5 Talking Points From Saints 14 Salford Red Devils 22
Following two encouraging performances in the recent wins over Catalans Dragons and Warrington Saints apparently slipped back into their old ways in this defeat to Ian Watson’s side. The return to action of Matty Smith was supposed to herald a new dawn, or at least make sure that we are good enough to beat Wakefield and the like, and for a while last week it looked like it might just do that. Yet just a minute into this one it became clear that Smith’s presence in the halves is all but irrelevant without a speedy stand-off alongside him. That was the point when Theo Fages’ head thudded on to the turf as he was felled in support of a break by Mark Percival, and when Jon Wilkin once again turned into the Half From Hell.
We barely saw Smith for the rest of the game, even when Keiron Cunningham had his half-time light bulb moment and shifted Jonny Lomax into the six role to enable Wilkin to go back to loose forward. Yet it was in that first half that the tone of Saints’ attacking play was set, with THAT Wilkin hoof on tackle two an obvious nadir. Things improved after the break as the speedier Lomax got Saints moving a little, especially on that excellent left edge, but when it was not possible to get the ball out that way towards Percival, Zeb Taia and makeshift left winger Ryan Morgan Saints had nothing coming. They repeatedly tried to barge over in the forwards through Alex Walmsley and James Roby and company instead of making the Red Devils work to defend their line, while the right edge which was already hampered by the presence of Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook and Jack Owens was obliterated further by the addition of Dominique Peyroux. It was a manic reshuffle from Cunningham as he attempted to cover for the loss of Fages but ultimately all it did was highlight the limitations of this Saints side as an attacking force.
Is This Squad Good Enough?
Those recent wins have had us all feeling a lot more optimistic about Saints prospects for 2017, but if this defeat showed anything it is that there just isn’t the depth in Cunningham’s squad for it to be considered a realistic contender this year. Losing Fages was an obvious blow, but the absence of a player who himself is still learning his position and still makes as many wrong decisions as right ones should not bring the whole House Of Cards tumbling down. That it did speaks to the weakness of the squad particularly in the backs, where Morgan has been underwhelming, Owens is Championship standard and Smith and Wilkin are steady, experienced but hopelessly lacking in pace.
Indeed the lack of pace is a problem right throughout the side, a fact highlighted by Morgan’s embarrassing inability to outpace former Saints’ back rower Mark Flanagan to the try-line when he was set free down the left hand channel midway through the second half. Flanagan made 48 tackles in this game and so had already used a considerable amount of gas before he easily ran down Morgan who, for an encore, completed his rabbit-in-headlights display by fluffing the Todd Carney kick which allowed the former Dragons man to slip Michael Dobson in for his second, game-sealing score. Yet at least he showed willing, coming up with the try that got Saints back into the game a few moments later. Over on the other side Peyroux, McCarthy-Scarsbrook and Owens offer very little in attack. All of which makes Saints one of the easiest teams to defend against. They are predictable, too slow and the back-ups within the squad are not of the standard required to sustain a challenge for a top four spot.
Half A Pack
It isn’t just in the backs where Saints were disappointing. Aside from the excellent Walmsley (137 metres on 24 carries and a try) the Saints pack struggled to get on top of their Salford counterparts throughout. Luke Douglas has flattered to deceive since his arrival from Gold Coast Titans although he was one of only three Saints forwards to gain over 100 metres in this one, while the same could be said of Adam Walker after his move from Hull KR. Kyle Amor has gone back into hit-the-floor mode that hampered his effectiveness a couple of seasons ago. Taia and Roby are a constant threat but they are placed under far too much of a burden by the struggles of the other members of the forward group. Keiron’s ‘Middles’ just aren’t getting it done.
On paper this is one of the most formidable packs in Super League but out there on the field it is some distance from that. Defensively Wilkin got through another ton of work with 42 tackles but managed to miss another five, while Roby, Taia and McCarthy-Scarsbrook all missed two each. Salford only managed five offloads all night but they were at crucial times and in good areas of the field as our forward group struggled to hold out. More galling is that the Salford pack which dominated so easily contains three ex-Saints in Flanagan, Josh Jones and Lama Tasi. We have already seen the impact that Flanagan made but the previously comatose Tasi put in 28 tackles and made two tackle busts (no doubt two more than in his entire season-long stint with Saints) while Jones made 114 metres as he set about the business of making Peyroux and McCarthy-Scarsbrook look worse by the day. Nobody is suggesting that we should have retained any of these but you have to wonder why it is that Watson seems able to get more of a tune out of them than Cunningham could. Meanwhile, in return we got Tommy Lee……
In Search Of A Solution
A season that is in grave danger of going completely up in smoke nevertheless continues at home to Huddersfield Giants next Friday (April 7). If Fages does not recover from the head injury which put him out of this one in time, and if Adam Swift is not fit again there are some serious problems for Cunningham as he finds out exactly how thin his squad is. Lomax did a sterling job at stand-off in the second half but hardly looks a picture of health, while moving him from the fullback spot will likely mean that Tommy Makinson has to cover and we get another dose of Peyroux in the three-quarter line.
Is it time to finally bite the bullet and give a youngster such as Calvin Wellington or Ricky Bailey a chance? A policy of blooding youth has helped guide Wigan through the kind of injury crisis that we normally have to deal with at Saints. Meanwhile we are scrambling around for solutions because we have lost one halfback. Regan Grace cannot be any less of a threat in attack or less spatially aware than Owens and surely Jack Ashworth could do a better job in the second row than the posturing, ineffective McCarthy-Scarsbrook? Morgan Knowles is another who should come into contention at least in relief of Wilkin at times as the skipper’s high work-rate probably contributes to the fatigue which causes his occasional brain trumps. He’s not getting any younger yet there seems to be very little discussion about whether or not he is an 80-minute player these days.
A Realistic Aim
Given the performances so far this season, and the fact that Saints have lost to three sides who most would expect to finish below them come the final reckoning, what exactly is a realistic expectation for this squad under Cunningham in 2017? After the very winnable visit of the Giants next week the Easter double header could not be much more difficult. The Good Friday derby with Wigan offers its own challenges regardless of their current injury situation and rather dicey home form, while a home clash with Castleford Tigers on Easter Monday is enough to have you waking up in a cold sweat such is their form in the early going.
Are we going to have to just accept that this year is not going to be a successful one in terms of challenging for the playoffs and the Grand Final? Is staying in the top eight and thus avoiding the indignity of the relegation scrap that is the Middle Eight Qualifiers now the realistic aim? Four losses from the first seven outings would be alarming if we had come up against all of the top sides, but to have that record having played Leigh, Wakefield and Salford in the opening quarter of the regular season is fairly depressing. We are going to meet far better sides between now and the end of July despite all of the plaudits that this Salford side has received since their win at the AJ Bell Stadium last night. They are handy enough, but it would be a major surprise to most observers if Watson’s side found themselves in a semi-final spot in September.
After a scary Easter it is a visit to Widnes’ unpopular but currently highly accommodating i-pitch, before a chance to gain some measure of revenge over Leigh as they get Totally Wicked on April 28. May starts with a visit to Warrington, who themselves may be playing for only the solace of the lower half of the top eight by then. It’s not a very rosy picture, truth be told, but it is very difficult to analyse the action we have seen so far in 2017 and come to the conclusion that Saints are a realistic contender for honours this year.