International Interference


It’s not an excuse but it would be remiss not to start by addressing the issue of both Saints and Warrington having their squads weakened by international call-ups this week. Two Saints and three Warrington players missed this one to join up with Wayne Bennett’s England squad for the trip to Australia to face Samoa. Which raises questions about whether marquee fixtures like Saints at Warrington, or indeed any Super League fixtures should be played on the same weekend that the England team is in action.


There’s a strong argument that Super League sides play too many games, making it very difficult to find a gap in the schedule for international games to take the stage unaccompanied. Yet in two weeks time a large number of Super League fans will descend on Newcastle for the competition distorting Magic Weekend. It won’t be a popular suggestion among those who enjoy Super League’s annual two-day glut of games, but wouldn’t we have been better served using this weekend to stage the internationals? Not only would it have removed the necessity to see a Saints-Warrington fixture shorn of Mark Percival, Alex Walmsley, Chris Hill, Kevin Brown and Stefan Ratchford but it would also give those players not selected for England the chance to have a week off and come back refreshed and hopefully better for it.


The extra game is a concept that most right thinking football fans continue to argue against, yet in rugby league we embrace it without a moment’s thought for the downsides. Magic is great for the fans and gives the league’s traditionally lesser sides a share of the limelight, but it’s arguably the obsession with everyone getting an equal share of things that has driven down standards at the top. If we’re going to take the international game forward we need to make a few compromises at club level. Magic seems the obvious choice if we’re looking for something to make way.


Back To Basics


And so to events on the field at the Halliwell Jones Stadium where Saints capitulated spectacularly after a strong opening quarter. They led 14-0 at one stage before conceding 36 unanswered points and eventually going down 40-18. Much of the problems were of Saints’ own making as the most basic errors and poor discipline were routinely punished by Tony Smith’s side.


Saints didn’t look in any danger after the first half hour until all of the back three of Tommy Makinson, Adam Swift and Regan Grace came up with handling errors while trying to field bombs close to their own line. It’s unfair to single Swift out in a side which made 14 errors on the night and indeed it was Makinson who was top of the drops with three of those 14, but it did seem like there was a total momentum shift when Swift let a searching crossfield kick through his buttery palms on the half hour mark. The ensuing period of pressure led to Benjamin Julien’s try and when Zeb Taia conceded a penalty for a lazy high shot it led to Mike Cooper’s score. Suddenly Saints were only two points ahead at the end of a half they’d dominated.


The theme continued in the second half as Matty Smith and Theo Fages showed how not to combine in the halves, the Frenchman dropping Smith’s pass to allow Harvey Livett to scoop up posession and sprint away to score. Kyle Amor’s simple fumble then set up the position for Rhys Evans to score before another calamity saw Makinson throw the ball meekly to nobody except a grateful Tom Lineham. Ryan Atkins’ late double was the cherry on top for Wire and provided the centre with his 200th try, some of which have even been legal.


Saints Defence Finally Cracks


Going into this one Saints had the second best defensive record in the division. Though they had suffered far too many losses that was down to their blunted attack. Until this debacle nobody had run up a score on Saints in 2017. They hadn’t suffered the kind of thrashings that have been endured by Leeds, Hull FC and Wigan this season. But here the dam broke, which may be no surprise given the nature of their errors. No defensive structure can do anything to prevent the kind of breakaway scores that Livett and Lineham were gifted. They were solely down to sloppy handling and an inability to react first.


Errors, whether of the handling or disciplinary variety, put inevitable pressure on any side defensively and so it proved. Continually coughing up possession and territory left little in the tank to stop the short range effort of Evans, or the first of Atkins’ double which came from the former’s 60-metre dash away from a tired Saints defence which as we have seen repeatedly lacks sorely for pace once it is breached. Saints missed 19 tackles which is actually well below their average for the previous 12 Super League games, and six of these were the responsibility of Taia. Their solid defence so far in 2017 has been based on the idea that you bend but don’t break, but when you make errors and concede penalties in your own half things go badly awry.


The Sooner Holbrook Arrives, The Better


Sean Long was very honest in his post match interview. He pointed out that Saints had not earned the right to play too expansively which led to the gaffes which produced the Livett and Lineham tries. While many of Saints’ errors come down to poor fundamentals following the long period of conservatism under Keiron Cunningham it’s also true that a successful side needs to know when to push the pass and when to play it safe. That’s down to good decision making but absolutely relies on winning the ruck. It’s hard to play expansively from slow play-the-balls and there appeared to be a failure to recognise that at times.


Through his honesty Long also appeared to wear the look of a man who is finding it difficult to improve some of the limited players in this squad. There are exceptions which prove every rule but Long could be one of those on-field greats who has a hard time dealing with players who do not possess the skills that he did. His reaction to Smith’s failure to put a team-mate through a gaping hole late on seemed to demonstrate his frustration. He’s going to need the patience of an actual Saint if he’s going to thrive as a coach.


In the meantime newly appointed head coach Justin Holbrook will come in within the next fortnight to try to turn the ship around. He’ll find some diamonds in Percival, Walmsley and Roby but he’ll have a big decision to make on the future of the injury prone Jonny Lomax. Makinson’s limitations as an attacking fullback were laid bare here so if Lomax is not going to be reliable will Holbrook make the recruitment of a fullback a priority?


He will definitely need to rifle through half a dozen or more players in the dead wood bracket but with some of those still on contract it might not be all that easy to do. There is a lot of damage to repair to the staff and the culture and the former Sydney Roosters man needs to set about this tricky task sooner rather than later.


Up For The Cup?


Super League takes a break for the sixth round of the Challenge Cup next week which might just be a blessed relief for our beleaguered troops, It seems that securing a top eight spot and thus our place at the top table for 2018 is all we have to play for in the league despite the delusions of some that the top four is still on.


Yet in visiting Castleford in the cup the tasks aren’t getting any easier for Long, Jamahl Lolesi and Derek Traynor in what will likely be their last game in charge before Holbrook takes over. Saints haven’t been to Wembley since 2008 and a visit to the league leaders is not the sort of assignment you’d want to start your journey. Yet before we write our team off we should consider that both Castleford and Saints will have a different look about them than they had this week. Percival and Walmsley will doubtless improve Saints (only Grace, Taia, Luke Thompson and Roby gained over 100 metres against the hardly impregnable Wolves defence) while Luke Gale, Zak Hardaker and Mike McMeeken will significantly strengthen the Tigers side which sneaked past Huddersfield Giants this week.


One thing in Saints’ favour might be their desperation. Cas have other fish to fry in 2017, challenging for the League Leaders Shield and a place in the Grand Final. Meanwhile, ending that nine-year Wembley absence is just about the only hope of glory left in what has been a sorry season for Saints to this point. They shouldn’t need motivating, particularly if they are proud enough to want to banish the memory of this pitiful display at Warrington. It may not be enough, but Saints do have one unexpected victory over Daryl Powell’s men under the belt already. They just need another to keep the season alive….


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