5 Talking Points From Saints’ 16-12 loss to Wakefield Trinity
Keiron Cunningham is my sporting hero. He’s the greatest player to wear the red vee in the 30-odd years that I’ve been watching. When he was appointed head coach for the start of the 2015 season it seemed like a natural progression. He’d been assstant to Nathan Brown as the pair presided over an unlikely League Leaders Shield and Grand Final double in 2014 and his appointment seemed to offer the kind of continuity that is often the hallmark of sporting dynasties.
Yet what has followed has been two years of stagnation and arguable regression. I’ve defended him repeatedly against calls for him to go from the less patient element of the fan base. I insisted that he be given time though he persisted with tired tactics which are not only unsuccessful but unrelentingly boring. No longer. We’ve suffered too much three-drives-and-a-kick drivel, too many embarrassing poundings during which our great club hasn’t even been competitive with average opposition. Salford away in early 2016 when rather than offer a chance to a youngster Keiron chose to ask Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook to play in the centres to cover injuries there. Hull FC at home in the Challenge Cup when the black and whites strolled to a 30-point win in the May sunshine. Huddersfield Giants at the Magic Weekend in Newcastle. The list goes on, culminating in last week’s chasing at Leigh Centurions and this latest and most miserable home defeat by Wakefield.
It’s crude and lacking the kind of flowery language you might expect from this column but Saints looked absolutely clueless last night. They didn’t resemble a rugby team at any level, let alone one with designs on challenging for honours in the top flight They had no go-forward from their massively over-rated pack for the most part, and the backs lack the speed and the handling skills to trouble even this modest opposition. The top four is the often stated aim but with this level of performance they’ll be lucky to avoid slumming it in the Middle 8 Qualifiers by August.
Though he would like to place it elsewhere the blame for all this lies principally with Keiron and with those above him who seem happy to stand by and do nothing. Fiddling while Rome burns and the Emperor finds ever more scandalous ways to place responsibility elsewhere. At Leigh it was the absence of a video referee to point out that actually Saints had scored a number of arse-numbing barge-over tries. This week it was the presence of a video referee, who saw fit to award a penalty try to Jacob Miller in the closing moments to seal Saints’ fate. We all find the inconsistencies that the current video refereeing arrangements throw up frustrating, but you simply can’t have it both ways.
Yet worse than that was his very clear assertion that we would have won the game had we had “a senior halfback” on the field. Not only does this unfairly single out young guys like Theo Fages and Danny Richardson who need backing to develop, but it also implies that Keiron’s hands are tied behind his back without Matty Smith. The same Matty Smith that nobody else really rates all that highly, and that Wigan were quite happy to offload to their greatest rivals for less than the cost of a Big Al pizza slice from The Marching Inn. We’re not talking about Alfie bloody Langer here. This was delusional excuse-making from Keiron and it just won’t do.
If all that doesn’t convince him to go (and why would it since he has forgotten more about rugby league than this wordy chancer will ever know) perhaps he might want to consider his own legacy with the club. We have come to the point now where some fans are so desperate for a change that they have resorted to clogging up social media with filthy, idiotic personal abuse of Keiron. Let’s all take a moment to think about that. Whatever you think of his coaching abilities it is absolutely criminal to disrespect this legendary figure, my sporting hero, to that extent.
He should go now for all our sakes.
But Who Could Do Better?
Whether Keiron remains in the job or not, there isn’t too much to be positive about over the next few weeks. Saints’ next three Super League assignments see them travel to Hull FC and to Perpignan to take on the Dragons before hosting Warrington on March 24. On current form they look to have almost no chance at all of taking any points from any of these fixtures. Hull started slowly with a narrow win over Wakefield and an even tighter loss at home to Catalans but are coming in off the back of a trouncing of the Giants. Meanwhile, as well as that win over FC the Dragons have despatched a Warrington side that was busy flattening Brisbane Broncos just two weeks ago. And we can’t beat Leigh or Wakefield.
But this apparent hopelessness might at least take the pressure off anyone coming in to replace Keiron temporarily or otherwise. Further defeats with Keiron in charge would just increase the level of ire aimed his way, but a new man would not have any expectations placed upon him so soon. The mess is far too…..well…….messy to expect a quick fix and so in some ways these next three tough games would be free hits. The problem with sacking Keiron right now would be that there doesn’t seem to be a credible and realistic alternative ready to step in.
The general consensus is that we’d like Daryl Powell to make the move west from Castleford Tigers. Powell’s long been admired as a man capable not only of getting the best from his resources but also of making his teams enjoyable to watch. He took that to another level this week as the Tigers single-handedly restored our faith in the game with a quite majestic display against the Rhinos. They didn’t reinvent the wheel with their pace, power, support play and high class fundamentals but it sure felt like it after these last few years of one-out, safety first, get-to-the-kick rugby that has seemed to dominate Super League.
Yet Powell, who may also be a target for Leeds as they face similar issues with their coach Brian McDermott as Saints do with Keiron, is just at the start of something big with Castleford. He’s had a taste before with a top four finish and a run to the Challenge Cup final in 2014 but now there are genuine signs that this Tigers side can be a contender for silverware again. Would he want to leave that to someone else to go and try to salvage something from the wreckage at Saints? When coaching jobs come up it’s usually because there’s damage to be repaired but having spent so long building Castleford up to a position of strength does he want to start the process again with Saints?
If not then we are left with stepping into the time warp that is apoointing someone previously successful like Daniel Anderson, or perhaps an assistant with an NRL club keen to prove himself as the main man. Like Steve McNamara. Yes, I’m rolling my eyes when I write that. Or, and more probably, we’ll see a member of the current backroom staff like Paul Wellens or even Sean Long appointed on a caretaker basis should Keiron be asked to leave his post.
Strange Selections And Even Stranger Body Shapes
Back to Wakefield now. If Keiron is looking for reasons for this humbling reverse he should first take a look at his team selections and how the personnel he has available to him are being managed. Jonny Lomax and Luke Douglas joined Smith in the physio’s room this week but did that really have to hurt so much? Tommy Makinson is a more than able deputy for Lomax at fullback but his positional shift paved the way for Keiron to include hard trainer and professional nice lad Jack Owens on the wing, while Douglas’ front row spot went to Luke Thompson from the start with debutant Adam Walker on the bench.
Both Owens and Walker looked overweight and unfit, and you could also ask questions about why Alex Walmsley, Kyle Amor and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook appear to be permanently blowing out of their backsides even though it is often the centres and wingers who are asked to do most of the hard carries in Keiron’s bonkers philosophy. What are this lot doing all week while you’re working hard for your ticket money? When your writer is face down at his desk pondering the point of it all on a Tuesday? We can’t expect every player to have Thurstonian rugby league skills but we can expect them to have basic levels of fitness for the level they are competing at. Walker in particular looked like Hodor from Game Of Thrones when he came on late in the first half, a clean shirted willing offloader but effective only in the way that the fat kid in the under 9s is effective.
If Walker was unmissable Tommy Lee was conspicuous by his absence. Signed as a plausible replacement for James Roby for when the old man gets a little gassed, Lee’s raison d’etre appears redundant only three games in. Lee is another signing which reluctant, underwhelmed fans were assured wouldn’t happen and yet here he is taking up cap space while not being good enough to even make the bench in the most uninspiring sports team since the Beacon Hills High School basketball team before Michael J Fox became the wolf. A team poor enough to make Dominique Peyroux a starter in the second row alongside Jon Wilkin, inexplicably moved from loose forward as if it would have any impact on his decision to appoint himself at halfback.
Were We Robbed?
In a word…..no. Despite Keiron’s claims there appeared little wrong with the video referee’s decision to award Miller that decisive penalty try. Richardson clearly made a grab for Miller while the Trinity man was trying to run the ball down and ground it. Clutching at the strawiest of straws you might make the case that a referee can’t be sure that a try would have been scored with a ball rolling around in wet conditions, but even if a regular penalty had been awarded Wakefield kick the goal for a 12-12 draw. And Saints don’t win at home to Wakefield anyway and we all scream just as loudly.
Were There Any Positives?
One. As frustrated as we all are with a back row of Peyroux, Wilkin and Morgan Knowles backed up by McCarthy-Scarsbrook there is hope for the future in that position with Zeb Taia. Recently arrived in the swap deal that took Joe Greenwood to Gold Coast Titans Taia took all of 10 seconds to dish out a shuddering hit on Scott Grix, while with the ball in hand the former Catalans Dragons man racked up 95 metres on 14 carries and, perhaps even more encouragingly, three offloads. Along with Walker he looked to turn in the tackle and get the ball away at every opportunity. With a few more showing that willingness to play expansively we’d have a glimmer of hope of actually hurting the opposition. This after all is a Saints side that has averaged a pitiful 12 points per game in its first three league outings, which is several times less than that wolf managed by himself.
If Taia hasn’t secured himself a starting slot for next week at Hull, and if KC hangs on long enough to give Peyroux another opportunity to pad out his CV then things will get an awful lot worse before they get better.