Righting The Wrongs
Any time you lose as badly as Saints did in the Challenge Cup at Castleford last week it is not unreasonable for the fans to call for changes to the personnel. To do anything else might send out a message that no matter how poorly they perform the majority of the players are safe in the shirt. And hasn’t that been the problem with Saints for far too long now? Too many players guaranteed a spot in the 17 without really having to earn it?
Well this weekend’s clash with Hull FC at Newcastle’s Magic Weekend was slightly different. It was the first opportunity for incoming Saints Head Coach Justin Holbrook to see his new charges in the flesh, making real for everyone the idea that this is a new start. Everyone has to prove to the new boss that they are worth keeping around as he starts the process of shaping his own squad. In many ways the disasters that had come before, particularly those at Castleford and Warrington in recent weeks were an irrelevance. Holbrook comes at this with fresh eyes.
In any case, there just isn’t the depth in the current squad for wholesale changes. Who, outside the 17 which took the field at St James’ Park is banging on the door demanding to be selected? Greg Richards? Dominique Peyroux? Jack Owens? Adam Walker? None of the aforementioned have proven themselves any better than the men in possesion of the shirts. There was a case for introducing some youth but was Danny Richardson ever likely to displace safety first’s Matty Smith at half for a game like this? On a national stage and with Saints desperate for a performance to offer at least some hope for the remainder of the year? Was this the time to hand Ricky Bailey another chance after his error-strewn performance at Widnes a month ago? Or the largely untried Calvin Wellington whose last appearance saw him unceremoniously yanked from the action by Keiron Cunningham after one error during last year’s Magic defeat to Huddersfield? Probably not.
Saints made just one change to the 17 with Richards replaced by Tommy Lee and it proved to be the right call. The suggestion is that it was Holbrook’s call, that it was Holbrook who wanted to see if the vast majority of those humiliated at Castleford could offer a response. And boy, did they….
A Note Of Caution
Saints were outstanding on the day. They ran hard, defended superbly and cut down the errors in possession. It’s still surprising to note that there were 11 of those, which is only three fewer than their average for the season going into the game. But they enjoyed so much posession in this one that even those errors represent a much improved set completion rate. That domination was due to their defensive work and Hull’s uninspired attacking play. Hull made the same number of handling errors as Saints, but did so with far fewer opportunities with ball in hand. That Saints made almost 100 tackles fewer than FC tells its own story. Saints missed only 15 tackles, considerably better than their season average of around 24 coming into this one. Holding a side which racked up 62 points without reply against Catalans Dragons last week to a big duck egg on the scoreboard can only be blamed on poor attack and an off day for Lee Radford’s side to a point. The rest is down to a monumental improvement in attitude and application from a Saints side also unrecognisable from the one we saw a week ago.
However. There’s always a but. Though I am loathe to pour cold water on the celebrations I’m not quite sure that our problems are over. We have had good performances before, namely back to back wins over Catalans and Warrington in March, before regressing again. Consistency is something which this side has found elusive so far in 2017 and is the reason why it finds itself fighting just to get into the Super 8s. One win against an FC side which remember shipped over 50 points to Leeds and Salford in April does not make us a top four contender.
Even the style issues remain and will do so until enough evidence has been provided to the contrary. Saints controlled this game beautifully and second half tries by Tommy Makinson, Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook and Regan Grace showed that they can play with skill and pace at times. Yet for all their first half dominance Saints’ three tries came from two kicks and an Alex Walmsley barge-over. Do those types of scores become more entertaining if they are part of a 45-0 win over a top side than they are as consolations when you have conceded 50 points and the game has gone? I’d suggest not. Enjoy the win by all means, but it is premature to declare the return of the entertainers tag. And we probably shouldn’t book those tickets for Old Trafford just yet…..
Has Morgan Finally Settled?
If I asked you to name the four players who jointly lead Saints in try-scoring in 2017 without the aid of t’internet you’d probably get two fairly quickly. It’s no surprise to see Mark Percival or Adam Swift on that list but few would expect to see Walmsley there also. The fourth is surprising in a different way. Ryan Morgan was expected to provide plenty of attacking threat after joining from Melbourne Storm but has endured a rather sticky start to his Saints career. He’s been heavily criticised for his defensive reading of the game and for a perceived lack of pace, encapsulated when his scamper down the AJ Bell Stadium touchline was halted by former Saint, the hardly speedy Mark Flanagan in a wretched defeat to the Red Devils in March.
Amid suggestions that Morgan had not settled in the north of England his underwhelming form was thought to be an indication that he would soon depart. Another NRL import failing to settle and returning to Australia for family reasons. He spent some time out of the side, Matty Fleming taking his place for the Easter Monday win over Castleford which was easily Saints’ best performance of the season before this week’s Magic destruction of Hull FC. Yet Morgan has played his way back into the side to the extent that Fleming has been allowed to join Leigh Centurions on loan for a month. Morgan looks set for an extended run in the side and with Holbrook offering a fresh approach there may be hope for Morgan’s Saints career yet. I could have sworn I even saw him crack a smile in the aftermath of Makinson’s length of the field march through the Hull defence. It was difficult not to enjoy it.
We can argue that six tries is a disappointing benchmark that should not really earn a place among the top try-scorers of a club like Saints but it shows at least that the much maligned Morgan is doing as much as anyone to aid the Saints cause. He had three tackle busts in this one while defensively he missed only one of 17 tackle attempts. If Holbrook can help balance the attack to get more attacking impetus down Morgan’s right channel we may yet see the player we hoped we were getting all along.
The Barba Question
Rumours abounded at the weekend that former Brisbane Broncos and Cronulla Sharks full back Ben Barba was hanging around the Saints dressing room with more than a suspicion that he could be about to be unveiled as Saints’ marquee signing. Holbrook publicly admitted to having had ‘a couple of chats’ with the brilliant Aussie, which rather suggests that a deal which would have been laughable under Cunningham is actually close.
But is it all too good to be true? Barba is currently the subject of a 12-game ban in the NRL for cocaine use and it remains unclear whether he would be made to serve that ban during a stint with any Super League club or else have it deferred for when he returns to the NRL. That last sentence alone rings all manner of alarm bells. It seems clear that Barba’s long term plan is to get back to the NRL. An expensive deal for him to come to Saints just for the remainder of this dead horse of a season seems a fairly barmy idea regardless of at what point his ban is served. Unless Saints can secure his services beyond the end of this season it appears a pointless, boobs on a donkey excersise.
A deal for 2018 as well ould be worth a shot. We saw with Mal Meninga and Jamie Lyon way back when what effect a genuinely world class player can have on a club’s culture, how it galvanises players and fans. Yet those two joined Saints in vastly different financial climates, Meninga at a time when it was still possible to play on both sides of the world because the seasons didn’t clash, and Lyon at a time when the money on offer and the standard of rugby in Super League was at least comparable to those in the NRL. The NRL is very much the place to be nowadays and I would be wary of creating another Chris Sandow/James Segeyaro situation in which the Super League club serves a purpose before being left in the lurch.
The other thing to consider is the moral question. If the NRL choose to defer the ban can the RFL justify turning what would essentially be a blind eye to Barba’s offence? Have we reached the stage where Super League is just that desperate for star quality that morality goes out of the window? I fear we have..
Should Magic Live On?
Holbrook marvelled at the Magic Weekend concept in his post match interview. There is certainly nothing like it in Australia and it does provide the game with an exciting showcase event that is for the many and not just the few good enough to participate in Challenge Cup or Super League Grand Finals.
It’s here to stay, but should it be? Isn’t there an argument that this extra fixture, as much fun as it is, distorts the competition? How can it be fair for top four chasing Leeds Rhinos to have to play three regular season matches against the points machine that is Castleford while top four chasing Wakefield get three goes at Championship standard Widnes? It worked out well for Saints this time, but I’m sure three fixtures against a very good Hull FC side does us no favours in a season of struggle. The pairings seem arbitrary and based only on what the game’s governors decide will provide the best spectacle. They undeniably disadvantage some sides and help others. Is the need to raise the profile of the sport in new areas a priority over conmpetitive integrity? Does it work anyway? How many Geordies have been to Magic on any of the last three occasions and left with the desire to continue to follow the sport.
I won’t even get started on those superhero shirts. Some of them only needed the addition of a cape to make Super League stars look like toddlers attending nursery on World Book Day. A shirt for charity is a worthy pursuit but charging fans top dollar for some of the most horrendous garb ever worn on a sports field seems beyond the pale. None of it would be necessary without Magic which, arguably, should be hoofed into touch in favour of a weekend of internationals or a 9s competition similar to that which currently raises the curtain on the NRL season. I know….I know…..imagine the shirts they’d produce. But if that doesn’t take your fancy then imagine what it would be like not to have your players flown half way around the world for internationals and so miss an important Super League derby. An international break instead of a third regular season fixture with Hull FC, or a third between Castleford and Leeds which could lead to as many as five between them including the Super 8s and the playoffs.
It could work.