A New Era
It’s been 24 years since Saints played a competitive game without Keiron Cunningham on the payroll. The new era was ushered in with the biggest of all regular season games, the traditional Good Friday derby with Wigan Warriors. The new coaching team of Jamahl Lolesi, Sean Long and Derek Traynor stamped their mark on the team immediately not only with the more adventurous way they went about the task but also with their team selections.
It’s difficult to imagine Cunningham selecting the side which took on Shaun Wane’s side in this one. He would certainly have dealt with Jonny Lomax’s latest injury absence by switching Tommy Makinson from wing to fullback but wouldn’t have even dreamt of handing Makinson’s wing spot to reserves star Regan Grace. Had Cunningham not parted company with the club on Monday (April 10) we would have seen Jack Owens filling in on the right wing. Chances are that he would have produced another plodding, uninspiring performance albeit one deprived of any decent ball and we’d all be having the same debate about why our youngsters aren’t deemed ready by the man in charge. To accommodate Grace in his favoured left wing position the more experienced Adam Swift was asked to operate on the right outside of Ryan Morgan, with the other subtle change to the starting line-up seeing Louie Mcarthy-Scarsbrook moved to the more central loose forward role to allow the infinitely more creative Jon Wilkin to slot in down the right hand channel in the second row. More on Grace later, but it’s fair to say that the decision to start with the young Welshman ahead of Owens was a resounding success, even if it undoubtedly took something away from Swift’s game. Maybe it was a decision that, had it been made earlier by Cunningham, could have saved his job.
Luke Thompson returned from a thumb injury to take the bench spot recently occupied by the previously undroppable Dominique Peyroux while in a surprise move Greg Richards was brought on to the interchange bench in place of Adam Walker. Richards has been named in several 19-man selections by Cunningham in 2017 without ever making the match day 17 and his inclusion here raised a few eyebrows. Yet with league leaders Castleford Tigers in town barely 72 hours after this derby date some degree of squad rotation was always both likeky and sensible. To be blunt 20 metres on just 3 carries won’t have convinced anyone that Richards should become a regular again though he only missed one of his 15 tackle attempts in a useful defensive stint.
A New Hope
Of the personnel changes made by the coaching team by far the most significant was the inclusion of Grace. Making your Super League debut in a derby is a task which might overawe many young players (and probably Tommy Lee) but Grace looked completely at ease with it from the outset. After the regular drudgery of the Cunningham reign how refreshing and dizzyingly exciting it was to see a player with the kind of raw speed that terrified even the seasoned and rugged defenders which pepper the Wigan line-up.
Grace showed early that he wasn’t afraid to do the hard yards early in the tackle count deep in his own territory, but it was his blistering 40-metre swathe through the Wigan defence when retrieving a testing attacking grubber which really caught the imagination. At one point during that mazy waltz through one of the best defences in Super League it looked like Grace might go the distance. The one problem seemed to be that, just like a subsequent break from Theo Fages, there weren’t enough players in blue shirts quick enough to offer adequate support. That was not the case when Grace’s early second half break led to Morgan Knowles’ try and it was no surprise either when the youngster got his own name on the scoresheet, taking Mark Percival’s pass and outpacing the cover before diving over.
In all Grace shredded the Warriors for 160 metres on 15 carries at an average of 10.67 metres a carry. His seven tackle busts is more than any Saints player has managed in a single game seemingly since Cunningham was a lad. The one blot on Grace’s copybook was the botched kick-off just after his score which led directly to a Wigan try and rather halted Saints’ monentum. But as a whole his performance was nothing short of a triumph and a real boost for fans who had grown tired of listening to talk of ‘boys in the gym’ and all manner of rot about why youth should not get its chance. Regan Grace, where have you been all my life?
Another Thaler-Made Controversy
One man whose performance did not endear him to the Saints fans quite so much is referee Ben Thaler. His last significant contribution to Saints history was to gift last year’s playoff semi-final to a Warrington team which may have been the better side that night back in September but did not score a legal try in the entire 80 minutes. Here he took just 12 minutes to effectively decide this game when he showed the red card to Kyle Amor for a high tackle on Wigan youngster Liam Marshall. Saints gave us a good run for our money thereafter, but the task of winning a man light always looked too big.
In Thaler’s defence Amor’s swing at Marshall looked awful at full speed. Video evidence has since shown that the first contact was with the ball and Marshall’s chest, but there’s no doubt either that Amor’s arm then slipped upwards and gave the Wigan man a pretty heavy clout around the head. If Thaler has to judge the incident on the one real-time look that he got then he can be forgiven for getting it wrong. His failure to dismiss Leeds Rhinos’ Brett Ferres for the horrific crusher tackle inflicted upon Wigan centre Oliver Gildart a fortnight ago cranked up the pressure on Thaler to deal with foul play appropriately. James Child’s leniency in not sending off Bennie Westwood for his high assault on Liam Sutcliffe during Warrington’s win over Leeds last week would not have helped either.
The question is whether or not Thaler could and therefore should have used the help of the video referee. This is an issue which still confuses fans among whom I count myself. It needs urgent clarification from the RFL. While they’re about that, perhaps they might also look into their process for appointing officials. Following his Ferres blunder Thaler was asked to sit out Super League action last week, appointed instead to Featherstone Rovers’ Championship clash with London Broncos. With that in mind, what business do the RFL have appointing him to one of the biggest fixtures of the regular season? Going back to that semi-final shambles at Warrington, Thaler’s ‘punishment’ was video refereeing duties at the Grand Final a week later. It seems a muddled policy, and one which hinders rather than helps officials needing to improve their performance.
A Free Hit For Saints’ Dozen As Taia Shines
In my preview of this one I suggested it was a fixture which presented a little bit of a free hit for Saints. Expectation was almost at an all-time low in the wake of what had gone on in the last weeks of the Cunningham tenure with most fans’ ambitions extending only to a respectable scoreline and a bit more entertainment. They got that and then some.
Yet from the moment Thaler hoisted the red card above the head of Amor expectations lowered even further. Very few teams win rugby league games at this level when reduced to 12 men and it just seemed that thereafter, and following a fairly tight opening period up until Amor’s dismissal, Saints took the view that chancing their arm a bit more in possession was their only hope. Even in defeat they could then say that they gave it a whirl, whereas under Cunningham the default response to adversity had been to trundle it up the middle and kick downfield early in the tackle count.
The result of the devil-may-care approach was a bit of a mixed bag. Still suffering from a lop-sided attack Saints relied heavily on Zeb Taia for creativity out of the tackle once more. He has received some barely credible criticism for his performance in some quarters and it should be pointed out that he was responsible for giving away three unhelpful penalties. Yet he also came up with five of Saints’ 10 offloads on the day, scorching Wigan for 140 metres on 18 carries while still finding time to make 40 tackles in defence. He made no handling errors. I’ll write that again for you just so we’re clear. He made no handling errors. If Saints had another back rower like him on the opposite edge they’d be an altogether different proposition.
Cas Looks Tough Despite Optimism
Whatever Australian coaches have to say about the Easter double header it seems here to stay. Which is good news because frankly we love it. It’s tough for the players though and none more so than for Saints who must follow up this derby meeting with the small matter of a visit from the league-leading Castleford Tigers on Easter Monday (April 17). If Cas weren’t already heavy favourites going into this one then anyone who saw their Good Friday stroll over Wakefield Trinity would surely install them as such.
The Tigers attacking machine piled 36 points on Wakefield inside the first 40 minutes. While Saints were straining every sinew in a bid to give their numerically advantaged opponents a scare Castleford were able to effectively take the second half off. They were outscored 12-6 by Trinity in that second half eventually cruising to a 42-24 win, but were crucially able to coast home after the break and conserve their energy. The result of that is that at a time traditionally associated with squad rotation and downright weaker sides a look at Powell’s 19-man selection shows that shirt numbers 1-19 have all made it through Friday unscathed and will all back up.
But will Saints? As much as the performance at Wigan thrilled at times a defeat is a defeat. Another one against Cas may not necessarily dampen the optimism surrounding the new coaching regime but it will nevertheless leave Saints with a distinctly un-Saints-like three wins from their first 10 league outings. It could also leave them outside the top 8 if other results go against them, an unthinkable position for a club of Saints’ standing.
These are strange, but now much more exciting times to be a Saints fan.