try but I remain baffled by the complaints about the penalty awarded against man-bunned ‘Thinker’ Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook for a tackle that was so late he’s probably still getting up off the floor to give the referee his best look of mystified innocence. Those baby blues. How can any ref look into those and give anything against us? It allowed Kallum Watkins to kick what proved a crucial two points for Leeds and was, along with Alex Walmsley’s obstruction on the same play just for good measure, self-defeating and needless.
If I haven’t convinced you and you’re still frothing at the mouth at the injustice of it all consider this. Just because we’re on the end of a ropey decision it doesn’t mean we have to concede a try. Yes it puts pressure on you but so does consistently turning over possession (Saints completed 33% of their sets in the second half) and coming up with ever more brainless ways to get penalised. Saints lost this game due to their blunt attack, poor handling and pure, old fashioned stupidity. And on another note spotted by those who watched the game with two eyes rather than one, Leeds could have been out of sight by half-time had they not butchered three tries by having one of the league’s best centres making passing decisions in the halves. What is Brian McDermott thinking?
The Magnificent Sevens Deadly Sins
Perhaps it all started to go wrong for Saints when coach Justin Holbrook took the decision to restore Matty Smith to the starting line-up in place of Danny Richardson. Smith has been coming off the bench in recent weeks after a spell out with an eye injury suffered in Saints’ last two-point defeat at Headingley in June. Though Richardson came off the bench late to score a smart solo try to give Saints hope we have surely reached the point at which Holbrook needs to make a decision between Smith and Richardson and leave one out of the 17 in favour of beefing up the pack options on the bench. Luke Douglas has not exactly inspired in his first season at Saints but his return from injury should see his inclusion for the Wigan game in a fortnight.
For now the pack toiled and behind them Smith was equally tame. He presents no running threat and so whenever Saints did nanage to get to the end of a set all they had in the shape of a last tackle play was a hopeful punt to the sky. Invariably these would be handled easily by Leeds’ excellent teenage fullback Jack Walker or the recently peppered but improving Tom Briscoe on the wing. Maybe Saints had planned all week for walking disaster Ash Golding to be the Rhinos last line of defence. Such tired tactics may have borne fruit had Golding been around but title-hunting sides need more. A woefully unbalanced attack reduces Smith’s playmaking options but it is likely that we would have seen more variation on tackle six had Richardson kept the starting seven slot.
Play Your Cards Right
And yet we might not necessarily have to run with either Smith or Richardson at scrum-half. Ben Barba is now free from his much discussed suspension and looks a certainty to make his Saints debut in the looming Wigan clash. Fans of the clunkingly obvious want Barba slotted in at fullback to replace Jonny Lomax, who perceived wisdom has labelled slow, positionally poor and even a selfish player. But isn’t there a way that Holbrook could shuffle his pack to get all of his best pivots on the field and not have to rely on the plodding predictability of Smith or the inexperience of Richardson at seven?
Perceived wisdom be damned. Lomax is one of the best three pivots we have even if he’s not the fullback that Barba is. Those two and Theo Fages offer a little bit of everything creatively and if we do want to crowbar Richardson into the team we could move one of those four to 13 (Barba, Lomax, Fages or Richardson. Are you keeping up?) at the expense of Jon Wilkin or, perhaps more sensibly given the captain’s defensive contribution, Morgan Knowles. Barba at fullback should make more space for others on both sides of the park and so reduce the risk of Ryan Morgan and Tommy Makinson being asked to pay an entrance fee. One of the most common criticisms of the Keiron Cunningham era was that all the attacking plays went down the left hand side and we have gone right back to that in recent weeks. Neither Smith nor Richardson have cured that problem at halfback. Let’s try something new. Ok Hollie……do your dealing.
The Good Old Days
Another of perceived wisdom’s whacky opinions is that James Roby is past it. So past it was Roby in the opinion of Cunningham that he felt that signing Tommy Lee as a back-up would not represent a disastrous drop in quality whenever the former England hooker was off the field. Roby was one of few Saints on this night who lived up to his billing, who reminded us of the qualities that have made him one of the greats of the Super League era.
His dart from dummy half to set Taia on his way to putting Lomax over for Saints’ first try was vintage, classic Roby. His battle with Rhinos’ hooker Matt Parcell was a duel of real quality, an epic tussle sprinkled with stardust as mediocrity abounded all around them on both sides. Roby shredded the Rhinos for 195 metres on 16 carries, 10 of those from dummy half with an offload thrown in. Defensively he weighed in with 48 tackles, missing only one in what was, to be fair, another excellent defensive performance overall from Saints. Barba’s arrival is expected to make other players better. If it has that effect on Roby there won’t be any superlatives fit to describe him.
This loss, a second consecutive defeat after last week’s 8-6 defeat to Hull FC, has left almost everything hanging on the result on the result against Wigan. Their dismissal of a fading Salford sees them right in a top four race they seemed out of when they lost their opening Super 8s match to Leeds a fortnight ago. Now the sides are on the same points, just a point behind a Wakefield Trinity side holding on in fourth and hoping not to buckle with the weight of two rugby league giants sitting on their shoulder like Mo Farah on the last bend. It’s the biggest derby since the two met in the 2014 Grand Final at Old Trafford, Ben Flower and all of that.
Complicating Wigan minds will be their appearance in next week’s Challenge Cup final at Wembley against Hull FC. History is littered with examples of sides not covering themselves in glory in the week either side of the showpiece event. But in handling Salford so easily Shaun Wane’s side have shown that they are equally determined to fight to defend their Super League crown as they are to win the Challenge Cup. When The Price Is Right this lot show up. We should expect no favours as they go about the task of breaking the hearts of all those Castleford fans who believe the title should already be theirs and that a team fully 17 points behind them at this point should have no business retaining an interest in becoming champions. The rules are the rules and it will be an equally desperate Wigan side that visits on September 1 whatever happens at Wembley.