A Selection Surprise
Ever since the Bradford Bulls battered their way to success in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s it has been standard Super League procedure to have four forwards on the interchange bench. Most coaches select two props to rotate in and maybe a utility forward or two to cover the front and back rows and perhaps even the centres. Others name a hooker to either spell the first choice man or else have one operating at 13 and get two attacking pivots on the field.
Saints coach Justin Holbrook chose something different for this 26-10 success over Widnes Vikings. Danny Richardson was not in the initial 19-man squad selected 48 hours before kick-off and in fact had not seen first team action since Matty Smith returned from a broken leg for the home win over Warrington at the end of March. At that time Keiron Cunningham’s constant lamenting of the absence of Smith seemed a thinly veiled and harsh assessment of Richardson’s early season contribution and it was no surprise that Cunningham never selected the young half again.
Yet perhaps with doubts in his mind over the fitness of Jonny Lomax and Theo Fages Holbrook decided that Richardson should get his casting vote. Lomax was making only his second appearance after another long injury lay-off and his first at fullback, while Fages missed last week’s defeat at Castleford following a bang on the head sustained at home to Wigan a week previously. It seemed sensible to provide cover in the backline. In the event Richardson played only minimal minutes as Fages moved into the hooking role late on to afford James Roby a well earned rest but that in itself removed the need to select Tommy Lee. Some would argue that it left Saints short in the front row, but with Adam Walker gone that left only Greg Richards, another who hadn’t made the 19, as an out and out prop candidate. It is very arguable that Holbrook made the best use of the resources currently available to him with this selection.
Grace Repays Faith As Swift Misses Out
As Britain engaged in another round of the new national pastime of balloting Holbrook had another tough decision to make. With Fages returning and Lomax returning to fullback it meant that there was room enough for only two of Tommy Makinson, Regan Grace and Adam Swift. Makinson has been one of Saints’ most consistent performers all year albeit at fullback, while Grace has been a revelation since his Good Friday debut at Wigan. It had been Swift that had looked most vulnerable with some error-prone performances in recent weeks so it was no surprise to see him stepped down.
Grace responded brilliantly to the faith shown in him, exchanging passes with Mark Percival for the centre to open the scoring before taking Lomax’s delicious wide ball to cross for his sixth try of the season. Grace left Ryan Ince and Jack Johnson grasping air with a textbook in and away which showed the quality that he possesses. In all the young Welshman scurried for 129 metres on 13 carries at almost 10 metres per carry. He missed one tackle, came up with one error and conceded one penalty but in a game featuring far too much of the referees whistle (22 penalties) his indiscipline was hardly significant.
Over on the other side Makinson’s opportunities were fewer as Saints’ attack continues to be a bit lop-sided but he still managed to gain 100 metres on 12 carries at an average of 8.33 a pop. Defensively he struggled a little with four missed tackles but it’s difficult to see Holbrook dropping Makinson for Swift in a bid to shore up the defence. The introduction of Swift for defensive reasons would be like using the DUP to prop up your minority government. Weak and wobbly and a bit desperate. For now Swift will have to bide his time but is sure to feature again at some point as injuries and suspensions occur.
Lomax A Difference Maker
With Ben Barba now within nine games of a much awaited Saints debut there are yet more decisions to be made down the line for Holbrook with regards to team selection. Barba is highly likely to take over at fullback which will leave Lomax vying for a place either in the halves with Smith, Fages and now Richardson or else featuring off the bench as cover for a number of positions. Yet Lomax used this one to demonstrate just what Saints will be missing if he is the one left out of the starting line-up when Barba finally makes his bow.
Makinson has been doing a fine job at fullback during Lomax’s latest battle for fitness but it undeniable that the man in the cap offers the attack extra dimensions that Makinson does not. Lomax claimed two assists on the night, the first that outstanding pass to Grace for his try and the second a well timed pass which allowed Ryan Morgan to stroll in for his eighth try of the season. His speed of thought and movement creates space that just isn’t there when Makinson occupies the role and Lomax’s range of passing opens doors that otherwise appear slammed shut. Without Lomax the attack has looked slow, uninspired and ponderous at times with the only route to the line seemingly through Smith’s boot. It was refreshing to see that none of Saints’ five tries relied on a hopeful punt on the last play of another tired set.
Home And Away
It’s not revolutionary to suggest that Saints haven’t been doing as well as most of us would have hoped in 2017. The win over Denis Betts’ side still leaves Saints as low as sixth in the table. While there is some pleasure in overtaking Wigan in the standings it should be remembered that Shaun Wane’s side are no benchmark this year. They are currently as hapless as Saints have been at any point this season nd then some. A contest with them and only them is a race to the bottom. Saints should be doing better based on our expectations as fans and even on the dubiously stated top four ambitions of the club’s own hierarchy.
That they are not is almost completely down to their away form. Despite some of the drudgery on display especially earlier in the season Saints have lost only once at home in the league this year. That was against a Wakefield Trinity side that has proven itself several levels above what we would normally expect to see from them. Even they would have been vanquished had Percival been able to add the extras to all of Saints’ three tries that night. There was a disappointing 14-14 draw with Huddersfield which sealed the fate of Cunningham but all of Leeds, Warrington, Castleford, Wigan, Leigh and now Widnes have left the stadium formerly known as Langtree Park with nothing in 2017.
Contrast that with Saints on their travels. Their only win on the road came in Perpignan against Catalans Dragons, a fixture that fans queue up to write off when they pore over the fixture schedules at the start of both the regular season and the Super 8s. Elsewhere they have lost at Leigh, Warrington, Wigan, Hull, Castleford, Widnes and Salford and also been humiliated in a Challenge Cup landslide at Castleford. With trips to Leeds, Wakefield and next up at Huddersfield before the end of the regular season they will need to improve dramatically if they are to have any chance of a late charge for the top four.
No Rest For The Totally Wicked
Having caused an almighty stink when it was rearranged from the recent Bank Holiday programme Saints’ visit to Huddersfield Giants takes place next week. That Challenge Cup drubbing by the Tigers suggested at the time that Saints would have this week to regroup before a final regular season push, but instead this is now that crucial game in hand. The two points that the foolhardy among us automatically add on to the total when we look at the table and see a game in hand. If this week has shown anything is that if you take victory for granted you’ll end up in quite the tangle.
The Giants started the season woefully but, thanks to a combination of their own resurgence and the golden comedy being served up by Warrington and Catalans Dragons this year their season is very much alive. From Middle 8 certainties Rick Stone’s side are now occupying that eighth spot which guarantees Super League status in 2018 after they pummelled the Dragons 56-12 in Perpignan. A win against Saints will take them level on points with seventh placed Wigan who will have a Challenge Cup quarter final with Warrington on their minds, and within one of Saints with five games still to play. Don’t look down.
We have seen how difficult Saints are finding it to win on unfamiliar turf so upcoming home games with Salford, Hull FC and Catalans will likely go a long way to determining how close Holbrook’s side are to a top four spot when the Super 8s get under way in August.