A Bonus Win
When midfield enforcer and all around pest David Batty was asked to give his reaction to his Leeds United side winning the old First Division title back in 1992 he simply said…”Well….it’s a bonus, int’it?” He might well have said the same about Saints’ unlikely 26-22 home success over Castleford Tigers yesterday (April 17). Unless of course, he’s a Cas fan…
As far as the rest of us are concerned the win over Daryl Powell’s side has prompted a good deal more excitement than Batty could muster 25 years ago. Few Saints fans could have expected a side with just three wins from its first nine Super League outings to get the better of a Castleford side that before yesterday had won eight of its first nine and sat top of the league. After all, this was a Cas side which had averaged over 38 points per game coming into this one, and which had scored 52 and 42 points against Huddersfield and Wakefield respectively in recent weeks without really even breaking sweat.
Saints would have had slightly more confidence about their ability to produce a performance given the creditable effort they put in with 12 men in the Good Friday derby at Wigan, but still a win against what looked like such a superior attack seemed unlikely. Yet not only did Saints actually pull it off, they could have won by more had their execution been better particularly in the second half, when they made three handling errors early in the tackle count inside the Tigers 20 metre zone. Saints played with a level of skill, commitment and resilience that was strangely absent too often in the early part of this season as the curtain came down on the Keiron Cunningham Show. It’s one win, and it still leaves them in the relative No Man’s Land of eighth in the table, still seven points adrift of the Tigers at the top. But given what we expected, well, it’s a bonus….int’it?
Wilkin Brings Balance
One of the most regular gripes of this column in recent weeks has been the absurd lack of an attacking threat down Saints’ right hand side. Whether it be Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook or Dominique Peyroux we simply have not been able to find a second rower to play on that right edge who is capable of getting quick ball to the centre and winger on that side. In fairness there have been a few personnel changes on that wing, as Tommy Makinson, Jack Owens and now Adam Swift all take a turn there. Even yesterday we saw Ryan Morgan replaced by Matty Fleming following the former’s exit from the Good Friday derby (April 14), but the presence of Jon Wilkin on that right hand edge was key to ensuring that Fleming and Swift got into the game more regularly.
Wilkin’s move out of the middle allowed him to almost half his workload there, making just 24 tackles when on other occasions he has topped 60. All of which left him considerably fresher, enough to provide two try assists, run for 88 metres on 12 carries and bust out of one tackle. Fleming certainly benefitted, scoring Saints opening try of the game courtesy of Wilkin and managing to look more dangerous in one outing than Morgan has in the last four or five. The one negative to having Wilkin operate down that right channel is that it does leave us without a ball-playing loose forward. With Tommy Lee still not convincing in relief of the injured James Roby Morgan Knowles was asked to put in a sizeable stint at hooker, leaving Luke Thompson to fill the 13 role and basically operate as a third prop. This is not ideal, certainly not for the purists who lament the passing of the ball playing 13 in the modern game, but for Saints at the moment it seems like the most sensible solution to their chronic lop-sidedness.
After bursting on to the Super League scene in the derby defeat to Wigan on Good Friday young starlet Regan Grace had a slightly quieter time of things against the Tigers. Powell had his side numbering up well in defence against Saints’ strong left hand attack, which meant reduced opportunities for Grace as he regularly came inside looking for work. Yet although there were none of the 50-yard dashes through a bewildered defence that characterised his performance at Wigan, Grace again did enough to serve notice that he is more than ready to be a regular at this level.
It was Grace who scored the try that eventually sealed the win for Saints, sneaking in at the left hand corner when there seemed little or no space to do so. Moments before that he had the 12,000+ crowd roaring with excitement as he picked up a loose ball in Tigers territory and began to dance through defenders who may just as well have not been there before being dragged down agonisingly short of what would have been a quite majestic try. In all Grace carried the ball 10 times for 71 metres at 7.1 metres a clip, adding another five tackle busts to the seven that he shrugged off at Wigan just three days earlier. His two clean breaks represent a clean break for every five carries or, to put it another way, a clean break with 20% of his total carries.
Any player with the kind of speed possesses will do an awful lot of damage to Super League defences if he makes a clean break in one in every five carries. In just two appearances Grace has become a massive weapon for Saints, and there is an audible, palpable rise in the expectation levels whenever the ball comes his way. With the excellent Mark Percival and Zeb Taia inside him providing the ammunition the trio are set to become one of the most formidable attacking groups in the game in the next couple of seasons.
Competition For Places At Last
Grace should play whenever it is humanly possible for him to do so. He’d offer more threat on one leg than certain other members of the squad can on two, so expect him to be one of the first names on the sheet for the coaching trio of Jamahl Lolesi, Sean Long and Derek Traynor in the coming weeks. Yet there is less certainty now in other positions, with Saints recent upsurge in performances raising a few questions for the coaching team in terms of selection.
It’s a sentence you might not have anticipated seeing in this column but the fact is that Dominique Peyroux came in and played very effectively yesterday. Coming off the bench into a wide running role the Samoan international ran harder, tackled harder (only missing one of 13 attempts) and had an average gain of a very respectable 7.17 metres per carry. There were no clean breaks, let’s walk before we can run, or something, but he did bust out of a tackle and generally showed a greatly increased level of enthusiasm and aptitude than he had in previous performances this term. He must surely have jumped ahead of the ousted McCarthy-Scarsbrook the pecking order, although the latter is a better bet for that third prop role if neither Wilkin or Knowles can operate at 13. He may also have put a seed of doubt in the mind of the coaches about whether he, Fleming or Morgan should occupy the right centre role. Morgan may have come over to these shores on a healthy contract but his tribulations so far have shown that he should not be an automatic choice when he returns from his injury problem.
Perhaps even more unthinkable than saying nice things about Peyroux is the notion that the currently injured Jonny Lomax may no longer be an automatic choice at fullback. Makinson has done a sterling job there in the absence of Lomax, and the switch has allowed Grace to be introduced without having to lose one of Makinson or Swift from the starting line-up. Swift must be equally vulnerable if we consider the possibility of having Lomax line-up as a fullback in attack and a winger on defence to allow Makinson to sweep up behind, but there is also every chance that Lomax will find it difficult to hold down a starting role once he regains his fitness. This is not only because his fitness cannot be relied upon, but also because the men in possession of the jerseys at the present time are doing a very good job. Lee’s status as the go-to man to replace Roby must also have been placed under threat by the performance of Knowles, though both should see plenty of action as the needs of the squad change due to injuries and suspensions elsewhere. Yet from a position of having so few alternatives and some serious questions being asked about the depth of the squad, there now appears to be something approaching competition for places.
How Will This Side Cope With Increased Expectation?
In many respects the Easter weekend was a free hit for Saints. Nobody expected wins against either Wigan or Castleford in the wake of the Cunningham departure and given the level of performance that immediately preceded it. All we were hoping for was a bit more flair and a reason to go home smiling or, at the very least, feeling a bit more optimistic. It is just possible, however, that the defiance shown at Wigan and the impressive victory over the Tigers have just raised the expectation levels for the new Saints.
That will only be heightened in their next two fixtures. A visit to Widnes Vikings followed by a home clash with Leigh Centurions were always games that would be classed as ‘winnable’ on the fixture list, at whatever time of the season you are flicking through the schedule and trying to speculate about what might happen. Now, playing with a new verve and having just beaten the league leaders Saints will not only hope to keep the positivity going but will be expected to win both of those games. Anything less than four points out of four in those two will be seen as a massive disappointment, a reversion to bad old ways, quite apart from what it could do to our chances of staying in touch with the top four as the second half of the regular season comes into view. Widnes have just one win all season and were again afforded a trip to the cleaners by Leeds on Easter Monday, while Leigh have lost their last five matches and were beaten 24-10 by Hull FC yesterday. A Hull FC side which had conceded over 50 points in each of its last two league outings previously. For this Saints side to really turn a corner after the exit of Cunningham they need to show that they can exhibit a level of consistency, and that starts by winning games against sides you are expected to beat. Can the new look Saints handle an altogether different level of pressure than what they experienced over the Easter weekend?