Saints and Barba live up to the hype
It seemed that everyone was tipping Saints for great things going into the opening weekend of the 2018 season. The perceived wisdom was that with a largely unchanged squad that had shown improvement under Justin Holbrook in the second half of 2017 Saints would kick on and become the team to beat. The sprinkling of stardust that is Ben Barba only served to strengthen that view as Holbrook’s men prepared to take on last season’s runaway league leaders Castleford Tigers. If the performance in this 46-6 pounding of Daryl Powell’s side is anything to go by then the experts clearly knew what they were talking about.
Led by the brilliant Barba Saints were unstoppable on the night. The Australian fullback grabbed a brace of tries for himself and helped England centre Mark Percival to a hat-trick. Barba’s pump-fake assist for Percival’s first try was utterly sumptuous, as was his searing break late in the game which put Percival away for his third. Barba racked up 157 metres and had three assists to add to his two tries. He also put the kick into the Tigers’ in-goal area which led to Alex Walmsley’s audacious assist for Jonny Lomax’s try. Yet it wasn’t just in attack where Barba starred. His ball and all cover tackle on last season’s top try scorer in Super League Greg Eden brought as loud a cheer from the crowd as any of Saints eight tries. In this sort of form Barba’s stay in St Helens, though likely to be relatively short, could have a similar impact to that of Mal Meninga or Jamie Lyon.
Walmsley deal a pleasant surprise
Perceived wisdom had been doing a lot of thinking ahead of the new season. As well as tipping Saints for glory it also held that 2018 would be Alex Walmsley’s last season in a Saints shirt. The NRL vultures were said to be circling and at 27 years old his next deal was always going to be his most important. It would decide where he would spend what should be the peak years of his career. So when it was announced just a few hours before the Tigers match kicked off that Walmsley had penned a new four-year deal with Saints the news was met with almost giddy excitement and no little surprise.
It means that the former Batley prop will be with Saints until the end of the 2022 season. Not only is this a massive boost for Saints but also for the Super League. At a time when we are finding it harder and harder to keep our best players in the competition Walmsley’s commitment to Saints is a message of hope to all Super League clubs. I shudder slightly to think about what financial arrangement has been agreed to make it happen but as Barry Davies once said about a certain hockey match frankly, who cares? Whatever he has been offered there were surely greater riches on offer in the NRL so it seems more likely that Walmsley’s decision is largely a rugby league one. Perhaps there was an inkling from all parties that his more direct style may not suit the NRL. He’s not a prop that puts doubt in the minds of defenders like James Graham. You know exactly what Walmsley is going to do. The trouble is that Super League defences don’t know how to stop it. He invariably ends up at or near the top of the list of Super League’s metre makers.
When his new deal kicks in he may also be at the top of Super League’s list of earners. But if he can continue the form he has shown since his switch to Saints in 2013 it will have been a wise investment for Saints who would have struggled to find a replacement in the current climate where bringing through your own talent, gambling on a lower league player or an ageing NRL player with enough baggage to be thrown off the flight seem to be the only recruitment strategies available.
Where now for Matty Smith?
Poor old Matty Smith. He arrived for his third spell with Saints at the start of 2017 finally expecting to nail down the number seven shirt. He couldn’t take it off Sean Long (although Jesus Christ couldn’t take it off Sean Long) and he couldn’t take it off Kyle Eastmond. Surely under Keiron Cunningham his Wile-E-Coyote-like pursuit of the Road Runner that was the scrum half berth was about to reach a successful conclusion?
Well…no actually. A broken leg in pre-season forced Smith out and forced Cunningham to blood Danny Richardson and rely more on Theo Fages. Since the arrival of Holbrook the picture has been complicated further for Smith by the addition of Barba. It has seen Lomax forced out of the fullback berth and into the stand-off role, leaving Smith to fight it out with Richardson and Fages for the remaing spot in the halves or a seat on the bench. In the opening clash with Castleford it was Smith’s misfortune to miss out as Richardson got the nod at 7 while Fages was used off the bench. It was probably Holbrook’s intention to have Fages replace James Roby at some point but in the event the French World Cup captain slotted in at stand-off at half-time due to Ryan Morgan picking up a head injury which shifted Lomax into the centres.
After such a resounding win against a quality side it is unlikely that Smith will force his way into the reckoning for this week’s visit to Catalans Dragons. Even if Morgan misses out Holbrook still has the option of moving Dominique Peyroux into the centres and so not disturbing the halfback combinations which worked so well in this one. Richardson’s goal-kicking caught the eye and may just have solved a long-standing problem for Saints and although he did turn down one or two blind alleys he did at least show a willingness to take on defenders and the pace to do it.
Given that he was signed as a potential starter and field general it is likely that Smith is taking up a significant amount of cap space. Holbrook must decide whether to try and offload Smith or stick with him for when injuries and suspensions bite. It’s just one game at the start of a long season but Saints fared pretty well without him in their opener.
Roby hits 400
One man they probably can’t do without at the moment is James Roby. Handed the captaincy of his home town team in the week leading up to the start of the season Roby’s first game as skipper coincided with his 400th appearance for the club since making his debut in 2004. He has scored 97 tries in that time and has had about as many bad games as I’ve had dates with members of Little Mix. This was another nine out of ten performance from the great man, somewhat overshadowed by Barba and Percival’s exploits but nevertheless good for 135 metres, with two tackle busts and a try assist. Only Barba and Zeb Taia ran for more ground in a Saints jersey this week. The one blot on the copybook for Roby was his inability to find the supporting Tommy Makinson on his right shoulder after picking up a loose ball and scampering down the field, slowing down with every step beyond the half way line.
He may not have the pace any more. By his own admission in his post-match interview he might have finished off the break ‘about 10 years ago’. But he’s still all action, adding to his impressive stats in attack with a team-leading 40 tackles in another tireless defensive stint. The argument that he needs a viable back-up at hooker continues to carry weight yet he continues to defy it. He even brings the best out of others, with Jon Wilkin now released from the burden of the captaincy and freed to concentrate on the job of gaining 80 metres on 10 carries from the second row, including the clean break that led to the first of Taia’s two tries.
But guess who provided the pass to put Wilkin through the line? You got it. Number nine.
Despite the win there are some selection dilemmas for Holbrook.
Saints visit Catalans Dragons on Saturday in Round 2 (February 10) and will no doubt go to France full of themselves. Their confidence will be further boosted by the fact that Steve McNamara’s side were thrashed 40-12 in their opener by a Widnes Vikings side which almost everybody, including this so-called expert, had predicted would finish bottom of Super League after the 23 regular season rounds.
Everything seems to be in Saints favour for this one then, but Holbrook may still look to make improvements to his side. Walmsley was helped off just over 10 minutes from the end of the Tigers game and any injury to him could offer a reprieve to Kyle Amor. The former Wakefield man came up with an error in the first set of the evening, setting the tone for an underwhelming performance from him personally. He made a modest 79 metres on 11 carries and 19 tackles, while also getting himself needlessly sin-binned for trying to evoke memories of David Beckham in France in 1998 with a petulant flick of the knee at the play-the ball. I doubt they’ll be burning effigies of the popular Cumbrian but I doubt also that he’s going to turn his form around in the way that Beckham did either.
Luke Douglas was involved in the Saints Select XIII’s friendly win over North Wales Crusaders at the weekend and could earn a recall at Amor’s expense, while Matty Lees also awaits a chance to build on his first team experience.
If Peyroux is moved to the centres to cover Morgan it could provide an opportunity for James Bentley to make his Super League debut, although the performance of Wilkin and the 122 metres gained by Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook show that he has a case for more game time also. Saints have options and the Dragons look especially vulnerable.