Senior, Seven, Saviour
Keiron Cunningham told you that if only we’d had a senior halfback on the field we’d have been good enough to beat Wakefield. And boy, wasn’t he right about that! Yet even he might have been surprised by just how much influence the return of Matty Smith had on the Saints side during this routine win over an increasingly desperate Warrington outfit. What a time to be alive!
“He’s so influential. He’s a leader and his game management is second to none. That’s why we brought him to the club.” the coach Keiron Cunninghamed following a typically Matty Smith-like display on his third Saints debut. The former Wigan man kicked beautifully, not least when unleashing a pin-point crossfield kick of rare beauty to allow Jack Owens to claim his second try in as many games. Indeed, three of Saints’ five tries came about as a direct result of kicks as James Roby and Jon Wilkin also got in the act to set up Zeb Taia and Adam Swift respectively. Which either means that those who feared that the addition of Smith would turn Saints into a well oiled ubergrinder of a machine capable of arm wrestling any opponent to a yawnsone death were right all along, or that actually the presence of a composed, experience and dare one say it ‘senior’ seven is entirely conducive to winning, entertaining rugby. It very much depends on your perspective. The other point to make is that it was again nice to see Owens get some tangible reward for his efforts. However out of his depth he appears he’s not helped by a gameplan which appears to view him as an extra prop forward.
Smith And His Possible Side Effects
What is probably less in dispute is the idea that Smith’s presence will help endear Wilkin to the fans once more. As long as Smith is calling the shots in the middle of the field it means that Wilkin is not, and is therefore free to return to the business of playing as a ball-playing forward. You remember those? Wilkin fulfilled that remit here to the tune of 7.44 metres per carry, 32 tackles, that try assst for Swift which the skipper deliciously grubbered through with his weaker right foot, and quite the most bizarre 40/20 in the relatively short history of the genre. It’s a one game sample but the early evidence is that Smith, for all that he was discarded by the other lot, for all the suggestions of badge kissing and being generally the most vanilla halfback of all time, makes Wilkin better. Which has to count for something, right?
The one flaw in Wilkin’s performance was perhaps the fact that he managed to miss four tackles. He’s always good for the odd botched assignment in defence purely because he puts himself in a position to attempt so many tackles. Yet he missed almost half as many in this game as he had in Saints’ previous five league games combined. His tally here is significant because it is the exception which highlights the rule which is that actually, Saints missed only 17 tackles between them against Tony Smith’s side. A side, lest we forget, literally stacked with attacking talent in the likes of Kevin Brown, Kurt Gidley, Stefan Ratchford as well as barnstorming pack men like Chris Hill and Daryl Clarke. To put that figure in context Saints had missed an average of almost 28 tackles per game coming into this visit from the Wolves. With Smith controlling the game in attack Saints were able to largely dominate possession and territory and when you do that you use less energy in defence and are likely to be more efficient when you do have to defend.
Scoring Spree Was…….Saintsy…
There’s a term used widely if a little ruefully by fans and general observers of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. That term is ‘Spursy’, which basically translates to an adjective describing Spurs’ ability to consistently fail to live up to expectations. To bottle it. Finishing third in last season’s two-horse Premier League race was a distinctly Spursy achievement.
I mention this because I was reminded of it during Saints’ scoring spree of three tries in five minutes at the end of the first half which took them into an 18-0 half-time lead and pretty much ended the argument. First Roby’s short kick was butchered by Matty Russell in-goal to allow Taia to pounce, before Smith’s exquisite link up with Owens was Swiftly followed by Adam’s (CLUNK!) first score as he supported Mark Percival’s searing break after more good work by Taia. We could have all gone home there and then. It was a devastating spell. It was Saintsy.
We seem to spend long hours lamenting the loss of many of the traditions we associate with Saints these days as Keiron’s Middles take precedence over notions of entertainment. But three tries in five minutes against Warrington in particular, however it is achieved, is one of the most Saintsy things that I can think of. Such things were routine in happier times for the club so it was nice to once again revel in the quickfire dismantling of our second favourite rival. Is this the promised land?
Is Team Selection Still An Issue?
It all worked out swimmingly in the end but I can’t have been the only one rolling up to the stadium formerly known as Langtree Park who was a little concerned about Cunningham’s starting line-up. Specifically, the decision to start Tommy Lee at hooker ahead of James Roby. We’ve all heard the argument about how Roby needs to be spelled at this stage of his career. There’s little dispute about that. But if you’re going to sit your best player down for a while you need to make sure you have someone who can come in and do a similar job. Starting Lee ahead of Roby is like cutting the grass with a pair of scissors because you’re worried about wearing out your lawn mower. Lee’s passing out of dummy half is markedly slower and less accurate than that provided by Roby, and he does not get out from dummy half with nearly the same level of effectiveness. Irrespective of cheap jibes about whether or not Lee was overawed by the recent trip to Leigh the former Hull and Salford man has it all to do to prove that he belongs in the upper echelons of Super League.
Lee can point to the fact that he offered as much in defence as Roby (16 tackles with only one miss for both) while in attack he busted out of two tackles and provided the smart inside ball that allowed Alex Walmsley to crash over for the final try of the night. But Roby’s six scoots from dummy half to Lee’s two shows the added threat carried by Roby around the ruck. The adaptability of both has allowed Cunningham to leave them out on the field together at times but at the same time it’s a strategy which defeats the object of signing Lee which is namely to allow Roby to play less minutes. If that’s not going to happen we have players more worthy of game time at this level.
The only other changes to the starting line-up from the Catalans game saw Wilkin revert to loose forward in place of the injured Morgan Knowles, a move which also accommodated Smith, while 5 Talking Points pin-up Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook was preferred to Dominique Peyroux in the second row. There is little to choose between those two and it is hard to criticise Cunningham for selecting one over the other. It’s a choice forced on him, albeit by recruitment mistakes on his watch. Nevertheless it must be frustrating to be Ryan Morgan right now, watching every movement of the ball to his right hand channel die with yet another skip across to the inside by LMS. His 27 tackles in defence show his commitment to the cause but his tank was empty long before Cunningham finally bit the bullet and introduced Peyroux with 20 minutes to go.
The Revival Must Continue Ahead Of A Tough Easter
Two weeks ago the prospect of the Good Friday visit to Wigan seemed a grim one. Pie Minister Shaun Wane had his team flying high while Saints were floundering outside the top eight. Since when Wigan have become somewhat injury ravaged and have failed to beat either Huddersfield Giants or Hull FC at home. Meanwhile we have all seen the improvement in Saints in the wins over Catalans Dragons and again here over Warrington. Whisper it, but if the respective trajectories of Saints and Wigan continue over the next few weeks then we could enter derby day with an even shot at the very least. Nobody need overstate the importance of getting a result at Wigan but it is perhaps even more vital this year taking into account our shaky start and the fact that the visit to the DW Stadium is followed just three days later by a home clash with a Castleford side which was destroying everything in its path until a surprise defeat at Salford last week.
Before that we have a chance to continue building momentum with two very winnable games. The first of those is at Salford this Thursday night (March 30) when Saints will look to banish a particularly painful memory. The last visit to the AJ Bell Stadium ended in a chastening 44-10 walloping at the hands of the Red Devils and saw Saints turn in the type of performance which has regularly blighted the Cunningham tenure. There’s a feeling not only of a score to settle but also that the coach is running out of the kind of good will needed to be able to absorb any more embarrassing, heavy defeats. It complicates things further to note that in beating Castleford and Warrington already this year Salford have shown that they can be a match for anyone on their day, especially on home soil.
Following that is the visit of the Giants. Despite that draw at Wigan they have won only two of their first seven league outings. They suffered again at the hands of Leeds this week and do not look like a genuine contender again this term following a disastrous 2016. Having already lost at home to Wakefield Saints simply must win this type of game if they want to mount a serious challenge for a playoff spot. As much as Cunningham has dismissed recent defeats as mere blips he must also accept that two good victories don’t get him completely out of the woods. He needs to achieve consistency and for a club like ours that means handling the likes of Salford and Huddersfield with minimum of fuss before what will be a hugely demanding Easter period