The Coaching Change Was Disruptive But Necessary
After two middling seasons in which Saints stumbled to fourth placed finishes Keiron Cunningham went into this season against a backdrop of significant fan opposition to his presence. Many felt that, results aside, the product we were seeing on the field was just not interesting or attractive enough to justify keeping him in the Head Coach’s job. When you are the coach of Saints if you are not going to win then you had better at least look good losing. Regrettably the tactics didn’t change but the results did, and for the worse, and his position quickly became virtually untenable.
In the end it was a 14-14 home draw with Huddersfield Giants which signalled the end of the Cunningham reign. His side threw away a 14-0 lead that night and had to settle for a point against a side which to that point in the season (early April) had been loitering in the lower reaches of the Super League table. It left Saints with just three wins from their first eight Super League outings, form which had them racing irretrievably towards the Qualifiers had it been extrapolated over the season. That Saints reached the semi-finals by the end of the 30 Rounds of action including the Super 8s had more to do with the influence of his successor Justin Holbrook than it did with Cunningham’s suggestion that he had somehow left the foundations of a competitive side. These were still Cunningham’s players, but they weren’t playing to his tune.
Even before Holbrook arrived there was an upsurge in mood, confidence and performance following Cunningham’s exit. As if the shackles had been removed from the players who were now free to express themselves a little more under the interim trio of Sean Long, Jamahl Lolesi and Derek Traynor. They weren’t exactly cavalier and a lot of the same fundamental flaws that existed under Cunningham remained under the new arrangements and still remain now. But we all know how long it didn’t take to build Rome. A side which has spent two years or more being drilled into safety first rugby is never going to become a free-flowing bunch of mavericks in the space of a few months.
But it is hard to argue that Cunningham’s departure and Holbrook’s subsequent arrival hasn’t brought about a significant improvement. In the end this writer’s fears that Saints would struggle to avoid the Qualifiers turned out to be way off the mark. A top four finish was beyond our wildest dreams at the point when Cunningham left the building. True it still owed much to the inconsistency of others (namely Hull FC, Wakefield and Wigan) but from where the side was in early April a semi-final spot was a relative miracle. It’s never easy saying farewell to a club legend who had, up until then, spent the last 24 years with the club as player and coach, but it just had to be done.
Did The Signings Work?
I could make this a very short entry into this piece and just say no. It would be difficult for anyone to counter that opinion convincingly. But such a curt and blunt appraisal would be copping out just a little bit so let’s take a little time to analyse the new arrivals for 2017, their impact on the season and their prospects for having an effect longer term.
As the season began there were five new arrivals, with a sixth joining when Zeb Taia replaced the Gold Coast bound Joe Greenwood in a swap deal. It was an arrangement that had the nay-sayers positively foaming at the mouth, rubbishing the club for allowing a player of Greenwood’s potential to leave the club before his 24th birthday. They also trashed Taia, declaring that at 33 his best days were long behind him. Yet in truth it was as good a deal as Saints were ever going to get given that Greenwood seemed set on the move to the NRL. We no longer live in a climate in which Super League can hope to keep hold of its brightest talents if the NRL clubs decide to try to tempt them. Everything about the NRL dwarfs Super League right now, from the potential player earnings to the standard of rugby league to the sandy-ness of the beaches. Taia turned out to be a solid if error prone addition to the Saints squad, and represents a pretty good deal under the circumstances.
But what of the others? Ben Barba finally wriggled free of his 12-game ban for cocaine abuse in August and played three extremely promising matches after two worryingly uncertain efforts in a loss to Wigan and a last-gasp win at Wakefield Trinity. Yet although the signs are good it is probably too early in his Saints career to truly judge Barba. We’ll discount him for now then, except to say that it would be very, very surprising indeed if we find ourselves reflecting on the 2018 season and concluding that he has been anything other than the stellar, marquee player that he was acquired to be. If he reaches his very best form he will be unplayable for all but a few in this league.
On opening day we saw only three of the five players that had been drafted in by Cunningham at that point. Luke Douglas has often left you scratching your head and wondering whether or not we must have a young lad in the academy who can run on and do what he often does, which is mostly trundling the ball up the middle to little effect while tackling anything he can get his hands on in defence. Yet in those final Super 8 games and the semi-final with Castleford Douglas began to eat up a few more metres and cause defences a few more problems than he had been doing for much of the season. He’s no spring chicken at 31 but with a three-year deal in his pocket which sees him tied to the club until the end of 2019 you can expect to see him feature again heavily in Holbrook’s front row permutations next year.
Two other new-boys who started that opener, a 6-4 home win over eventual champions Leeds Rhinos. Apologies Castleford fans but that is just how it is, no matter what you heard Freddie Mercury say. It seems unthinkable now for any game let alone one of the magnitude of a Saints-Leeds clash but Tommy Lee started at hooker with James Roby on the bench. In my review piece from that game I stated that Lee had done nothing wrong and that he could, just could, be a viable option if we want to reduce Roby’s playing time with the aim of extending his career. I haven’t been more wrong since last week’s episode of Only Connect. Both were on the field at times that night but as the season wore on it became more and more evident that Lee was not going to cut it at Saints. Since Holbrook arrived Lee has been all but frozen out and it surprised nobody when the former Salford and Hull man was shipped out to Hull KR yesterday (October 24).
An assessment of Ryan Morgan is less clear-cut. The Australian centre joined Saints from Melbourne Storm on a two-year deal and almost immediately there were the usual, almost clichéd and very predictable rumours of homesickness when his Saints career didn’t exactly explode early. It’s probably fair to say that he has not been an upgrade on the pre-weight gain Jordan Turner but you’d always prefer to see him selected ahead of Dominique Peyroux in the three-quarters. Morgan ended the season suffering the wrath of the more hysterical among us who wanted all kinds of medieval punishments handed down to him after his brainfart allowed Castleford to kick the penalty which took the semi-final to extra-time at the Mend-A-Hose Jungle. Yet barely a minute earlier he had scored the try that had looked like taking Saints back to Old Trafford for an 11th Grand Final. Rarely has anyone fell from grace so quickly. At the time of writing he is still around and was one of only four Saints to hit double figures in tries in 2017. Which you may argue says more about the quality of our backline and the blunt nature of our attack than it does about Morgan’s prowess.
Adam Walker was acquired from Hull KR but was hastily shifted on to Wakefield Trinity having made just nine appearances for Saints. He never really looked fit in any of them but he did look to have a handy offload in his armoury, something which had almost become a taboo in the Cunningham system. Yet it was thought that he was sacrificed to help finance the marquee signing of Barba, a decision which was ultimately totally vindicated when Walker managed to fail a drugs test and was suspended in August for cocaine abuse. It cost him his place in the Scotland World Cup party for this autumn and may very well have cost him a future in Super League going forward. Either way for one reason or another his signing has to go down as a resounding failure.
Finally there was Matty Smith. Billed by Cunningham as the half needed to knit everything together his absence at the start of the year provided a convenient excuse when performances and results didn’t quite go as we hoped. A broken leg in a pre-season friendly with Widnes Vikings meant that we did not see Smith in competitive first team action until Round 6. On that occasion a 31-6 home win over Warrington had Cunningham extolling the virtues of Smith, telling everyone who would listen that he told you that Smith would make the difference. Yet by the end of the season Smith was struggling to make the team again, often overlooked for the emerging Danny Richardson. At times Smith was left out altogether but it became common for him to start on the bench despite the fact that few sides over the last 15-20 years have filled a bench slot with anything other than grunt up front. Some argued it gave Saints a different dimension, others said it smacked of indecisiveness and pandering to a big name signing. That view was strengthened when Smith returned to the starting line-up for the semi-final, a decision which many still feel was a major contributor to Saints’ failure to progress to Old Trafford.
Yet with a four-year deal safely tucked away it is difficult to see Smith playing anywhere else in 2018. His was an unpopular signing from the start, what with everyone knowing that arch-rivals Wigan were letting him go for free before the end of his contract there. Clearly Shaun Wane isn’t in love with him as a Super League scrum half, although replacing him with an ageing Thomas Leuluai hasn’t exactly been a roaring success for the Warriors coach. As for Smith he hasn’t changed too many Saints fans’ minds with his fairly predictable and colour-less style of play. Even his kicking game, much trumpeted by Cunningham, has not been of a quality which significantly improves the side. He’s arguably better at it at this moment in time than any of Theo Fages, Richardson or Jonny Lomax but that doesn’t necessarily make him the right man going forward. It will be fascinating to see how Holbrook uses Smith in 2018, especially with scary rumours surfacing that there may be interest from other clubs in Fages. The French captain was often the odd man out when Holbrook had to make those tough decisions on his halves and there is a feeling that he would be within his rights to seek more regular rugby. A scenario in which Smith, Richardson and Lomax are left fighting for the two halfback spots doesn’t seem all that fanciful if it allowed Saints to strengthen what is currently an ineffective second row in particular.
That Away Form
On March 18, at the third attempt, Saints won an away game in Super League. They beat Catalans Dragons 28-24 thanks largely to an other-worldly bit of magic from Fages which put Jack Owens over for the winning score late on. It was a rare moment of glory in a Saints shirt for the much maligned Owens, but turned out to be an almost equally rare cause for celebration on the road for the Red Vee. It was not until July 23 that the second away win of the regular season arrived, following a run of seven straight defeats on their travels. Wakefield Trinity were the victims, as they were again less than seven weeks later in a game which kept Saints play-off hopes alive in dramatic fashion thanks to Scott Grix’s blunder. Yet the Wildcats are one of only three sides to lose at home to Saints in either the regular season or the Super 8s in 2017, a record which should not in all seriousness be good enough to secure a top four spot on a regular basis in the future.
There were some close calls, in mitigation. Saints’ performance in losing 29-18 at Wigan on Good Friday in the wake of Cunningham’s departure and in the context of losing Kyle Amor to a scandalous red card decision early in proceedings was highly creditable. Twice they went down by just two points to Leeds Rhinos, once after Smith had suffered an horrific eye injury after just six minutes. A highly dubious offside decision allowed Castleford to edge Saints 16-12 in June. Yet in amongst the hard luck stories there have been some truly lamentable defeats away from the stadium that dare not speak its name.
Take the 16-14 defeat at Widnes in April. Four days earlier a Saints side coming in off the back of that commendable effort at Wigan had beaten Castleford at home. By that time Castleford were well on their way to establishing themselves as the runaway league leaders in 2017, eventually winning the shield by 10 points. Yet Widnes were well on their way to establishing their selves as one of the weakest teams in Super League in 2017 by then. Saints still couldn’t get over them. Ricky Bailey came in for a rare start and endured another fraught performance at fullback in place of the rested Tommy Makinson, while Saints were also without James Roby, Luke Douglas and Ryan Morgan. The starting front row that night was Lee, Greg Richards and Kyle Amor. Yet the feeling was that if we had any real designs on staying in contention we had to be winning at Widnes whatever the personnel.
Before that Saints managed to lose at Leigh in a game most notable for Cunningham’s memorable assertion that Lee had been ‘overawed’. Defeats on the road to Hull and Salford quickly followed before the Wigan and Widnes losses. It was becoming more than a coincidence. A thrashing at Warrington in early May hardly helped, then following that narrow loss at Castleford there was a 24-16 reverse at Huddersfield before things finally started to turn around for Holbrook’s men. The narrow loss at Leeds owed much to the early loss of Smith as, pre-Barba, the coach hadn’t yet taken to reserving a spot on the bench for another half. And we all know what that meant, Jon Wilkin fans? But it was a performance at least which served notice that an improvement in away form might not be too far away and it duly arrived with that 41-16 success at Wakefield in what was the final game of the regular season.
Overall four wins from 15 Super League and Super 8s games is a sorry tale and one which cannot be repeated in 2018 if Saints are serious about a tangible improvement.
Was Magic The Turning Point?
Regular readers will know that I am not a fan of the annual RL-fest that is the Magic Weekend. It’s an extra game in a sport which spends lots of time talking about how the players play too much rugby. The seemingly arbitrary nature of the fixture planning can’t do anything but distort the competition. How can you have one side facing an extra game against an all-conquering Castleford Tigers side, and another able to take it easy against Widnes, Leigh or the 2017 vintage of the Catalans Dragons? And as for those superhero kits that the clubs insist on producing for the event well….Words have actually failed me on that one.
Another thing about Magic which has traditionally been a downer is the fact that Saints routinely turn up, get thrashed and go home. Which is one thing if it is Wigan or Warrington but when 2016 saw us brushed away like the proverbial fly by a Middle Eight-bound Huddersfield it really started to look as though the staff and players cared about as much about the event as this writer does. Yet this year Saints changed the script. Facing a Hull side which had somehow come dressed as the Hulk, Holbrook’s side demolished FC 45-0 in a quite stunning display of ball control, discipline and no little flair.
It was their first win of the season away from home soil and began a run of 10 wins from the last 16 games which, as others faltered, was enough to just about sneak a place in the top four. Yet more than that it showed that Saints, under new management, could play a more interesting brand of rugby without having to sacrifice possession too often. Under Cunningham it had seemed to be one-out, safety first stuff until desperation set in but this performance showed that there was perhaps another way.
Cause For Optimism
So we all know how it ended. Agonisingly, stupidly, infuriatingly. But on reflection we might consider that given some of the rugby league served up by Saints in the early part of the season, and the position we were in when Holbrook took over we have done particularly well to maintain our record of appearing in every playoff series since they were re-introduced with summer rugby in 1996. Saints are the only team who can boast such a perfect record and, well, if you are looking for further positives from the 2017 season at least Wigan didn’t make the final four. And they lost in the cup final. Brilliant.
But turning back to the matter of how Saints will fare going forward there seems to be great optimism. Barba certainly added a new dimension to the side after his opening two stumbles against Wigan and Wakefield in which he looked unfit and uncertain. With a full pre-season with his new side he should be devastating next year. That should free up space for the likes of Lomax, Richardson and even Smith to create more easily while in the three-quarters a year of experience will have done Regan Grace the power of good, as hopefully will his participation in the Rugby League World Cup with Wales. Up front Alex Walmsley remains one of the best props in the competition and Luke Thompson is developing into a very fine front rower also. With Roby in the mix the front of the pack looks capable of taking on that of anyone else.
It is in the back row where some key recruitment might be needed. Wilkin will go around again in 2018 but is a shadow of the player he was. He may not play as many minutes as he has been used to, leaving us with Morgan Knowles, Dominique Peyroux or even Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook to fill the spots in that back three alongside the one mainstay which is likely to be Taia. Knowles is developing all the time and could start to hold down the 13 role, but the lack of a powerful, running second rower with good distribution skills stands out in this squad. There is talk that Fages could be sacrificed to make space on the cap for the recruitment of such a player, but at the time of writing the only addition to the Saints pack is James Bentley, signed from Bradford Bulls but untried at Super League level. With Lee now gone a back-up hooker might still be on the shopping list with Roby getting no younger and still exerting himself at international level with England in the World Cup over the coming weeks. Fages has been used before in relief of Roby in spells, as has Knowles but with the former seeming to prefer a role in the halves irrespective of the speculation about his future, and the latter hopefully left to bed in at loose forward there might be a vacancy there also.
So there are decisions to make for Holbrook as he enters his first full season with the club. It would be nice to avoid hearing that merely making the top four is the stated aim in 2018, and that instead we could make a genuine push for the League Leaders Shield and with that, a home tie the only obstacle to a place back at Old Trafford. There is work to be done with the squad, with plenty of dead wood to be cast aside before it can be considered a standout. Yet in a league in which the quality has been blatantly diluted over the last few years this is still a squad capable of challenging on all fronts next season.