One-Hundred Percent Attendance
Some things are just inevitable. Things like…..having someone in your office who will from today start telling you each and every day how many days there are to Christmas. Like hearing the word ‘Brexit’ during each and every news bulletin on television and radio for the next two years. Like Tom Cruise running in a movie or Harry Redknapp getting the sack and blaming everyone else. And so, as sure as all of these things and as sure as eggs are…well….eggs Saints have made into another Super League playoff series.
This did not look likely a few short months ago. Keiron Cunningham was escorted out of the building in early April following a 14-14 home draw with Huddersfield Giants which could most kindly and euphemistically be described as uninspiring. After a short interim under the control of Jamahl Lolesi, Sean Long and Derek Traynor Justin Holbrook swept in with what looked like a brief of keeping Saints in the top eight and so sparing them the indignity of the qualifiers. The Round Of Warrington, if you like.
Helped by the generous ineptitude of the rest of the league Holbrook managed that and then some, guiding Saints to a fourth place finish and a semi-final spot after this 30-4 win over Salford Red Devils at the AJ Bell Stadium. It means that Saints are the only club never to have missed out on knock-out football at the end of a season since playoffs were re-introduced in 1998. Nobody would have believed it when Cunningham’s Saints were five-drives-and-a-kicking their way to that turgid draw with the Giants in April but Saints are again just 80 minutes away from what would be a record 11th Grand Final in the summer era.
Saints finish fourth in the table after the Super 8s for the third year in a row, which given the size and the ambition of the club might not be too much to jump up and down about. Yet there is something altogether more positive and brimming with hope about the way Holbrook has achieved it as opposed to the way Cunningham went about it in his two full seasons in charge. Saints were terrible at certain times during this one, but it is in the execution where they currently fall down and no longer because they are tied to a doomed and dull philosophy. Whatever happens from here a proud record has been maintained for which Holbrook deserves all the credit in the world. There’s still a job to do but doesn’t it feel good to just be there after the year we’ve had? Especially without ‘them’? You know? Them?
Both Big Calls Were Correct
If we are being brutally honest we might surmise that Saints’ cause was given a hefty push by the decision of James Child to send off Red Devils’ Ryan Lannon for a late and high challenge on Theo Fages in the first half. It came just moments after Alex Walmsley was involved in an incident with Jordan Walne which was eerily reminiscent of the one which saw Hull FC’s Liam Watts wrongly red-carded for an alleged elbow on Michael McIlorum a fortnight ago. Here Walmsley used the arm to protect himself as Walne came in to make the tackle, the Saints man unfortunately catching Walne in the head with the forearm. Yet Walmsley cannot be expected to run into the tackle with his arms by his sides. He has to protect both himself and the ball. There was no intent from Walmsley while Walne was unfortunate to get his head in the wrong position at the wrong moment. The fact that Walne required treatment for his head injury seemed to convince the home fans that a terrible wrong had been committed but in truth the clash was purely accidental. The one thing that Child got wrong was in putting the incident on report to cover his own derriere. We await the outcome of the impending further analysis of the incident with interest.
Turning to Lannon he can have no complaints about having his bath run earlier than planned. He took two or three steps towards Fages after the Frenchman had kicked the ball away before making contact with the head with his arms. It was a perfect example of a defender trying to ‘leave one on’ a kicker in a vulnerable position. Red cards are fairly rare in rugby league because referees are always conscious of being accused of ruining the spectacle. The extra man in such a physically demanding game is a huge advantage that can often lead to one-sided matches. Yet in dismissing Lannon the much maligned Child made a gutsy but correct call.
The Importance Of Alex
Saints will have been perspiring bucket loads as they awaited the outcome of any further scrutiny of the Walmsley incident. Had the RFL taken the rather berserk view that Watts’ dismissal for a similar offence warranted some kind of recognition of wrong-doing here then they could, at a push, have invited Walmsley to take a rest this week as Saints go to Castleford for the semi-final.
That would have been nothing short of a disaster for Saints, for whom Walmsley has long been the outstanding performer in the pack. He showed up again against Ian Watson’s men to the tune of 175 metres on 23 carries including four tackle busts and three offloads. Who says the big lad can’t pass? Not only was Walmsley Saints’ leading metre maker on the night but he also pitched in with two tries, barging over in the first half to ground the ball in a crowd before rampaging on to Matty Smith’s pass for his second. The announcement that he has no charge to answer is possibly the biggest boost to their hopes of making Old Trafford that Saints could have received in a the lead-up to the visit to Castleford.
Walmsley is used off the bench by Holbrook to give his side some real impact and punch after around 20 minutes. To have been denied that by what would have been a highly dubious disciplinary decision could have been fatal to Saints hopes of causing an upset against the League Leaders Shield winners at the Mend-A-Hose Jungle. Luke Douglas turned in arguably his best performance in a Saints shirt at the AJ Bell with 120 metres on 17 carries, pitching in with 24 tackles on defence also. Luke Thompson and James Roby also broke the 100-metre barrier but Walmsley is the only prop that has made that kind of contribution consistently in 2017. He leads all Super League players in metres made with 4256, over 800 metres more than the next best forward on the list Adam Cuthbertson of Leeds. You get the feeling that, Along with Roby, Walmsley is someone that Saints cannot do without.
Has Smith Played His Way Back In?
One player who most fans felt that the side could very well do without is Smith. Holbrook seemed to agree in keeping him out of the reckoning for last week’s win over Huddersfield, and it was thought that the three-time Saint and former Grand Final winner with Wigan would again miss out when Saints visited the Red Devils. Yet an injury to the oft-crocked Jonny Lomax brought about a change of plan, with Fages restored to the starting line-up at stand-off and Smith brought on to the bench in relief of Danny Richardson. As it turned out Richardson struggled to stamp his authority on the game at times and the general consensus of opinion is that Smith’s second half introduction, while not spectacular, steadied a few nerves and brought about a greater level of composure for Saints after they had toiled in their attempts to break down the 12 men.
And so the debate about who should start at scrum half swings back Smith’s way. Or so it seems. He may not be the man for the long term but there are many, possibly including Holbrook, who believe that Smith’s qualities are those which are most needed for the challenge of toppling Daryl Powell’s side on their own patch. Certainly a calm head and good organisational skills will come in useful but can Holbrook afford to sacrifice the speed and guile that Richardson offers at his best? Will Lomax prove his fitness and come back into the halves alongside Smith? That would represent a huge gamble given the way that the pair failed to fire together in the recent defeat to Wigan but it now seems that so unsettled is the issue around Saints’ halfback pairing that any two from Lomax, Smith, Fages and Richardson brings its own risks. Whichever way he goes Holbrook won’t go short of people telling him in the strongest terms that he got it all wrong should Saints’ midfield not function on Thursday night (September 28).
Welcome To The Jungle
Friday night (September 22) saw a half-strength Castleford Tigers side suffer a fairly comprehensive 48-16 home defeat by Hull FC. That secured a semi-final spot for the black and whites and had everyone laughing at mental images of Shaun Wane mashing his calculator ahead of Wigan’s visit to Wakefield on Saturday (September 23). Yet as much as we all laughed at Wane’s side’s pitiful attempts in West Yorkshire it all left Saints to contemplate the prospect of the more difficult of the two possible semi-final assignments.
The Tigers have finished the season 10 points clear of Leeds in second place having lost just five out of 30 league games. To put that in some kind of context Saints have been turned over no fewer than 13 times in the same period. In Castleford Holbrook’s men face an attack that has posted 965 points this term, an average of over 32 points per game. By contrast, Saints have racked up only 663 at an average of only 22.1. Holbrook can point to the league’s best defence which has conceded only 518 points (17.2 per game) but the Tigers are not too shabby in this department either. They have the next meanest rearguard having shipped 536 at an average of 17.8. It’s quite clear that if both teams turn up and do what they always do it will be Powell leading his men out at Old Trafford on October 7.
So Saints need to do something which statistically might be considered extraordinary. Which is handy because they have managed it twice already this season. Saints shocked Cas 26-22 at home on Easter Monday and repeated the trick in the first round of the Super 8s with a 26-12 success. That latter victory came at the Mend-A-Hose Jungle, the Tigers only defeat on their own patch in 2017 before they waved the white flag at Hull FC last time out. So despite what the stats stay, irrespective of the apparent difference in class between the two sides, it could happen. Saints could yet be crowned champions. Which, whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of the a system which forces you to bet a whole season’s work on the outcome of two knockout games at the end, is more than can be said for them. You know? Them.