Two Steps Forward…..
Along with a cartoon cat 90s R&B siren Paula Abdul sang about taking two steps forward and two steps back. She might well have been prophesising Saints’ utterly anemic 16-14 defeat to Widnes Vikings last night (April 21). Abdul went on to become a judge in the American equivalent of the X-Factor and had she been asked to make a decision on Saints’ efforts at the Select Security Stadium it would almost certainly have been a ‘no’ from her.
It was certainly a big, fat ‘no’ from this writer. All the optimism which sprung from the encouraging display at Wigan on Good Friday (April 14) and the impressive home win over Castleford on Easter Monday (14) evaporated in 80 minutes of wretched regression to old habits. It was as if Keiron Cunningham had never left the building in that second, try-less 40 minutes as the grinding, up the middle rot which characterised his reign returned with a chilling vengeance. Easter starlet Regan Grace faded into obscurity as his main suppliers Mark Percival and Zeb Taia endured the kind of off nights that an attack this weak cannot absorb. Over on the other side the Jon Wilkin who brought balance to the attack in the second row against the Tigers went back to padding his defensive stats (56 tackles) and giving away penalties (3) while running for only 69 metres on 11 carries. Nobody said he was a long term solution in our troublesome right second row berth but we might reasonably have expected his impact to last longer than a week.
An error count of 16 and a penalty count of 7 is not that extroardinary for Saints. It was the timing of those errors and breaches of discipline which inflicted the damage. Taia and young stand-in fullback Ricky Bailey were responsible for 9 of those 16 errors between them and all too often they occured in Saints territory and gifted Widnes the position from which to attack. Even then Saints’ defence held relatively firm. The concession of 16 points should not necessarily equate to a defeat and it was once again Saints’ limited attack which failed to get them over the line against a Vikings side which had won only one of it’s first 10 league games and none on their notorious i-Pitch which is supposed to give them an advantage. Only when a complacent, still undeveloped and fairly chaotic Saints rock up, it seems.
The Youth Of Today
This being the week following the Easter double header there were bound to be one or two changes to the line-up and one or two surprising selections. Chief among these was the decision by one of Jamahl Lolesi, Sean Long or Derek Traynor (for we know not which of them) to start Bailey at fullback ahead of Tommy Makinson with Jonny Lomax still out injured. Makinson may or may not be nursing a slight knock but it seems clear that the decision to omit him had more to do with concerns about wrecking his dodgy knees on the i-Pitch than any worries about his current state of fitness.
It’s hindsight genius to call that move a mistake after Bailey endured an horrific return to first team action after a two-year absence from the reckoning. He came up with mistake after mistake, some of them fairly basic in all honesty. It was all capped by a jaw-droppingly bad forward pass to Kyle Amor late in the game after Bailey had made an excellent break on the inside of Theo Fages. It just wasn’t his night and it is far too early to write him off as a Super League fullback after two admittedly fraught performances. In any case one of those was a 40-minute cameo on the wing under Cunningham, a man as adept at hooking the youth from the field at the first sign of trouble as he was at….well….world class hooking. As disappointing and awful as this loss was it has also to be considered in the context of Makinson’s injury problems of recent years. He has twice suffered season ending injuries and somebody somewhere obviously felt that there was a significant risk of it happening again on Widnes’ controversial surface. Nobody in their right mind would sacrifice Makinson’s season and maybe his career for two points at Widnes. But that’s not a choice we should have to make against the worst team in the league regardless of personnel.
The wider point here is that we have to have a bit of patience with our young talent. Cunningham was widely criticised for his public flogging of less experienced players as he worked overtime to defend the indefensible senior stars who were continually under-performing. Bailey is not the reason that Saints lost this game, nor is the relatively anonymous Grace whose most notable contribution was an early try-saver on Corey Thompson. You win and you lose as a team but if you’re looking for scapegoats then divert your gaze to the almost non-existent game management skills of Matty Smith, Wilkin and the innefectual dummy half play of Tommy Lee. We’re going to have to rely on youth in the longer term and nights like last night will aid their education. It’s just a shame and an outrage that the lessons have to be so harsh due to failings elsewhere.
Is Easter An Excuse?
The more protective among our fan base (I believe the modern term is ‘rose tinters’) have been quick to defend the team in the wake of another humbling loss. They cite the hectic schedule of three games in seven days as mitigation for losing to a team as previously inept as Widnes. Saints did have it tough on Good Friday, going a man down early at Wigan before turning in a credible performance. They then had to back that up with a visit from league leaders Castleford just three days later. The perceived extra effort at Wigan (shouldn’t every player be giving 100% anyway?) did not stop them from beating a Tigers side that had enjoyed a relative stroll in their Good Friday derby with Wakefield Trinity. How could they be any more tired than a Widnes side who had faced their own local rivals Warrington before being easily handled by Leeds Rhinos on Easter Monday?
The Vikings did have a slightly longer break than Saints due to playing Warrington the day before Good Friday, but the difference between kicking off at 8.00 on a Thursday night and at 12.15 on Friday afternoon appears negligible. They had the same four-day turnaround as Saints following their Easter Monday game and whatever physical fatigue they would have been feeling would only have been added to by the psychological effects of being bottom of the table with only one win in 10. Saints should have come in bouyant and confident after a great win over Castleford but instead came in flat and disinterested. Lolesi suspected complacency and was probably not that far off the mark. Widnes are the worst side in Super League right now but you still have to produce a reasonable performance to beat them.
Finance and tradition dictate that the Easter programme will stay as it is and as much as we all love it, as much as we hold our Good Friday derby sacred, we can’t then complain about the tiredness which affects all teams when the next performance or the one after is as bad as this defeat was.
Coaching Trio’s First Test
Everything looked rosy in the garden of Lolesi, Long and Traynor following the win over Castleford. Just four days on they were offered their first glimpse of what it is like to coach a team with raised expectations after they have suffered a wholly avoidable and slightly embarrassing loss. Lolesi looked visibly angry in his post-game chat with Angela, wearing the look of a man whose son had just flunked an exam because instead of revising he spent the previous evening swapping coats with his new girlfriend on the street corner. He did not give off the air of someone about to go into the dressing room and tell his players that it’s all the fault of those nasty fixture schedulers before handing out fluffy pillows to his tired troops. It was unacceptable and fortunately for us Lolesi gets it. Cunningham would have blamed the ref, the RFL and the pitch before declaring that Smith and Wilkin were ‘outstanding’.
Such tough love is exactly what this under-performing if woefully recruited shower needs. The coaching trio have a good deal more good will in the bank than Cunningham did towards the end of his tenure, so criticism of them should not and probably will not go too far. Despite the Tigers win expectation and pressure is naturally lower on an interim coaching team particularly so early. The feeling that they have been thrust into this situation and are fighting fires started by others holds sway. Nevertheless Lolesi’s anger was telling and makes the response from the team at home to Leigh next week instructive. It will tell us as much about how the coaches respond to adversity as it will about how the players respond. Yet if they have any designs on staying in their temporary roles long term they cannot preside over one bounce back performance against the Centurions before letting it slide again. The Middle 8 Qualifiers are through that door.
Half Term Report Makes For Scary Reading
The bell has rung for the end of the first half of the Super League school term and, continuing the educational theme that has been roughly shoehorned into this piece to within an inch of its life Saints are in the bottom set. All 11 of the other Super League sides have now been faced and with just four of them failing to take any points from Saints we must recognise that we are in grave danger not just of missing the final four (that seems almost a given) but also of missing the Super 8s. The prospect of August dates with Featherstone, Halifax and London Broncos looms large if we cannot reverse the trend that has been set over the first half of the regular season.
If we can lose to Widnes then quite frankly we can lose to anyone at any time. That might be just what the Salary Cap intended but it doesn’t make me feel any better about the forthcoming visit to Warrington after the Leigh game or the Magic Weekend clash with Hull FC before we end May with a cosy reunion with Wigan and a trip to Huddersfield in the space of four days. There’ll be no asterisk in the record books donating the fact that we were ‘tired’ from the derby if we fall to Rick Stone’s average-defining Giants. The brown stuff is getting real for Saints in what has been a dreadful season so far.
May also brings a Challenge Cup round which has to take on even greater significance in the context of our inability to challenge for either the League Leaders Shield or a place in the Grand Final. A kind draw may help provide some much needed confidence, but a defeat at the first hurdle would surely leave us with only our Super League status to play for. It’s a testing examination for us all at the moment…