Never Write Off The Saints
The season that just won’t die took another desperate gasp for air as Saints produced another late, late show to squeak past Wakefield and keep their top four hopes alive. Jonny Lomax’s match-winner came courtesy of an inexplicable in-goal error from Trinity fullback Scott Grix as he flapped at Mark Percival’s kick. Defeat would have all but ended Saints’ hopes of a semi-final spot but as it is the hope remains at the end of what has been a season of crashing mediocrity spiced up only by the fact that nobody else bar Castleford Tigers at the top of the table seems reliable.
This was the latest in a long-line of dramatic Saints wins, another Wide-To-West moment but with a good deal more slapstick than Chris Joynt’s famous 2000 effort which put Saints on the road to Grand Final success that year. This side is nowhere near that vintage, but nor is this the first time that they have snatched victory from the jaws of well….not winning in 2017. Who can forget Matty Smith’s drop-goal at home against Salford in June? Another other worldly mental mistake from an opponent (Robert Lui on that occasion) gave Louie McCathy-Scarsbrook possession and allowed him to show the presence of mind to flip the ball back to Smith for that glorious, highly unlikely 40-metre drop-goal.
Can this keep happening? Can Saints keep producing these underwhelming error-fests and yet somehow finding that one bit of magic, or capitalising on that one bit of bone-headedness from Super League’s great and not so great which keeps their season alive? Defeat to Wigan last week means that they still need favours from elsewhere to progress, but victories at home to Huddersfield Giants and at Salford Red Devils in the remaining two games could just be enough put Saints into the final four once again. And once that happens who knows where it may lead. They may resemble something out of a silent comedy at times, but writing off the Saints is not recommended.
Walmsley Makes The Right Call
There have been some murmurings of discontent around the fact that Alex Walmsley left the action with 10 minutes to go to be with his partner at the birth of their son Atticus. As it was the big man didn’t quite make it on time but there can be no doubt that he made the right decision to try, and to at least be with mother and baby as soon as was possible. The birth of a child is far more important than anything Walmsley will do in rugby league. Rather than receiving any criticism for leaving the field early, Walmsley should probably be congratulated for showing the commitment to the cause to turn out in the first place. He was well aware that this was a do or die situation for Saints and well aware of his importance to the side. Had he taken a different decision, which he would have been perfectly within his rights to do, we might not be looking at a possible semi-final spot now and instead might be starting to look ahead to next season. Actually, come to think of it, wouldn’t that have been easier all round Alex?
By the time the former Batley man left the scene his work was done anyway. That Saints needed another minor miracle to get on top of Chris Chester’s side was no fault of Walmsley’s. He ripped Trinity apart to the tune of 196 metres on 20 carries, even finding the time to provide the assist for Theo Fages’ score which brought Saints back into contention in the second half. Add in a couple of offloads and it is easy to see how valuable Walmsley’s contribution was. Again. He continues to be a beacon of hope in a Saints prop group that is mostly lacking in bite and real go-forward. His form over the next two games will be crucial to Saints hopes so let’s hope there are not too many sleepless nights in the Walmsley household. In the meantime congratulations to both Alex and his partner Simone on the new arrival.
Lomax Lets His Guard Down
Before all the drama, before he latched on to Grix’s hopelessly botched attempt to clear his lines Lomax was quizzed about his feelings on being named in yet another new position. Immovable at fullback for most of the season, the arrival of Ben Barba into the Saints ranks has seen Lomax shunted around the side. First he played at stand-off in the defeat to Wigan, a position he handled capably if not spectacularly despite pretty fierce criticism from some quarters, and then he was selected to play at centre in this one. Ryan Morgan failed a late test on a head knock which forced him out of the Wigan game at half-time and, rather than re-introduce Dominique Peyroux to the three-quarters, Saints coach Justin Holbrook chose to use Morgan’s absence as a handy solution to the problem of how to fit all of Barba, Fages, Danny Richardson and Lomax into the starting 13.
Normally you would expect a professional sportsman to bat away questions about his feelings on where he would or would not like to be playing. Yet before he got around to telling us that he was happy to do whatever Holbrook considers best for the team, Lomax dropped his guard enough to admit that he was frustrated at having to play out of position. It’s not difficult to see why he was uncomfortable at being named in the centres. It is a position he has hardly played since he came into the side as a youngster and not one that he is particularly suited to now that the persistent injuries have taken a little of his pace away. He certainly put a shift in, managing 26 tackles in defence but as an attacking threat he was fairly limited. Forty metres on eight carries does not compare favourably with opposite centre Percival’s haul of 108 metres on just four more carries but is perhaps a reflection not only of Lomax’s limitations in that position but also of Saints’ inability to achieve balance in attack. Most of Saints’ good attacking play, and there wasn’t a great deal of it on show here, still goes down that left channel with Percival along with Zeb Taia and Regan Grace.
Wherever Lomax is asked to play in the last two games you would expect him to get on with it, but will his discontent be a problem going forward? Unhappy players can upset the whole essence of a team and it may just be that with all of Lomax, Barba, Fages, Richardson and Matty Smith vying for three or four spots in the 17 something will have to give somewhere. Lomax’s utility value makes him a key asset for Saints but there were, in that pre-game interview, just one or two visible signs that the man who was an international fullback just a year ago is starting to feel less than happy with his lot.
So, Should Holbrook Bench Barba?
It seems unthinkable, but perhaps the immediate solution to the Lomax problem is to restore him at fullback in place of Barba. Leaving the former Cronulla man out of the side seems like lunacy on the face of it but a quick look at his opening two performances in a Saints shirt might lead Holbrook to a different point of view. It’s all very well being one of the world’s best fullbacks on reputation. We have all seen the YouTube videos of Barba shredding NRL defences, making some of the best rugby league players in the world look like traffic cones as he dances around them with what seems like an economy of effort. But it’s just not happened for Barba in his first two appearances.
It’s not only that he hasn’t been spectacular. There was an expectation that he would take a little while to get up to speed, to settle into the side and to get used to the way the team plays and find the best way to use his considerable talents within that system. But the fact of the matter is that Barba isn’t just rusty, he’s a million miles away in terms of his fitness. The way that he was left for dead by Ben Tupou as the Wakefield man raced 70 metres to score unopposed was way beyond alarming. The worst aspect of it was that Barba seemed to give up with plenty of the race still to run. As if he knew he didn’t have the speed to catch Tupou at this point and so decided not to waste the energy given his shaky match fitness. Just what has he been doing these past few months anyway? He has been allowed to train with the team during his ban so why isn’t he fitter? You can understand a lack of match sharpness but an inability to run? Worrying times.
If Saints were out of the running for the top four there would probably be no debate about this. You would allow Barba to regain his fitness on the job. But Saints are now effectively involved in knockout football from here on in. They cannot afford to carry anyone, not even one of the most talented players ever to pull on the shirt. Perhaps at this stage of his development, and don’t forget he hadn’t played rugby league in 10 months before his debut against Wigan, Barba may be best suited to a role on the bench. That way he could conserve more of his own energy and then be unleashed on what will be tiring opponents if and when Saints need to change it up. All of which would allow Lomax to slot back in at fullback where we have seen him produce his best form in 2017. Radical I know, but it might just work….
Any Way Back For Smith?
In the week leading up to the Wakefield game all the talk was about which of Richardson and Smith would be given the nod to start at scrum-half, and whether Fages would be recalled having been left out of the side to face Wigan. In the end Holbrook went for the youthful exuberance of Richardson and, instead of pairing him with the experienced Smith, chose instead to leave the former Wigan man out of the 17. It was a surprise move from Holbrook who many had expected to play it safe with Smith, the tried and trusted. The underwhelming.
Richardson took his opportunity and now the shirt must be his to lose. He provided a superbly timed pass to allow McCarthy-Scarsbrook to go over for his try but the most significant difference between what Richardson offers and what Smith does is the genuine threat to the line. Richardson only ran for 40 metres on four carries, not exactly a persistent nuisance to the Trinity defence, but he did make two clean breaks. He just has an ability to make room for himself that Smith does not possess, and allied to that Richardson has the pace to go through a gap once he spots it. Smith is an organiser who can cause problems with his kicking game close to the line but he is never going to leave a defender standing before going on a lengthy jaunt down the field. He spends much of his time standing still and shuffling the ball on to someone else to take the responsibility of engaging the defence.
Richardson is young and cannot be considered Mr Right just yet. But he is Mr Right Now. Again the gravity of the situation demands that the form player get the nod regardless of reputation and boring truisms about safe pairs of hands. Shaun Lunt’s pre-game assertion on Sky’s coverage that Smith’s absence made Wakefield favourites to win was a perfect example of the kind of mythology that has developed around Smith. He’s a storied players with a fine collection of medals and once he hangs up the boots he can feel proud of what he has achieved. But it’s just possible that if Richardson can continue the form he is in at the moment and develop in the manner that has brought some slightly hysterical comparisons with Sean Long that there could be no way back for the veteran Smith. If first team opportunities begin to get few and far between for Smith will he sit on his three-year deal and be happy to pick up his money, or will he seek a new challenge with another club in the twilight of his career. The latter could free up a sizeable chunk of salary cap for Saints and allow them to strengthen a currently flimsy pack.