Taken in isolation this two-point loss at Leeds is not a disaster. The problem is that it follows the collection of mess-ups and mishaps that have gone before it in 2017 which have combined to leave Saints sixth in the Super League table. With 10 games left the top four hopes of Justin Holbrook’s side are not quite dead, but the prognosis is bleak.
This one swung this way and that and was decided by the little things in the end, despite some fairly sizeable issues which we will get to later. Tommy Makinson’s failure to convert Adam Swift’s opening try turned out to be crucial. It wasn’t such a difficult angle but Makinson is only an occasional goal-kicker. He would not have been in that position had Mark Percival not petulantly wafted at that ball following Niall Evalds’ try in last week’s win over Salford and so earned himself a one-match ban. Nor even if Matty Smith hadn’t had to leave the field as a result of Jon Wilkin’s stray mitt lacerating his eyelid in just the sixth minute at Headingley.
Where Makinson and others could have again fared better is in the area of basic skills and fundamentals. Catching and passing in layman’s terms. The tone was set when Ryan Morgan lost possession on the first play of a repeat set deep in Rhinos territory following an intervention from a Leeds player. Then Makinson shelled a simple pass from Zeb Taia to put the kibosh on another very promising attack while Theo Fages’ drop of another late in the game came on tackle one, deep inside Saints territory. Leeds forced a drop-out from that set from which Ryan Hall’s game-clinching score ensued. Even then there was time for Dominique Peyroux, enjoying one of his brighter performances, to step inside the cover on the right and drop the ball in contact as Saints looked to launch another late rescue bid. It was tackle three. Overall 12 errors is an unremarkable total in the context of this mediocre Saints season (they average 12.95 per game and have committed more than anyone bar Warrington) but in a game this close each one one carries with it a tale of what might have been.
Matty Smith Matters
At the time of writing we don’t know how serious Smith’s eye injury is. He looked to have lost a lot of blood and the word is that the medical staff at the ground were unable to stitch it and he had to be taken to hospital. We can only send him our best wishes and hope for a speedy recovery. The lack of information on it is slightly unnerving when one recalls the career-ending eye injury suffered by former South African international wicket-keeper Mark Boucher. He was hit by a flying bail and although his retirement was not immediate the effects on his vision were a decisive factor in his eventual decision to quit. Smith should not be rushed back until the medical team are sure that the wound has healed and that his vision is unaffected.
For all our criticisms of Smith in the early days of his latest spell at Saints there’s no doubt that he was missed at Leeds and will continue to be should he face a spell on the sidelines. Holbrook has named a half on the bench only once in the opening weeks of his tenure and did not do so on this occasion. All of which sent Jon Wilkin back into the seven role, to audible groans from the fan base and probably the skipper himself. His kick into the grateful arms of Joel Moon scuppered a promising Saints attack and led directly to Stevie Ward’s try to put Leeds 12-4 up early in the second half. We can speculate on whether Smith would have made the same mistake but the odds are against. His kicking close to the opponents’ line is generally one of his strengths. It is not hard to imagine that he would have forced a repeat set.
Without Smith Saints’ already predictable kicking game was often less well executed. Wilkin and Fages repeatedly ended sets with hopeful but inaccurate bombs which were either caught cleanly by the excellent Rhinos youngster Jack Walker at fullback or else gathered up clumsily by Saints with nowhere to go on the last play. The best kicks came from James Roby in the build-up to Makinson’s try and from Jonny Lomax although his best effort was destroyed by Luke Thompson’s maddening flop.
Pick Your Best Team
Holbrook spoke before the game about how important a good start would be, and how starting slowly had been a problem in recent weeks. Saints won’t produce a miracle like last week’s comeback win over Salford Red Devils every week. Curious then that the coach chose to start this game with Alex Walmsley on the bench. The former Batley man is head and shoulders above much of this over-rated pack in terms of quality, and proved it again here when he was introduced with another team-leading 163 metres on 18 carries at over nine metres a pop. He added another try late on, his eighth of the season which puts him joint second among Saints this season alongside Morgan who despite his early drop had one of his best games of the season with 142 metres, two clean breaks and only one missed tackle.
The introduction of Walmsley later on might have its tactical merits but if Holbrook really is worried about his side not getting out of the gate quick enough then Walmsley’s name should be the first on the sheet in the starting 13. Starters Kyle Amor and Luke Douglas just don’t offer the same spark and go-forward even early on. They made just 66 metres between them and were easily outplayed by Thompson who rumbled for 85 metres on just 12 carries. Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook had one of his better games, brilliantly laying on Roby’s try in a set in which he’d been involved three times but with 53 metres on seven carries he too falls into the category of forwards whose contribution can’t match that of Walmsley. Aside from Walmsley the bafflingly maligned Taia was the only Saints forward to make over 100 metres. It is clear where the strength up front resides and Saints can ill afford to hold back.
Most often teams only have themselves to blame for the concession of penalties and there is no doubt that Saints’ indiscipline cost them dearly. Thompson’s brain explosion is one example while Wilkin got himself sin-binned in the second half for putting dangerous pressure on the back and neck area of Mitch Garbutt while trying to turn him over to slow down the play-the-ball.
It’s not the 11 penalties given against Saints by referee James Child that are particularly troubling, allthough the one given against Fages for holding down Anthony Mullally close to the Saints line from which Jordan Lilley put Leeds 6-4 up on the stroke of half-time looked fussy. It’s the mere three that were given against Leeds that really puzzles. If Fages failure to instantly release Mullally was whistle-worthy then Child had set a standard that should have equated to more than a trio of offences by the Rhinos. Had it done so we might have seen a different game but that is not to deny the fact that conceding penalties for offences like breaking the scrum early is evidence of a team playing thoughtlessly.
Up in the video booth it seems we still can’t get it quite right. Another pivotal moment saw the award of a 20-metre restart for Leeds as Walker juggled with and then hauled in Regan Grace’s speculative stab. The evidence seemed to show that Walker first made contact with the ball while still in the field of play, which should have meant a goal-line drop-out and another six at the Rhinos end of the field. Yet despite several looks at different angles video referee Robert Hicks came to the conclusion that Walker had caught the ball in-goal. It’s a well worn line on these pages but if video evidence can’t guarantee correct decisions then all it is doing is slowing the game down and making everyone get home late on what was a work night for most. Not to mention the imbalance it puts on the competition given that only televised games feel its ‘benefit’.
Show Faith In The System For Hull
Saints go into next week’s home clash with Hull FC with a few problems to solve regarding selection. Smith looks certain to miss out and with Wilkin likely to face a suspension the scrum half position needs to be filled elsewhere. Reserve scrum half Danny Richardson could and maybe should get the nod. He’s been in and around the squad all season and is the next in line at halfback if a reserve side is fit for purpose.
Holbrook could be tempted to move Lomax from the fullback position, especially since Makinson should be freed from centre duties by the likely return of Percival from suspension in order to deputise. Yet Makinson is more comfortable on the wing and it surely makes more sense to play him there, leave Lomax in the fullback role at which he has excelled (although he played a number of positions very adequately at Headingley) and give Richardson a chance alongside Fages. The Frenchman is in decent form and could assume the more senior role in Smith’s absence, helped along of course by Lomax and Roby’s experience and wisdom.
The introduction of Ben Barba when his ban expires in August will give Holbrook a little more to think about, that coaches ideal known as the nice headache. But for now he should probably keep it simple and give Richardson the opportunity that would allow some of Saints’ key performers to operate in their preferred roles.