Saints begin their BetFred Super League Super 8s campaign when they visit the Mend-A-Hose Jungle to take on Castleford Tigers this Thursday (August 3, kick-off 8.00pm.)
It has been a largely underwhelming 23-round regular season for Saints, thanks in part to the turmoil of the early part of the season which saw Keiron Cunningham depart as Head Coach after two fairly uninspiring years at the helm. Yet with something of a resurgence under new boss Justin Holbrook Saints somehow find themselves in with a shout of making the top four and keeping dreams alive of another Old Trafford appearance. They sit only a point behind fourth-placed Salford who, along with Wakefield Trinity, have hit something of a wall form-wise in recent weeks.
There was evidence of that in Saints last outing, when they picked up only a second away win of the regular season at Trinity. They brushed aside Chris Chester’s men 41-16, spoiling any hopes they had of finishing in the top three and perhaps sending a message that Saints are finally ready to end their miserable form on the road. That will be tested more rigorously at Castleford than perhaps anywhere else during the Super 8s, with the Tigers having finished the regular season 10 points clear at the top of the table and a virtual certainty to carry off the League Leaders Shield. It is a matter of when, not if that happens for Daryl Powell’s side.
The main talking point in terms of Holbrook’s team selection is whether or not to restore Matty Smith to the side. The veteran scrum-half has not been seen since a freak accident involving Jon Wilkin during the 24-22 defeat at Leeds on June 29. It was feared that Smith could miss the rest of the season with the resulting ruptured eyelid that he suffered, but he is included in Holbrook’s 19-man party for this one and could make a quicker than expected return. That would be tough on Danny Richardson, who in Smith’s absence has made the step up from the reserves particularly well. He scored a try and a drop-goal in the win at Wakefield and is starting to look more and confident in the halves alongside Theo Fages. Smith has the experience but his inclusion at this stage would have to be viewed as something of a gamble given the horrific nature of the injury.
The rest of the side should be as you were, with Jonny Lomax continuing at fullback as we await Ben Barba’s potential debut on September 1, with Regan Grace and Tommy Makinson occupying the wing slots outside centres Ryan Morgan and Mark Percival. Adam Swift has again failed to make the 19 as Holbrook opts to cover other areas of the pitch.
Most notably he will require a replacement for Luke Douglas who misses out with a knee injury. That could see Alex Walmsley restored to the starting line-up after having been used as an impact option from the bench in recent weeks, with Kyle Amor, Luke Thompson and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook also likely to be involved in the prop rotation. Matty Lees is again named in the 19 but still awaits his Super League debut. James Roby continues at hooker while Zeb Taia and Dominique Peyroux hold down the second row berths with skipper Wilkin at 13. Tommy Lee may earn a spot on the bench to relieve Roby, or else Morgan Knowles could see some time in that position as well as anywhere in the back row.
Castleford come in on the back of a hard-fought 32-24 win over Catalans Dragons in Perpignan, their 12th in a row in Super League. Wakefield came close on July 6 when they went down by just a point 25-24, while Hull FC were only two points short a week previously as they were beaten 24-22. Yet the wins keep on coming for Powell’s men, who now need only five points to secure the League Leaders Shield.
The Tigers will be without star turn, 34-try man Greg Eden, as well as powerhouse pack man Junior Moors. Jy Hitchcox or Joel Monaghan will deputise for Eden, while Larne Patrick is drafted in to possibly replace Moors with Kevin Larroyer suspended. Former Saint Michael Shenton is one of the keys to Castelford’s impressive backline which boasts former Leeds man and likely Man Of Steel contender Zak Hardaker, Greg Minikin who has 16 tries this season and some lively halfback options in Luke Gale, Ben Roberts and Tom Holmes. Up front the ageless Andy Lynch is joined by Grant Millington, Oliver Holmes and the dynamic Jesse Sene-Lefao, with Paul McShane at hooker and England’s Mike McMeeken in the back row along with Nathan Massey and Alex Foster or Matt Cook.
Saints last visit to Castleford ended in a 16-12 defeat on June 4 but they are one of only three teams to beat the Tigers in Super League in 2017 alongside Salford and Hull FC. If they can summon the spirit of that unexpected 26-22 success on home soil on Easter Monday, and with perhaps some new found confidence in their away form following the win at Wakefield, then perhaps they do still pose a threat to the Tigers’ winning run. Their need is certainly greater, with every point vital to Saints in their bid to reach the semi-finals while Castleford can light the cigars and wait for the playoff action to begin in late September.
- Zak Hardaker, 2. Greg Minikin, 4. Michael Shenton, 7. Luke Gale, 8. Andy Lynch, 9. Paul McShane, 10. Grant Millington, 11. Oliver Holmes, 12. Mike McMeeken, 13. Adam Milner, 14. Nathan Massey, 15. Jesse Sene-Lefao, 16. Ben Roberts, 18. Matt Cook, 20. Larne Patrick, 21. Joel Monaghan, 23. Tom Holmes, 25. Jy Hitchcox, 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, 16. Luke Thompson, 17. Tommy Lee, 18. Dominique Peyroux, 20. Morgan Knowles, 24. Danny Richardson, 28. Regan Grace, 32. Matty Lees, 36. Zeb Taia.
Referee: Robert Hicks