The Holbrook Effect
Saints new Head Coach Justin Holbrook took official charge of the side for the first time in this thrilling if somewhat scrappy win over the old enemy. He’s only been in the country for just over a week but since then Saints have handed Hull FC their rear ends with a 45-0 walloping at Newcastle’s Magic Weekend and now followed it up with a much grittier, hard earned success.
We haven’t seen much change to the Saints attack. They struggled again here with three out of the four tries coming largely via the boot of Matty Smith. Yet Mark Percival’s second try was no less exciting for whatever it lacked in style, despite Sky irritant Stuart Cummings’ desperate pleas to have it disallowed, presumably because his mum was calling him in for his tea which ends the game. Twelve errors is not catastrophic in the context of the rest of Saints season so far. It is only one more than they made in that supposedly pefect performance against Lee Radford’s side last week. It’s the nature of the mistakes in this one which seemed to make them stand out. Quite what Jon Wilkin was thinking when he put in a blocked kick with a two-man overlap is unclear. Probably that he was not Jon Wilkin after all, but instead someone with a very similar sounding name from the other code. And Zeb Taia blatantly butchered a try at a crucial stage of the second half when he procrastinated too long on the issue of whether to offload to Percival with Grace creating the overlap. By the time he’d deemed passing to be the best option the moment had gone and the former Dragons forward, who has been somewhat hit and miss since signing from Gold Coast Titans, meekly surrendered possession. Tommy Leuleuai landed a drop goal to put Wigan back in front on the ensuing set and it could have been costly, as could Alex Walmsley’s wild offload which had earlier allowed George Williams to kick through for a Joe Burgess try.
Saints fought back from both those setbacks to claim the win. It is not outrageous to suggest that they would not have done so before Holbrook’s arrival. At that time Lewis Tierney’s converted try which put Wigan 14-6 up in the first half would probably have done for Saints. It would have been interesting to see what kind of response Saints would have produced had Williams converted Burgess’ try to give Wigan a 20-12 lead. That was a big moment in the game. At 18-12 Saints were able to retain their self belief.
Holbrook’s celebrations of Percival’s winning try were as exhuberant as those of any fan. While comparisons to Ian Millward are extremely premature it is great to see Holbrook showing a real passion for the job and the club. He seems like someone who, while wanting to put his own stamp on things, will respect the culture.
Swift Under Pressure From Barba Move
Now the more observant among you will have noted that following the win over Hull FC this column expressed some reservations about the possible arrival of Ben Barba. Well he’s here now, unbelievably, so you can forget that. I still have fears about a 12-game ban followed by a sharp exit but the two-and-half-year contract offers hope that Barba is serious about a substantial stint in England. Much of my negativity stemmed from the fact that I didn’t believe that the club that signed Dominique Peyroux and Tommy Lee was going to sign Ben Barba. I’m not the type to dare to dream. But now that Barba is here there is no mileage in sitting around worrying about when he’s going to leave. You have to live in the moment. Enjoy it while you can.
One man who might feel less comfortable about Barba’s arrival is Adam Swift. Right now, he looks the player most likely to lose his place when Barba is cleared to play. Tommy Makinson might have been rather generously awarded the man of the match gong by the sponsors in this one but it is generally accepted that he remains the best option for the right wing berth when Barba slots in at his favoured fullback position. Swift’s path back to his old left wing role is blocked by the emergence of Regan Grace. As much as Wigan targeted the young Welshman with their kicking game he stood up. To send him back to the reserves now would be a blow to his confidence and a backward step in his development. He’s done nothing wrong.
Meanwhile Swift added to his collection of howlers with a woeful attempt to deal with the Williams kick which led to Burgess score. Swift is a fine finisher and has a very good try-scoring record, but he has made 23 errors in 2017, more than any Saint bar Percival (who has also made 23) and more than anyone in Super League except Albert Kelly and Matty Russell. A lot of his errors come when he is asked to bring the ball away from the line early in the tackle count with strolling, offside Saints forwards seemingly excused from that duty. That might be a strategy Holbrook will look to change but for the moment Makinson and Grace look the safest options either side of Barba.
Matty Smith Is Just Being Matty Smith
When Williams converted Tierney’s try to push Wigan 14-6 in front the sizeable visiting support in the East Stand began ironically chanting the name of Smith, their former Grand Final winning and international halfback. None of which felt very surprising at the time. It’s hard to believe too many Wigan supporters felt too sore about losing Smith. Coach Shaun Wane seemed remarkably relaxed about allowing him to rejoin Wigan’s most bitter rivals, even taking into account that Smith is a St Helens lad who has had two previous spells with the club. It didn’t seem all that likely that he would come back to bite them.
While I would take issue with claims that Smith was ‘brilliantl’ as has been suggested by some there is no doubt he had a major influence on the outcome. His kicking game was outstanding, leading directly to tries by Ryan Morgan, Taia and Percival’s dramatic winner. It also helped Saints turn around bad field position and enabled Holbrook’s side to build pressure. But these are things that, had they been pointed out by Kieron Cunningham, would have led to catcalls, howls of derision and general gnashing of teeth. Smith is doing no more now than Cunningham recruited it for. Keeping things steady, a safe pair of hands.
But of course fans respond to simple tactics much more if they’re successful. Even more so if they lead to a 45-0 thumping of a top four side followed by a huge derby win. We’ve already discussed how Saints might not have won this game under Cunningham but that is largely due to greater organisation and application more so than any major tactical shift. Matty Smith is being Matty Smith. We shouldn’t expect him to start running at defenders or throwing searching wide passes. If Holbrook develops the side into an expansive, risk taking unit in the club’s traditions it is unlikely that Smith will evolve with it.
Has The Barba Deal Weakened The Squad?
Ignoring the still unanswered question of when Barba will make his Saints debut, Holbrook has made some other recruitment and retention decisions as a result of the Aussie’s arrival. Clearly he has had to make the odd sacrifice to make the move work financially. Marquee rule or not superstars don’t come cheap. To that end Holbrook has sent the much derided Jack Owens out on loan to Sheffield Eagles and also allowed prop Adam Walker to join Wakefield Trinity on a two-year deal.
The Owens move seems to make sense for all parties. Since the emergence of Grace Owens has only been regarded as cover for the backs. Even with Jonny Lomax still injured and Matty Fleming on loan at Leigh Owens remains no more than that. Barba’s arrival will mean that one of Swift, Grace or Makinson will fill that gap in the squad. It is better for Owens to drop down a level where presumably he will be a starter and from where he can attempt to build his career. He always gave everything to the cause and though he improved after some fraught early performances he never looked comfortable at this level.
Walker’s move looks rather riskier. Saints are not as well covered at prop as they are along the three-quarter line. Walker has only made nine appearances for Saints since joining from Hull KR during which he has often looked less than Super League fit. Yet without him Saints are now more reliant than ever on Walmsley and Kyle Amor, with only Luke Douglas and Greg Richards in reserve. Douglas picked up a worrying head injury in this one and if he does not recover in time for next week’s visit to Castleford the squad could be stretched. The postponement of the Bank Holiday visit to Huddersfield due to Huddersfield Town’s Wembley appearance may be a blessing.
Holbrook may have more moves to make in the coming weeks as he looks to build his own squad, but at this exact moment he looks to be taking a chance.
Is Top Four Back On?
Ha ha….or in modern parlance….lol!! Please. Despite Sky barmpot Phil Clarke’s declaration that Saints are now favourites for the competition is beyond absurd? This rabble that couldn’t buy a win for months. They get two in a row and suddenly it’s like Castleford in tbe cup never happened. Tuts, head shakes and giggles all around.
I wrote Saints off weeks ago. I was more concerned with whether they would scrape into the Super 8s than with any talk of top four. While I still find the idea of Saints as favourites fairly laughable the bare statistical facts of the matter are that Saints are now just four points – two wins – off fourth-placed Hull FC. A Hull FC in freefall after that 45-0 pounding by Saints at Magic which they followed up by handing Leigh their first win in nine games and their first ever away success in Super League.
Saints visit Castleford next and will be helped not only by the fact that Cas have two games this weekend as Saints take a rest, but also by the extra motivation that the recent cup humiliation should give them. Castleford are a great side in 2017 and another heavy defeat would burst the bubble. We’ve had false dawns before. Yet win that and it’s a home game with hapless basement boys Widnes followed by that rearranged Giants game before Salford visit on June 23.
Things could be different by then. Dare to dream. Oh no….I don’t do that, do I?