Never Write Off The Saints
The staggering, barely credible finish to this one was a thrilling reminder of why we all love this team. Few clubs in any sport can match Saints for their continued ability to rescue themselves from the most desperate situations. Sixteen points down with 12 minutes remaining a previously inept Saints hit Salford with three tries in quick succession before the coup de gras of Matty Smith’s glorious 40-metre drop goal. Already there are stories circulating from fans who missed out having taken what we unjustifiably term ‘the Wigan Walk’. It seems we are as guilty on that score as our cherry and white brethren and it is hard to have sympathy with any Saints fan who left early. Don’t you know anything about your club?
If not here’s a quick refresher. Last night’s heroics put me in mind of mesmeric comebacks of days gone by. Older readers may be able to add their own memories but for me it starts with the 1996 Challenge Cup final when a Saints side on its way to a first title in 21 years nevertheless found itself 14 points down to Bradford Bulls at Wembley. Then came Bobbie’s bombs as mercurial crackpot genius Goulding peppered Bulls fullback Nathan Graham into a very public submission. Saints roared back to win 40-32 and secure their first Challenge Cup of my lifetime.
Fast forward to 2000 and the Bulls are again the hapless victims. This time it’s a Qualifying playoff from back in the days when Super League had a genuinely intruguing playoff sysyem. With Saints a point down at 11-10 Paul Sculthorpe fought off the time-wasting attempts of the Bulls defenders to hold him down just in time to play the ball one more time before the hooter. It set in motion a passage of play which saw the ball moved across to the right side of the field with Kevin Iro and Steve Hall before it was switched again to Sean Long. Long took on the line with one last burst of energy, putting Dwayne West in space down the left. Unlike Long West’s spell at Saints was unremarkable apart from what happened next as he danced down the touchline leaving Bulls defenders in his wake before passing to Chris Joynt on the inside. Even at that point there were doubts in the mind from my position directly behind Joynt at touchline level as he raced away. Anthony Sullivan was screaming for the ball, but captain Joynt fought off the attentions of the last man to score a miraculous game-winner. I wouldn’t trade the view I had that night but it did mean that I didn’t experience Eddie Hemmings one piece of iconic commentary or the sight of then Bulls coach Matthew Elliott falling off his chair in despair until later. But it’s about being there, right?
Five years later, in 2005 Saints were in the midst of a ridiculous run of wins over Warrington in Super League. It seemed like no matter what the Wire did they could not get over the top of Saints until finally they had them. Paul Cullen’s Wolves crossed to lead 16-4 with just nine minutes remaining but tries from Darren Albert and Mickey Higham brought Saints to within two points. They didn’t have Bobbie any more, but playing the role to perfection was once-in-a-generation freak Jamie Lyon whose towering kick hit Albert before being gathered by Keiron Cunningham who crashed over for the winning score. Not sure what happened to that Cunningham chap but he was one heck of a player.
And so to the moral of the story which is never write off the Saints. And if you do, don’t leave early.
Matty Makes His Mark
Saints were awful for large parts of this game, particularly a second half that was dominated by the Red Devils. Matty Smith, a former Salford man, seemed to spend most of that time dropping the ball out from under his own sticks as Ian Watson’s side piled on the pressure which eventually led to a seemingly unassailable 24-8 lead. Even if Niall Evalds try which gave them that lead looked extremely dubious. All the while Smith had been hearing it from the travelling Red Devils fans as they speculated about his personal habits. He’d already angered them by choosing this night to shimmy his way through the line for the first time in forever to score a first half try, only his second in Super League since rejoining Saints from the dark side. It happened right in front of a decent Salford following which is mystifyingly able to show up and make the noise away from home but has home gates so low that the Doc appears to be considering the deranged idea of relocating.
Smith would silence them. Despite he and Theo Fages being schooled in halfback play by Robert Lui and Todd Carney it was the last 10 minutes that counted, and more specifically the two final kicks. Lui could have held on to possession as the final seconds ticked by but, no doubt feeling apoplectic that a certain win was about to be turned into a draw, chose instead to try and create a last-gasp miracle of his own with a chip over the Saints defence. He got it horribly wrong as it floated into the grateful arms of Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook. Stand by as this column breaks with tradition to praise Louie for his awareness here. It would have been all too easy for him to desperately hoof the ball towards the Salford line in the hope that Regan Grace or Adam Swift would win a race to touch down, or else take on the defence himself or find another big man lacking the pace or guile to deliver the final blow. But he found Smith, who instinctively launched a drop-goal attempt from 40 metres out as the hooter sounded.
It took an eternity to reach the posts, like the slow motion ended to a cliched sports movie. And when it got there it only just did so, creeping over the bar almost apologetically but fabulousky and gloriously. If it compensated us fans for some of the drudgery we have been exposed to, it also provided Smith’s third coming with a much needed boost. His celebratory sprint back towards the East end of the ground was as energetic as anything he has ever done in a Saints shirt but you couldn’t help but feel elated for him.
Square Peggery Persists
On a night of such intoxicating drama it is churlish to criticise but the fact remains that there are still issues which need to be ironed out. Chief among these is the fact that even a change of coach hasn’t completely erased the policy of playing players out of position. Ryan Morgan missed this one with an injury picked up in last week’s defeat at Huddersfield (never mind those who left early, they chose that through their own impatience, how must Morgan feel?) and was replaced in the right centre position by Tommy Makinson.
Not to criticise Makinson. He performed admirably enough. He missed only one of 12 tackle attempts and ran for 89 metres with three tackle busts and a clean break. It is hard to believe that Morgan would have contributed much more than that on Saints’ under-employed right hand edge. It’s just that Makinson is not and never will be a genuine centre. We have seen from his otherwise exceptional displays at fullback this year how limited his passing game is. This seems only accentuated by moving him to centre where good passing skills are essential. Although someone might want to remind Mark Percival of that as he again infuriated with his crab-like running and his steadfast refusal to give the ball to Grace. It was Fages who finally fed the Welshman before he pirouhetted Greg Johnson into next Tuesday and surged away to score to get Saints within six points. At that point Percival woke up, stomping through a Salford defence waiting to be put out of its misery to feed Jonny Lomax for the try which, goaled by Percival, tied the scores ahead of Smith’s epic intervention.
Saints got away with it in spectacular fashion here but if they are going to be without first choice players wouldn’t it be more prudent of Justin Holbrook to replace them with genuine exponents of the same arts. Morgan’s absence was an obvious opportunity to see if either Calvin Wellington or Jake Spedding could cut the yellow stuff. Both have very little Super League experience but if we are saying that they are not worthy of it at this point in their development then realistically what are they at the club for? There will be those who have seen far more of them than I have with the reserve side but many of those said that Grace wasn’t ready for the first team before he was introduced on Good Friday. Let’s see, shall we? Throw them in, and if not then move them on.
If It Ain’t Broke
Rugby league loves to think itself a great innovator. From video refs to Clubcall and all points in between not all of it has been to the betterment of the game. Often the authorities are guilty of change for change’s sake. They’ve been at it again recently with discussions taking place about the current Super 8s structure, and whether to stick, twist or just tweak it a little.
One idea put forward is to keep the Super 8s format but reset all points earned in the 23-round regular season for the start of the Super 8s. This is where my ludicrousness radar kicks into gear, beeping and hooting at me and generally melting down. Wiping the points at the start of the Super 8s would reduce the regular season to nothing more than a series of friendlies. Even the move to award the League Leaders Shield after 23 rounds wouldn’t necessarily help. As long as the champions are decided by playoffs and a Grand Final the apathy surrounding the League Leaders Shield will remain. Many fans already refer to it disparagingly as the hubcap and more still probably couldn’t tell you the names of the 10 most recent winners. The goal would be only to get into the top eight, and once that is achieved the rest of the season will be nothing but preparation for those clubs. Sky will push it if they have to, but a last day battle for eighth place is among the biggest turn offs I can imagine in sport.
That aside, why should a team only good enough for sixth, seventh or eighth have the same shot in the Super 8s as the league leaders? We simply must stop with this idea that everyone should have an equal chance, particularly not teams that have spent 23 weeks under-performing. That’s not what sport is about. There are winners and losers and the salary cap is already doing the job of catapulting a few unfamiliar names into the spotlight. There’s nothing wrong with that but earn it on the field.
Nights like last night will live long in the memory, but only because wins and losses have tangible meaning in the current system. Change that and no amount of last-second escapes will mean anything. Our game just seems hell bent on change. We are only into the third season of the Super 8s structure and already there are rumblings of discontent. Being brutally honest I have no faith that the system won’t change. The only thing that seems to happen more often than a change to rugby league’s structure is a Tory leadership election. No good comes from that either.
Will This Win Change Saints’ Season
It was by far the most dramatic and unlikely, but the win over Salford wasn’t the only time this season that Saints have pulled off a great result only to slide back into mediocrity. Following the Widnes game this column pointed out the stark contrast between Saints’ form at home and how they have fared on their travels. That trend has continued since with last week’s away loss to Huddersfield followed by this enthralling victory over the AJ Bell Stadium side. So will the euphoria help Saints kick on from here to find the consistency they will need to stay in the race for the top four.
Next week’s visit to Leeds is vital for both sides. Saints currently sit five points behind Leeds after the Rhinos were defeated 23-12 by Castleford at Headingley. A win over Brian McDermott’s side would cut that gap to three, but a loss would see Saints drift seven points behind the fourth-placed Rhinos with just three regular season games remaining. Salford’s inexplicable loss at Saints keeps them within five-point range in third, and they may even be overhauled if Saints can end their away slump at Leeds and follow that with home wins over Hull FC and Catalans Dragons before visiting Wakefield on the final weekend of the regular season.
Of course, both Hull and Wakefield have top four ambitions of their own. A loss to either could prove fatal to Saints’ hopes of making the semi-finals, while the long awaited but yet to materialise improvement in Wigan’s form is another variable which complicates the playoff picture. Saints will need to improve drastically on this performance to have any hope but in turning around this lost cause they did at least show that they have the spirit and the never say die attitude that is in the traditions of the club.
Who knows where it may take them?