Did Holbrook Get It Wrong?
It’s 20/20 hindsight of the most fatuous kind to suggest that Ben Barba should not have started Saints 26-16 home loss to Wigan on Friday night (September 1). The former Cronulla man had been side-lined for three long months due his much talked about suspension, and in that time Saints had hardly been a team that couldn’t benefit from the addition of one of the best fullbacks anywhere in the world. Had Barba been left on the bench for the visit of our favourite opponents from over the hill the fan base would have gone way past meltdown and into another realm of previously indescribable fury. He just had to play.
And so, it was left to Holbrook to decide how best to utilise the new man. Logically, you play one of the best fullbacks in the world at fullback. That meant moving Jonny Lomax from that role, and it was the decision to start him at stand-off rather than Theo Fages that was highly questionable. Perhaps it would have been easier to understand had Fages been on the bench ready to change things up if needed, but when it transpired that the Frenchman was not included anywhere in the match day 17 there was always the sense that the decision could backfire.
And it did, spectacularly. Bringing in Luke Douglas to spice up a recently soft-looking prop forward group seemed an obvious move even if the former Gold Coast man has been a huge disappointment so far. We have been short of numbers in that position recently and he is at least a specialist in that role. Of sorts. Yet quite how Holbrook could then justify naming both Dominique Peyroux and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook on the bench at the expense of Fages is something that the finest rugby league brains could spend years trying to understand and still not come up with a reasonable answer. As it turned out Peyroux ended up playing the second half in the centres after Ryan Morgan took a knock to the head, and the former New Zealand Warrior did manage to conjure up one magical pass to put Tommy Makinson over for a try. But the omission of Fages left the side devoid of a credible threat to the Wigan line at halfback. Smith stood and delivered as Smith does, occasionally breaking that mould to wallop a hopeful punt towards the sky, while Lomax struggled in only his second game of the season in the halves. With Barba intermittently popping up in the spaces normally reserved for the halves it was all a bit of a muddle, the net result of which was that again Saints really didn’t pose a consistent threat in attack all night.
Saints’ False Start
Another odd selection but one we have become accustomed to in recent weeks was the decision to leave Alex Walmsley on the bench. The former Batley man is Saints’ one and only really high quality prop, a man who eats up metres like the Cookie Monster eats up….er……cookies. He was at it again here, racking up over 100 (104) to preserve his position as Super League’s top metre maker. Yet by the time he entered the fray Saints were already 14-0 down as Oliver Gildart helped himself to two tries down the Wigan left. Who is to say whether Walmsley’s presence would have had any bearing on the defensive lapse that led to the first, or the wild pass by Barba which led to the second, but in a derby game of this magnitude, with playoff hopes all but mathematically on the line, you have to have a good start. Surely that means playing your best players from the start? Luke Thompson is in good form and added another 97 metres in this one, but Kyle Amor has been extremely poor in recent weeks. The ex-Wakefield man managed just 53 metres on nine carries and it was not just a bad day at the office for him, but a performance typical of what he has been churning out throughout 2017. He doesn’t even appear all that concerned about making metres when he carries the ball, while the idea of running at a gap and possibly making a break has become a totally alien concept to him. It’s almost as if Lama Tasi never left the place. You can perhaps afford to hold Walmsley back if you have starting props who are doing a solid job and keeping you in the game, but when your front row is capitulating before your very eyes week after week you need to start thinking about pulling the trigger on your big bun a little earlier.
And so a 14-0 deficit left Saints almost out of the running in the first quarter of the match. Wigan may not be the great side that some of their predecessors were, not exactly vintage with puddings like Tony Clubb and Taleema Tautai hanging around as well as that agent of anti-rugby Willie Isa. But if you give them a 14-0 start then you will invariably come up short against them. Especially when creativity and that scoring points lark isn’t exactly your strong point.
It was clear from the outset that Barba was a little rusty. He looked a little heavier than this observer had been expecting and didn’t seem to have quite that burst of pace for which he is renowned. Yet there were a few occasions on which his elusiveness and fast footwork troubled the Wigan defence, with tacklers hanging on to him for dear life. The stats point to a pretty decent performance also. He was Saints’ top metre maker with 122, while he managed three tackle busts and a clean break. He also marked his debut with a try, more on which later.
Yet there were problems with the Aussie’s performance. If you are playing fullback one of the first things you need to think about is making sure that you go up and get anything kicked high towards your line. Barba didn’t leave the ground all night, leaving it to others to mop up. This put added pressure on Makinson and Regan Grace on the wings and it is to be hoped that it is something that will be ironed out as the weeks go by and the chemistry between that back three improves. Barba’s not the tallest so maybe you would not expect him to be brilliant under the high ball, but you might expect him to be sound in terms of his positioning and you would certainly expect him to jump when the need arises.
He was also sloppy in possession in gifting Gildart his second try, throwing an ugly pass behind Morgan which was scooped up by the Wigan centre. That Barba could not get near him on the chase to the line also spoke to his rustiness having not played a game of professional rugby league for 10 months. It was a fair enough effort from Barba all things considered, and there was the promise of much more to come. But it wasn’t the instant impact that perhaps we had been hoping for and that we needed against our oldest foes.
Anyone Know The Rules?
And so to Barba’s try. Just what is going on? As he shimmied his way to the line for a score which eventually brought Saints temporarily back into the game at 14-4, Barba twisted out of a gang tackle and reached out his right arm to try to plant the ball down over the line. However, the video replay showed that the ball had come free from his grasp, and that it was only then that he managed to get a hand on it to complete the grounding. After several looks from several angles which would have had some fans worrying about whether they would catch the last train home or else have to rough it at St Helens Central, the video referee ruled that Anthony Gelling has stolen the ball in the tackle. By that logic, play continues and so Barba’s subsequent grounding of the ball results in a try.
However. Here is the beef. During last week’s Challenge Cup final Clubb went over for what our dearest rivals thought was a fair enough score against Hull FC. Yet further inspection of that incident showed that the former London Bronco had not grounded the ball and that it had in fact come loose. There was clearly a Hull FC defender’s hand under the ball as Clubb twisted to ground the ball, yet on that occasion it was deemed that the defender was not trying to strip the ball and was instead just trying to prevent the try. So how do you judge intent in these matters? How do we know that Gelling was trying to rip the ball away but that the Hull defender was merely trying to prevent Clubb from grounding the ball? And why hasn’t the defender got the right to stop a player from grounding a ball in this way in any case? Essentially we are asking defenders to allow players to score once they get over the line, or else risk being hit with a potential penalty try.
Has the time not come to dispense with the ball stealing rule when it is applied to the act of scoring a try? We’re just punishing good defending at the moment, or if we are not we are creating bizarre inconsistencies like in these two examples. These are games played six days apart. How can the interpretation be so different? Let the players play. Put the onus back on the ball carrier to keep hold of the ball in the act of scoring at least, and if he can’t do so then let’s just congratulate the defender and get on with it so we can all get home before Newsnight. I know, who watches Newsnight on a Friday night?
Isa Should Have Walked
Wigan are noted for their insistence on pushing the boundaries of the rules somewhat. We all remember that infamous video of coach Shaun Wane ‘motivating’ his players for their World Club Challenge match with St George a few years ago. It’s ingrained in their culture this sort of thing, rather like the Oakland Raiders of the 1970’s whose motto was basically ‘cheating is encouraged’. As long as referees let them get away with their anorexic 10 metre retreat at each play the ball, their Greco-Roman grappling after every tackle and their cowardly third-man in nonsense then they will continue to practice these dark arts.
Yet there is no justification, no allowance anywhere in the laws of the game for what Isa foisted upon McCarthy-Scarsbrook in the first half of this one. The Saints man was held up in a tackle, absolutely going nowhere and, as Isa would have known had he watched any film of any Saints game in the last five years, about as likely to pass the ball as an under 6 player who is two metres from the line. Yet despite all of this, Isa chose to launch into the most disgraceful cannonball tackle, attacking the knees of McCarthy-Scarsbrook in quite the most cowardly fashion. The former London Bronco felt it for sure, but he was fortunate that it did not cause a serious, long term injury. Referee Robert Hicks handled the situation with his customary ineptitude unfortunately, completely managing to miss it (or ignore it depending on how sinister your beliefs are) before consulting with his touch judge to put the incident on report.
Why do we need an on-report system anyway? Isn’t this a total cop out for referees? Every game is reviewed in the week anyway, so had Hicks genuinely not seen the incident it would (hopefully) have been picked up by the disciplinary process. Clearly Hicks saw something that was, to his mind, out of the ordinary. There’s no doubt that Isa should have walked and if he had, well even this mish-mash of a Saints team might have had a chance of clawing their way back into the game. Isa may pick up a ban this week, although breath holding on that one is not advised, but even if he does it will benefit other teams than the one that has been wronged by the incident. At a time when officiating standards are viewed with an unprecedented level of disdain, Hicks has just added more fuel to the fire and has not been helped by the ridiculous non-event that is the on-report system.