A record 11th Grand Final appearance is the prize for Saints when they take on Castleford Tigers at the Mend-A-Hose Jungle in the BetFred Super League semi-final playoff on Thursday night (September 28, kick-off 7.45pm).
Incredibly, Justin Holbrook’s side are still sniffing around despite a topsy-turvy season which has seen a change in the coaching department and more must-win games than a night of winner-stays-on pool and darts at the Five Drives And A Kick Inn. Now they face the task of beating the runaway League Leaders Shield winners on their own patch for the right to turn out at Old Trafford in the Grand Final on October 7.
Holbrook has named the same 19 men that were on duty for last week’s playoff sealing 30-4 victory over Salford Red Devils at the AJ Bell Stadium. That means Jonny Lomax is involved despite missing out on a spot in the match day 17 last week with a leg injury. Holbrook must decide whether to restore Lomax to the stand-off role that he has been filling since the introduction of Ben Barba at fullback, or else keep faith with Theo Fages. There’s also a decision to be made at halfback, where Matty Smith and Danny Richardson are the pair vying for first dibs on the shirt. Smith played an important cameo in the Salford win and there is a school of thought developing that he could be the man for a game of this magnitude.
All of which ignores the fact that Smith has been largely underwhelming this year and that most of Saints’ more enterprising attacking performances have come with Richardson in from the start. They will need to be bold and enterprising against Daryl Powell’s potent attack which will score points even against Saints’ number one ranked defence in terms of points conceded. A conservative approach could be fatal but I just get the feeling that Lomax is a given if fit and that Smith will get the nod over Richardson. Yet there could be an element of running the halfback spot by committee with Smith and Richardson involved at various stages as Holbrook sees fit.
Whichever of the pair does not start should secure a place on the bench which could be bad news for Fages who has been left out in the cold before in similar circumstances. Despite having four players competing for two halfback slots Saints don’t seem to have anyone who fills you with confidence right now. In many ways Holbrook is in danger of drowning in damned-if-he-does-damned-if-he-doesn’t-ery, a man about to be entirely judged on the result and left in no doubt as to how badly he got it wrong if the result goes the wrong way.
Which of course is rather over-simplistic given that he has taken a side in danger of making Warrington look like Melbourne Storm into the top four in the first place. It didn’t look at all likely when he took over and in some ways this should be a free hit for Holbrook who ought to be judged by what happens to his side over a longer period. But time, and angry Saints fans who haven’t had a trophy to celebrate since the Game Of Thrones finale, wait for no man.
Once Holbrook has worked out what to do with his halves he should have some fairly easier decisions to make elsewhere. Regan Grace, Tommy Makinson, Mark Percival and Ryan Morgan will make up the three-quarters ahead of Barba at fullback. The starting front row will likely comprise of Luke Douglas and Luke Thompson either side of James Roby at hooker, with Zeb Taia, Jon Wilkin and Morgan Knowles the back three. If Dominique Peyroux could not force his way into the starting line-up after featuring prominently in the win over Huddersfield Giants a fortnight ago he is unlikely to do so after a more blunted performance at Salford, while Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook will no doubt come off the bench along with the unfortunate halfback as well as hope-carrying Colossus Alex Walmsley. Walmsley’s two tries helped Saints past Salford and he will once again be the man that the prop corps depends upon to take the side forward. Kyle Amor is also in the 19 but faces a difficult task to convince Holbrook that he is worthy of a recall.
Talk around Castleford’s team news has taken on a soap opera quality with the on-off, will-he-won’t-he saga surrounding Luke Gale’s fitness. The England half had emergency surgery on his appendix less than three weeks ago but claims to be back in training and is named in Powell’s 19-man selection. Gale will get involved in full contact on Wednesday but has also stated that he will not play if he feels like he might let his side down through lack of fitness. Regardless of how he comes through the friendly fire of training you would have to believe that his inclusion would be something of a gamble for Powell, but one that he might consider worth taking to get the Tigers to a first ever Super League Grand Final. There is pressure on Powell now as winning the League Leaders Shield so comfortably has given rise to a level of expectancy not seen in recent years at Wheldon Road. It has been a great season for Castleford but to miss out on the Grand Final would be a monumental bubble-burster. A fit and in-form Luke Gale is a vital part of a lot of what the Tigers have achieved this year and his absence or even his participation at less than 100% fitness would be significant.
Yet not necessarily fatal. There is class all around this Castleford team. Zak Hardaker could be named Steve Prescott Man Of Steel for the second time in three seasons on Monday (October 2), while he and five of his colleagues have been named to the Super League Dream Team just this week. Thirty-eight try man Greg Eden might be threatening Denny Solomona’s ludicrous, retirement-provoking tally from last season had he not missed out for a period with a shoulder injury while Michael Shenton, Mike McMeeken and Grant Millington are all included in the Dream Team selection along with Gale.
Jake Trueman, recent hat-trick hero in a win which all but buried Wigan’s Grand Final aspirations is not included in the 19 for the Tigers this week and so Paul McShane may step into the halves alongside Ben Roberts if Gale is not risked, with Tom Holmes also missing out. Greg Minikin has contributed just the 19 tries on the opposite wing to Eden which is better than everyone else in the league bar Eden, Liam Marshall of Wigan and Ben Jones-Bishop of Wakefield Trinity, and three better than the 16 managed by Saints’ top-scorer Percival. The Tigers have genuine strike.
How Millington and Giants prop Sebastine Ikahihifo were selected for the Dream Team before Walmsley is one of life’s unknowables but former Cronulla Shark and Canterbury Bulldog Millington leads a formidable, fast and skilful Castleford pack. Adam Milner, Junior Moors and Jesse Sene-Lefao can all cause a variety of damage up front and supplemented by Andy Lynch, Nathan Massey and Alex Foster they are a handy unit. Both Sene-Lefao and McMeeken are in the league’s top 10 for offloads, while only Leeds, Warrington and Wigan get rid of the ball in the tackle more often than the Tigers. It’s a mobile, expansive side right through from the backs to the pack.
All things being equal Saints should probably fall short of this task. Cas appear to have more speed and skill all over the park. But all things are not equal, as referenced by the fact that Saints have already beaten Castleford twice in Super League this year. They won 26-22 at home at Easter, and also prevailed 26-12 at the Tigers’ home in the first round of the Super 8s in August. In between times they were unfortunate to lose 16-12 at the Mend-A-Hose in early June when the home side were the beneficiaries of a hugely generous offside decision. In boxing they say styles make fights and it could just be that Saints, though chuckle-inducingly inferior to the Tigers in most departments for most of the season, are just built right for the task of toppling them. Then there are the lingering doubts about how Powell’s men will handle the pressure of some real knockout football, bearing in mind their inexperience in a playoff environment and the fact that they failed in their one similarly cut-throat challenge in 2017 when they were bumped out of the Challenge Cup by Hull FC. They may also be a little bit under-done since so many of them were rested for the visit of Lee Radford’s side in the league last weekend.
There is hope but there are so many variables which make a prediction a fiendish job. From Holbrook’s team selection to Gale’s fitness to how the Tigers players will respond to being drafted in after the majority were given a rest during last week’s loss to the black and whites. All these things could be a factor but, like Matty Smith on the third tackle on his own 30, I’m playing it safe, hoofing it down the field and predicting a Tigers win in the hope of displaying my unerring ability to be totally and completely wrong.
- Zak Hardaker, 2. Greg Minikin, 3. Jake Webster, 4. Michael Shenton, 5. Greg Eden, 7. Luke Gale, 8. Andy Lynch, 9. Paul McShane, 10. Grant Millington, 12. Mike McMeeken, 13. Adam Milner, 14. Nathan Massey, 15. Jesse Sene-Lefao, 16. Ben Roberts, 17. Junior Moors, 18. Matt Cook, 19. Gadwin Springer, 21. Joel Monaghan, 34. Alex Foster.
- Jonny Lomax 2. Tommy Makinson, 3. Ryan Morgan, 4. Mark Percival, 6. Theo Fages, 7. Matty Smith, 8. Alex Walmsley, 9. James Roby, 10. Kyle Amor, 12. Jon Wilkin, 13. Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, 14. Luke Douglas, 16. Luke Thompson, 18. Dominique Peyroux, 20. Morgan Knowles, 24. Danny Richardson, 28. Regan Grace, 36. Zeb Taia, 37. Ben Barba.
Referee: James Child