Semi-final hopes go on the line again as Saints visit Leeds Rhinos in Round Three of the BetFred Super League Super 8s on Friday night (August 18, kick-off 8.00pm).
There was a setback for the men in the red vee last weekend when, after earning an unlikely road win at Castleford a week previously, they slumped to an 8-6 home defeat by Hull FC last Friday night (August 11). It brought an end to a run of four consecutive wins for Justin Holbrook’s side and cost them their top four place as Wakefield Trinity blew away the Rhinos. Both Saints and the Rhinos will be looking to get back on track in this one.
Holbrook looks set to name the same 17 which was toiled in the rain against the back and whites. The only change to the 19-man selection is the inclusion of Tommy Lee at the expense of Jake Spedding, though it would be a surprise if the man brought in as cover for James Roby at hooker is actually given the opportunity to do so. That’s largely due to the fact that Holbrook has yet to find it in him to leave one of either Danny Richardson or Matty Smith out of the 17 as the pair continue their tussle to claim the regular scrum-half role. Smith was a clear leader until the eye injury he suffered during Saints’ last visit to Headingley at the end of June, but in his absence Richardson has done more than enough to warrant further opportunities. Both should again feature, rotating in alongside Theo Fages in the halves.
There has been some debate on these pages about the security of Regan Grace’s place in the side. Yet maybe with the help of a shoulder injury picked up by Adam Swift in a reserve game last week the young Welshman is retained and should start in a three-quarter line also featuring Tommy Makinson, Ryan Morgan and Mark Percival with Jonny Lomax continuing at fullback at least until Ben Barba’s anticipated debut at home to Wigan after the Challenge Cup break.
It is in the pack where Saints looked a bit light last weekend and they will again be without Luke Douglas as he continues to recover from his knee injury. That will likely mean another start for Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook at prop alongside Luke Thompson. For all his hustle and enthusiasm McCarthy-Scarsbrook is an unconvincing front rower, while Thompson suffered a slight dip in form last time out after impressing in recent weeks. It’s a front row partnership that is bound to be a little hit and miss but one which is helped by the comforting presence of Roby at hooker and the fact that the league’s best prop is waiting to be unleashed from the bench in Alex Walmsley. Kyle Amor might be a more reliable starter if he was in anything like the kind of form he is capable of but with only youngster Matty Lees putting any pressure on he looks likely to get another opportunity from the bench.
The back row will likely comprise the undroppable drop-tastic Zeb Taia alongside a probably temporarily rejuvenated Dominique Peyroux, with captain Jon Wilkin locking the scrum. Peyroux may or may not be around next year and if he is, may not produce his recent form over a longer period. Yet with options in that area a little thin on the ground we should probably make hay while the sun shines in regards to the former New Zealand Warrior. Reinforcements are on their way with the news this week that James Bentley has signed a three-year deal to join from Bradford Bulls starting in 2018. Bentley has been described as the best player in the Championship by no less a light than Leon Pryce which, if accurate, already makes him Saints best back rower for next year.
Back to the present day and Morgan Knowles will provide cover off the bench for all of of Taia, Peyroux and Wilkin as well as Roby, with the rest of the seats taken by Walmsley, Amor and whoever is not preferred to start between Richardson and Smith.
Leeds will still be blushing from the abject display they turned in during that 38-6 defeat to Wakefield last time out. They go in to this one without Ash Golding, although that may not be seen as a particularly worrying loss by Rhinos fans with Jack Walker waiting to step in after finally agreeing a new deal with the club. Tom Briscoe has had a mixed time of late but should start on the wing alongside Ryan Hall, with Kallum Watkins at centre pairing either Liam Sutcliffe or Jimmy Keinhorst. Joel Moon is one of the best centres in the division but masquerades as a stand-off in Brian McDermott’s 2017 Rhinos vintage, but it is hard to argue with the logic given Leeds’ rise from the 2016 Middle Eights to their currently lofty Super League placing. The Rhinos sit second in the table and, though they have next to no chance of hauling in Castleford in the race for the League Leaders Shield, seem dead certs for the semi-finals.
If the sides don’t meet in the playoffs this may be the last time we see Rob Burrow play against Saints as he gets set to retire at the end of the year, while Danny McGuire will also be gone next year as he has agreed to join Hull KR. McGuire is likely to start at scrum-half in this one while Burrow’s best chance of action looks to be from the bench in relief of the excellent hooker Matt Parcell or of either Moon or McGuire should any problems occur. Jordan Lilley is also an option for McDermott in the halves.
The Leeds pack contains 2015 Man Of Steel candidate Adam Cuthbertson as well as veterans Carl Ablett and Jamie Jones-Buchanan, while Stevie Ward has been in excellent form of late. Brett Delaney, Brad Singleton and Mitch Garbutt will also compete for game time in the forwards along with Anthony Mullalley but Brett Ferres is ruled out.
The nuances of the Super 8s mean that it is only seven weeks since Saints last visited Headingley, when the early loss of Smith was a major contributing factor in a 24-22 defeat. It was equally tight when the sides met in St Helens on opening night in February, with the then Keiron Cunningham-led Saints scraping a 6-4 win. They’ve come a long way since then under the so far shrewd guidance of Holbrook but still have a bit to do to prove that they are a genuine title contender once more. It starts here.
- Tom Briscoe, 3. Kallum Watkins, 4. Joel Moon, 5. Ryan Hall, 6. Danny McGuire, 7. Rob Burrow, 9. Matt Parcell, 10. Adam Cuthbertson, 11. Jamie Jones-Buchanan, 12. Carl Ablett, 13. Stevie Ward, 14. Liam Sutcliffe, 15. Brett Delaney, 16. Brad Singleton, 17. Mitch Garbutt, 18. Jimmy Keinhorst, 20. Anthony Mullally, 25. Jordan Lilley, 31. Jack Walker.
- 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: Ben Thaler