5 Talking Points From Saints 14 Huddersfield Giants 14
A Repeat Performance
I don’t know about you but I’m not one for watching films I’ve seen before. Except Star Wars. Star Wars is the exception that proves the rule. Even Attack Of The Clones. Although that might have something to do with the scene (SPOILER ALERT) in which Natalie Portman gets clawed by that creature in the Roman-style coliseum. Somehow I can watch that over and over.
Veering away from my deviancy for the moment I’m also starting to get the feeling watching Saints that this is a film I have seen before. It’s a film that starts with five drives and a kick using only the left hand half of the field and ends in a series of 20-metre taps for the opposition before the eventual breach of our defence leaves us without the win despite not having conceded many points. So it was here against the Giants as Saints suffered a clawing of their own in seeing a 14-0 lead turn into a 14-14 draw that felt more like a defeat.
It’s the same old defficiencies week after week. Saints have absolutely no right hand edge in attack. Last week the presence of Dominique Peyroux and Jack Owens on that side was a major reason for our lopsided-ness. Neither should be playing at this level and the results were there for all to see at Salford. This week we had Ryan Morgan and Tommy Makinson back in their rightful positions and yet still we could not offer a threat down that side. At the risk of being accused of victimising him again this was largely down to pass-fearing, back-slapper Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook operating in the second row. Whether he is operating under instruction from Keiron Cunningham or making decisions off his own bat is unclear. What is clear is that he cannot or will not pass, stepping inside every single time. Sometimes he makes some metres but the overall effect is to kill the attack on that side. Even a team as ordinary as Huddersfield know that McCarthy-Scarsbrook isn’t going the length of the field on them. So it follows that if they number up on him and he can’t or won’t pass then….well…..you work it out.
Roby Absence Fatal
If the presence of one man kills half of our attack then the absence of another has an even greater, more negative effect. James Roby looks set to miss the next few weeks with a knee injury and without him Saints are the palest of shadows of even the rabble they can be when he is there. Tommy Lee was brought in from Salford Red Devils in a bid to reduce Roby’s playing time. That already looks like the worst piece of recruitment since panel show buffoon Boris Johnson was somehow appointed to the Cabinet, but when Lee is asked to take on the role of senior hooker we plumb even newer depths.
It’s not Lee’s fault. He’s had what might be considered a chequered career not helped by a spate of injuries. Were you in his position and were offered a contract by one of the most successful clubs in the British game I’m sure you’d reason that you could live with a bit of abuse from shouty fans and would-be wordsmith chancers in order to do what’s best for your career and family. Yet there’s absolutely no doubt that with Lee in the situation room that is dummy half everything moves slower. Lee’s distribution is slower than Roby’s and less accurate. So is his own movement out of dummy half which is possibly the reason why he only attempted two scoots for a meagre 11 metres. Compare and contrast that with Roby’s average of 8.2 runs from dummy half and his average gain of over 82 metres per game in 2017 so far. Several dimensions are removed from Saints game (not to mention a not insignificant 34.7 tackles per game defensively) when Roby is not there which is not so much a criticism of Lee as it is a testament to the influence that Roby still has despite recent talk of a drop-off in performances. He’s still the one player we can’t seem to do without.
A Mixed Bag From Theo
Last week there was a lot of talk about how the loss of Theo Fages in the opening minute at Salford cost us any chance of a win. That seemed far fetched from where I sat. The Frenchman has talent in abundance, especially compared with some of his more (ahem) limited team-mates. But he is not the finished article and so unlike Roby, is not likely to be so heavily relied upon. His inconsistencies were in evidence here against Rick Stone’s plodding Giants as they fee-fi-fo-fummed their way to an unlikely point.
The first half hour of this one was so dire that the word attritional has expressed its objection to being used as the appropriate adjective. The appropriate adjective is likely to find itself on the Redvee virtual cutting floor so for now attritional will have to do despite its protestations. Soon after that turgid opening phase Fages brought proceedings to life as he firstly set Mark Percival away down the left (where else?) before exchanging passes with Zeb Taia on the next play to score, and then supported Taia’s fine break to leave Giants fullback Darnell McIntosh in La La Land for his second. That second score was a thing of beauty. Enough to distract you from Natalie Portman in Attack Of The Clones. Fages then found time to start the move from the scrum which saw the ball go through the hands of Taia and Percival to put Adam Swift in for his 74th Saints try on the occasion of his 100th appearance for the club.
Yet just like his partners in crime on that overworked left hand edge what Fages gave he eventually took away. They’d already been guilty of weak tackling to allow McIntosh to score the first of his cathartic brace before Fages butchered Danny Brough’s grubber to allow the Giants fullback to cross again. For an encore Fages failed to hold Sam Wood as he wriggled over for the dubiously grounded try which tied the game, that after neither Swift or Percival could display the composure to deal with Brough’s hopeful crossfield punt. Saints lived and died by the same sword in this one with Fages central to that.
Is Smith Delivering?
I’m sure you’ll all remember Keiron Cunningham throwing Danny Richardson under the 10A following the defeat to Wakefield, albeit in a manner that he probably thought was a clever ruse to buy time. Cunningham bemoaned the lack of a ‘senior half’ on that occasion with Matty Smith still recovering from a broken leg suffered in a pre-season friendly with Widnes Vikings, and assured us that we would win that type of game once Smith was back in action. Amid the strange mix if guffawing at and lamenting the notion that we are now a club that needs its first choice half in order to beat Super 8s wannabees and occasional visitors we humoured him. Alright, prove it.
Smith and Cunningham were afforded the opportunity to prove the point here against the Giants and singularly failed. This was principally because having gained a 14-point lead they spent the second half sitting on it rather than trying to press home the advantage. The G Word took hold, Smith and Cunningham a match made in rugby league Hell in terms of their conservatism. Yet in trying to hold what they had Saints put little or no pressure on the Giants in the second 40, another scoreless half to store with the others in our impressive collection of 2015 and 2016 vintage.
When sensible game management was required at the death we couldn’t muster it, which possibly qualifies as some kind of cruel irony. Handed a scrum 20 metres out inside the last two minutes our senior half somehow failed to conjure up a drop goal attempt that could have seen Saints escape this debacle with win. The pass from Morgan Knowles was what youngsters call ‘meh’, but Smith had failed to create enough space for himself to be able to deal with that variable. A senior moment, perhaps.
Is Top 8 Now The Aim?
For seemingly hundreds of years now Saints’ assumed and often stated aim has been to win trophies. As recently as last year the chairman and coach re-affirmed that their goal was to reach the top four and so retain an interest in reaching the Grand Final come the autumn. As an ambition it was all a bit underwhelming for a club that has seen such glories as we have but at least it showed an awareness that competing for honours is in the DNA of the club and in the job description of the coach.
But can the sort of team that cannot beat any of Leigh, Wakefield, Salford and Huddersfield really expect to be challenging for a place at Old Trafford? How long will it be before the conversation changes and we’re being told to get behind the club’s bid to qualify for the Super 8s? Theoretically that keeps our dreams alive but realistically if we finish lower than fifth or sixth (at a push) at the end of the regular season we can start planning for next year. Assuming we are good enough to negotiate the Middle 8s and oh…..let’s not go there.
The central point is that mere qualification for the Super 8s cannot be marketed as success for a club of this stature. Short of flying banners over the stadium I would politely suggest that a 7th or 8th place finish leaves even this writer’s sporting hero in an untenable position.
How likely is it anyway? Could it be even worse? We have now won three of our opening eight league games with little prospect of picking up anything from the Easter trip to Wigan or the visit of table-topping Castleford. No wins there would leave us with a 30% win ratio from our first 10 outings. Extraopolate that over the season and you have eight wins and maybe a couple of draws, which may or may not see us squeeze our laboured backside into the Super 8s.
Featherstone in September? It can’t be ruled out.