Missed Opportunities (1)
When the 19-man squad for this one was announced on Wednesday it contained the name of Jonah Cunningham. Jonah is the son of Saints great and erstwhile coaching calamity Keiron Cunningham. His inclusion caused a huge buzz among the fans who were no doubt desperate to see whether the young Cunningham has what it takes to follow in his father’s footsteps and hold down the number nine role for years to come.
How disappointing then that Cunningham junior did not make the final match day 17. The visit from this struggling Leigh Centurions side seemed the perfect time to introduce Cunningham to the elite level. In the context of James Roby’s continued injury absence it is both disappointing and surprising that the coaching group of Jamahl Lolesi, Sean Long and Derek Traynor did not see this as the right time to give Cunningham his chance. It would have been great to see him at least come off the bench in relief of the hitherto underwhelming Tommy Lee. Instead that role was again filled by Morgan Knowles who to my mind always looks more comfortable in the back row.
There are no guarantees that Cunningham will ever be even 20% of the player his father was. Go and ask Paul Dalglish or Jordi Cruyff what it’s like to try and establish your own reputation in a sport which your father so easily mastered. Yet while there are many Paul Dalglishes and Jordy Cruyffs there are also some Peyton Mannings and Stuart Broads, men whose sporting exploits surpass those of their sporting fathers. Nobody should expect that of Jonah, but if he’s held back to accommodate the plodding Lee once Roby returns we will be waiting some time to find out how far young Cunningham can go in the game.
Focus On Tommy Lee
Cunningham’s omission from the side possibly warrants further anslysis of Lee, the man currently keeping the youngster out. Or if it doesn’t it’s going to get it anyway. Along with ex-Wigan shirt-snogger Matty Smith Lee was one of the least popular Keiron Cunningham signings. An injury prone career had seen him palpably refuse to pull up any trees, yet he was seen as a fit and proper deputy nine at a club that has been possessed of the best in that position for as long as most people can remember. But what exactly is it about Smith that had us all predicting that he would be nothing more than average?
Close scrutiny of his game offers a few suggestions. It might even be unfair to compare him to Roby though nominally they play the same position. Where Roby is a dynamic threat from dummy half Lee scooted out only four times for just 16 metres against Neil Jukes’ side, that following on from his two for seven metres in last week’s embarrassment at Widnes. His 24 tackles is not a Roby-like effort in defence even taken into account the fact that he does get spelled a lot more regularly than Roby. Lee’s two misses hardly make him a defensive liability but nor does that overall success rate scream reliability at you.
Yet it his work from dummy half in attack that is the real concern. We’ve seen what modest threat he offers running out from there, but even when he passes there are problems. He has a habit of taking two or three steps sideways before moving the ball on, which might not seem like much but can make all the difference. It gives the defensive line a small but crucial amount of time to rush out and close the space down. The delay must make it even more difficult to deliver an accurate pass and if it happens on the last play in Saints’ own half it invariably ends in a rushed, inaccurate kick from Smith. Nobody disputes that Lee gives his all, but we have to accept that like too many others in this squad his all is probably not enough to help drag Saints back towards the top of the table.
Missed Opportunities (2)
Saints were much more ambitious and fluent in attack in this one than they had been in last week’s sleepwalk to defeat at Widnes. They scored five nice tries with only Alex Walmsley’s late effort resembling the chill inducing barge-overs that seemed to define Keiron Cunningham’s attacking philosophy. Three of the four three-quarters got over the line as did stand-off Theo Fages as a still mis-cueing Saints offered glimpses of what might be possible in attack under the new regime.
Paradoxically the margin of victory flattered Saints in some ways yet with a little more ruthlessness it could have been even more comfortable for them. Quite how Adam Swift was hauled down by Rocky Hampshire after the Saints winger had supported Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook’s 50-metre chug down the field I will never know. I can’t have been the only one celebrating as Swift took McCarthy-Scarsbrook’s pass and hared off towards the line. Not only did his failure to score take a deserved assist off the LMS stats sheet, it also highlighted the lack of confidence which seems to have gripped Swift since he was shunted to the right wing to accommodate Regan Grace. Swift’s place in the side could be vulnerable when Jonny Lomax returns to allow Tommy Makinson to revert to the wing. Grace seems undroppable, though with Mark Percival on international duty for next week’s visit to Warrington the make-up of the three-quarter line is subject to change.
Makinson is another who should have had his name on the scoresheet but his failure to do so was not of his own doing. Following McCarthy-Scarsbrook’s earlier surge and with rocking horse droppings smothering the field, things got even sillier as Dominique Peyroux tore through the middle of the Leigh rearguard but, with Makinson alone and literally screaming on his inside Peyroux chose not to pass. He was promptly whacked by a Leigh defender to no doubt leave Makinson still steaming over his morning cuppa. Leigh have now lost seven games in a row and against better teams in the coming weeks Saints simply have to be more clinical.
A Different game
Walmsley was another Saint who was denied a try (though he scored later) by the narrowest of margins. Yet the England forward might, as he boards the flight to Australia with the rest of Wayne Bennett’s squad today, be contemplating the role played by referee Gareth Hewer in that. Walmsley appeared to have grounded the ball at the west end of the ground but was adjudged to have been held up by Hewer, one of a number of slightly puzzling calls from the whistler on the night.
Yet before we pile in on Hewer we should consider the circumstances in which he has to operate. For how much longer can we persist with the absolute folly of using video evidence at only two or three out of six weekly Super League fixtures? It thoroughly distorts the competition and consequently sullies the sport. Watching a recording of the televised Hull v Warrington clash I couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that I was watching a different sport from the one I saw at the stadium that dare not speak its name just hours earlier.
Only this week Jack Smith has reverted to refereeing part-time and that after Joe Cobb retired from the entire, thankless pursuit. George Stokes is another official recently lost to our game as fans increasingly point the finger at officials in their haste to protect their own team from any responsibility for their shortcomings. Video reviews will never completely eliminate that. There will always be people who see the same piece of evidence differently. But if we had replays at all Super League games it would at least level the playing field and perhaps give the currently beleaguered officials a little more help in their bid to improve. Which may in turn keep a few more of them in the game.
Disappointingly for fans of furious political ranting this has nothing to do with the witch at number 10 but instead refers to a difficult month ahead for Saints. They’ll travel to Warrington next week with both sides depleted by the inclusion of their players in the England squad for the meeting with Samoa. Happily Warrington’s recent good run came to a shuddering halt at Hull FC this weekend and they started to look much more like the rabble they were just before Saints handed them a 31-6 hiding on March 24. Yet the absence of Percival and Walmsley for Saints and of Stefan Ratchford and Chris Hill for Warrington is another variable which makes predictions perilous.
Following that Saints travel to Castleford for a Challenge Cup tie they should be desperate to win. It has been nine years since Saints last visited Wembley, a gap which matches their longest absence from the national stadium between 1978-1987. The Samoan game will still be a factor as those involved including Zak Hardaker, Luke Gale and Mike McMeeken for the Tigers, as they try to readjust to returning to the UK jet-lag and all. Memories of last season’s embarrassing home capitulation to Hull FC at this stage of the competition should be motivation enough for all concerned but that won’t make Daryl Powell’s side any easier to beat.
Following that is another showpiece event as Saints take on Hull FC at Newcastle’s Magic Weekend. The black and whites have suffered a couple of chastening 50-point thrashings in recent weeks as both Salford and Leeds ran riot. Yet at the time of writing before Castleford’s meeting with Wigan Lee Radford’s side sit top of the table regardless. They’ll be looking to cement that on the big occasion, and have already beaten Saints at the KCom this season.
The next home game for Saints is the return derby with Wigan on May 25, a winnable yet hardly appetising prospect before they visit Huddersfield just four days later to see out the month. The Giants may have been humiliated by Swinton in the Challenge Cup but they breezed past an in-form Leeds side in their last outing and are also the club responsible for the comeback from 14-0 down to draw 14-14 which finally did for the coaching aspirations of Cunningham senior. It would be quite fitting if Cunningham junior were to play a part in putting that result right but with Roby due back before then will the decision makers be brave enough to elevate Cunningham above Lee in the pecking order? Let’s hope it’s not too late to matter in the context of this season by then.