Saints Edge War Of Attrition
I had hoped to get through the whole of the 2017 season without reference to The Grind. It’s so dripping with cliche by now that hearing or reading it has become nails down the blackboard stuff. In two live televised games so far three players have already talked about getting into or staying in said Grind so you hardly need me to barf on about it here. Besides, we all get a much bigger belly laugh from the term Energy Battle which to my mind hasn’t yet lost all of it’s comedic power. Yet the fact remains that both of these terms are difficult to avoid when trying to describe the manner of Saints’ 6-4 victory over Leeds Rhinos.
It wasn’t pretty, particularly in an error-strewn first half. It was a game which saw three times as many penalties as clean breaks and a paltry, union-esque two tries. Not that this meant that it lacked intrigue and tension, with both sides defending with the kind of heroism that actually led a limited Wigan side to the title in 2016. Saints just couldn’t hold on to the ball consistently enough to give themselves a chance to post more points. Fifteen errors is a tally which will disappoint coach Keiron Cunningham and which looks particularly ugly in the context of Saints’ persistence with a conservative style of play. Four of those errors were the responsibility of Adam Swift who endured a difficult night especially when charged with the responsibility of returning kicks from deep inside his own half. In all Saints managed just nine successful offloads which is only half as many as a Leeds team which, although noted for its ability to give the ball some air, was hardly playing in hot potato mode. Yet it’s Round 1, and perhaps the only thing that really matters is the collection of two points against a side which is widely expected to return to the top four shake-up after what was a shambolic defence of its 2015 treble.
A Mixed Night For The New Boys
Saints made five off-season signings ahead of 2017, three of whom made their competitive debuts in this one. Centre Ryan Morgan carried the ball only seven times for 55 metres but showed enough strength and footwork to suggest that he will offer the attack the balance it has been sorely lacking in recent seasons. His attacking involvement was no doubt reduced when he was switched to the wing to cover Tommy Makinson’s switch to full-back when Jonny Lomax left the field with a concussion. Morgan also chipped in with 10 tackles in defence even if he was caught out a little for Joel Moon’s first half score for Leeds. Even then the try might have been prevented had the otherwise excellent Makinson not slipped when charging out to try to shut down the play. Morgan did not miss a tackle and managed to bust out of one on a promising first outing.
Morgan’s compatriot Luke Douglas struggled early on, losing possession on two first half occasions, one of which could have led to a try had he managed to cling on to Jon Wilkin’s defence splitting inside ball. Douglas was also responsible for the concession of three of the 10 penalties given against Saints by referee Phil Bentham and will quickly need to iron those flaws out of his game. Eight carries for 44 metres is pretty modest fare for a front row forward (compare it with Alex Walmsley’s 154 metres on 17 carries or James Roby’s 104 metres from 11 carries off the bench for example) but the former Gold Coast Titan did weigh in with 33 tackles, missing just one to provide a solid defensive presence.
Cunningham’s decision to start Tommy Lee ahead of Roby at hooker surprised many and very probably dismayed a few. Yet the ex-Salford man turned in a more than passable performance long enough to allow Roby to conserve his energy and so have a significant impact on the game later on. If Lee was signed to keep Roby fresher then it was pretty much mission accomplished. Not only that but he showed in his second half stint that he can be on the field alongside Roby and so allow Saints to have two decent pivots with good distribution at dummy half. Lee carried the ball only four times (just two of which were from dummy half) but put in 27 tackles and even managed an offload. Fears that Saints will lose too much with Roby playing less minutes at this late stage of his career seem to have been allayed for now.
Had it not been for the unfortunate broken leg he suffered in the pre-season win over Widnes Matty Smith would have been a fourth new signing to make his debut for Saints, albeit second time around for the former Wigan man. For all the opposition to his signing from our pie munching brethren you probably wouldn’t have found too many Saints fans who were not a tad anxious about his absence from the side for this season opener. Full credit must go to Cunningham for handing a Super League debut to Danny Richardson in Smith’s absence as the youngster turned in a highly assured performance alongside the seemingly possessed Theo Fages in the halves. Richardson’s kicking game was far more effective than we had any right to expect from one so inexperienced, while in defence he was not the weak link that many had feared he might be given his stature in comparison to that of the men he was consistently charged with stopping. The Rhinos targeted both Richardson and Fages in defence but both stood up admirably. Richardson missed just two of his 25 attempts while Fages recorded a barely credible 42 tackles largely from the stand-off position, missing just once.
It is hugely questionable whether either of the young halves could have had the impact that they did without the quite stellar performance of Wilkin. The skipper is usually a target for the critics but shook off all coffee-relatec slurs to play a crucial role in this win. Wilkin took just enough responsibility to compensate for the inexperience of Fages and Richardson without seeming to make it all about him as he has been accused of in the past. He could hsve added to one try assist had the handling of his colleagues been better while in defence he was nothing short of immense. His 60 tackles represent a phenomenal effort, and not many of them were the kind of stat-padding, third-man-in rubbish that is favoured by so many in the modern game. He conceded just the one penalty, and that was an intelligent one as he hung on to the tackled Tom Briscoe to give his team-mates flood back into position. There are those who would declare the traditional, ball-playing loose forward to be extinct, preferring to see an extra prop-forward selected. But with Smith set to be out for at least another two months Wilkin’s role will be crucial as Fages and Richardson develop.
Walker Absence Shows Squad Depth
Though there were four debutants in the Saints line-up it was nevertheless disappointing not to get a first look at Adam Walker. The prop forward was brought in from relegated Hull KR but could not command a place in Cunningham’s 17 for the visit of Brian McDermott’s side, even with fans’ blue-eyed Bale Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook still recovering from a hip operation. Walker had impressed during Scotland’s Four Nations campaign and was thought to be exactly the kind of mobile, offloading front rower who could give Saints’ boring brand of rugby the kick up the proverbial that it so desperately needs. Yet his competetive debut will have to wait until at least the visit to Leigh on February 24. Both he and McCarthy-Scarsbrook will come into Cunningham’s thinking for the visit to Leigh Sports Village which will come on the back of a week off for Saints while the Centurions, outclassed by Castleford in their opener, will be battling it out with the Rhinos.
If Walker and/or McCarthy-Scarsbrook are to come in then perhaps Douglas and Luke Thompson look the most vulnerable. We have seen what Douglas contributed against Leeds aside from keeping up Saints’ quota of Lukes, while Thompson experienced similar difficulties. His two errors were costly in terms of losing momentum, but his supporters would perhaps point to his 40 tackles and his 91 metres on 15 carries as evidence that he has done enough to keep his place. For Cunningham it must just be nice to have options now, not only in the pack but also in the halves as we have seen with the emergence of Richardson. Will it be same again at Leigh?
The Last Word For Tommy’s Tackles
All of Saints’ sterling work would have come to nought had it not been for a couple of timely interventions from Makinson. Early in the second half Kallum Watkins brushed off the attentions of Mark Percival before handing on to Liam Sutcliffe in support. The Leeds stand-off looked certain to score before Makinson, playing out of position in his first game for 11 months after breaking a leg at Widnes, sprung from nowhere to execute the perfect ball and all try-saver. In a game of few breaks it felt significant even with the best part of 40 minutes still to play.
Much later and for an encore, Makinson forced Ryan Hall into touch as the England winger attempted to get on the outside of the Saints defence with less than a minute remaining. Hall looks as though he has had a good Christmas, let’s say, but it is still no mean feat for a player of Makinson’s size to force Hall over the sideline to preserve the win. Makinson only made three tackles all night, but often it is making them when you have to which can be the difference between success and failure, victory and defeat. Should Lomax fail to recover from his concussion in time to play at Leigh the majority of fans will surely be more worried about who will replace Makinson on the wing (Jack Owens……?) than they will about Makinson filling in at fullback.