I know there’s a World Cup on and we’ll get back to that in due course. But did you also know that there are only 92 days (at the time of writing) to the start of the 2018 Super League season? So close is it, in fact, that we even have published fixtures with dates, venues and everything. Even the ones which have been familiarly commandeered by Sky and dragged kicking and screaming towards a Thursday night are now set in metaphorical stone.
So with the season approaching faster than you might have previously discerned you might think there would be a fair amount of to-ing and indeed fro-ing in terms of player movement around the league, and particularly at Saints who, let’s be honest, looked like they could use some help for large parts of 2017. Yet it has been particularly quiet on that front across the league, none more so than at Saints where only James Bentley from Bradford Bulls qualifies as a bona fide off season signing. Tish and pish to your Ben Barbas. Yes he is a world class performer and we are all looking forward to him making Sam Tomkins look like the drunken twin of Adam Quinlan. But he was signed midway through 2017 and took some part in the end of that campaign. Had he not had that unfortunate brush with the drug testers he would have been involved much sooner, a statement which perhaps ignores the fact that if he had not had that brush with the drug testers then he probably wouldn’t be here at all. But now you’re nit-picking.
So alongside Bentley all there is to report is that Dominique Peyroux has signed a new one-year deal with the club. The Dominator. One of the more maligned players who was virtually the poster boy for the uninspiring drudgery of The Cunningham Years. Yet since the departure of the statued one it is reasonable to suggest that Peyroux has made real strides under new coach Justin Holbrook. He runs harder, makes more breaks, butchers far more offloads which he dare not even attempt during the KC reign, and is an all around More Useful Asset. Consider the words of Holbrook on announcing the new deal for the former New Zealand Warrior;
“He was one of best players towards the back end of last season after working hard in training to regain his place in the side. I’ve been impressed with his work ethic since I joined the club and he adds vital experience and depth as we look forward to the new campaign.”
Vital experience and depth? Do you know what, he is not wrong. Probably. Had Cunningham made this sort of statement about Peyroux 12 months ago our collective veins would have bulged out of our heads with rage, with message boards and forums full of people queuing up to complain about having the absolute taken out of them. Not now, no because In Justin We Trust. For now. If he says Peyroux is good enough then who are we to argue. This is after all the man who grabbed hold of the worst Saints team in living memory and dragged it into the Super League’s top four. Not that being in the top four makes this a vintage Saints team but is was a place with air too rarified for our World Champion friends across the lump.
On balance Peyroux is probably worthy of another year. This, remember, is a salary capped sport in which Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook is regarded in some quarters as captaincy material for one of the greatest rugby league clubs in the world. It’s a changed landscape from Jamie Lyon, Paul Newlove and even Fatty Vautin. They don’t make them like they used to, not on this budget. Building a Super League squad nowadays is the equivalent of trying to do your weekly shopping after seven years of Tory austerity and being paid laughably less than the living wage. Except you don’t have to do it against the backdrop of a load of fat cats dodging their tax and laughing at you from their yachts. Or if you do, they are all laughing at you from the NRL which is far enough away for you to hold on to the belief that it is a mythical world not really worth comparing yourself with any more.
So while Keiron is busy trying to get the band back together at Leigh (Jack Owens, Ricky Bailey and Cunningham’s own son Jonah added to Matty Dawson, Greg Richards and Atelea Vea whom the boss sent to Leigh ahead of time) Saints it seems are busy trying to shop sensibly and within their means. The fact that nobody else in Super League has made any scary moves yet helps. Wigan’s recruitment for 2018 so far amounts to a bloke I met travelling in a bar in Thailand some years ago, while Hull FC will be weakened by the loss of Mane Fonua and Gareth Ellis. Castleford now have a Zak Hardaker-shaped hole to fill in their side and Warrington have once again ripped up the whole manuscript, thrown it in the fire and started all over again from aardvark with their business so far. It may take time to gel so it may not be their year. Sorry.
The only concern about this lack of activity in terms of transfers is that even with the rejuvenated Peyroux back on board Saints still look a little light in the second row. Jon Wilkin may start coming out for warm-ups with a walking frame at some point soon, while Zeb Taia is not too far behind the skipper in years and has arguably been less effective for Saints than he was in his Dream Team year with Catalans Dragons in 2015. He’s still a very fine player if a little mistake-ridden, but it is a lot to ask him to carry the back row of the pack especially if Bentley cannot make the same impact in Super League straight away as he has been doing in the Championship. Morgan Knowles could and should hold down a regular spot at 13 but tree-pulling is not his speciality either when it comes to attacking endeavour, with the Welshmen more valued for his work-rate at this stage. That may change in 2018 as he gets to do more work with Holbrook but for now it does look as though Saints second row is weak even by the diluted standards of modern Super League.
If that doesn’t worry you then a few frivolous and flighty rumours might. Even before the World Cup there was talk that Alex Walmsley might fancy joining Daryl Powell’s League-Leading, Queen Fancying Castleford Tigers and although we laughed it off, his presence with the England squad at the World Cup has led to speculation that he might actually be off to Sydney rather than West Yorkshire. Also down under and having his World Cup consumed by transfer rumours is Theo Fages. The French captain is apparently the target of up to five Australasian sides for 2018. Given that he struggled to hold down a regular slot in the Saints side at the end of 2017 so that Matty Smith could be
justified accommodated speculation is not exactly surprising. Saints probably do have too many halves as long as Barba is around to deny Jonny Lomax the fullback slot, but whether Fages is the right one to offload is hugely, hugely questionable. Mind, so is whether or not he is good enough for the NRL so the whole thing could be bunkum.
Walmsley on the other hand is almost certainly good enough and it is totally believable that there are clubs willing to try and find out. Where you can make a case that Saints can withstand the loss of Fages in the halves you would be led away quietly if you tried to suggest that the Saints front row can absorb the loss of Walmsley. The former Batley man and newly light sleeper led the league in metres gained in 2017 and is probably entitled to consider himself the premier front rower in the competition now that Chris Hill’s form has deteriorated in direct correlation to that of the rest of his team. With a year left on his contract Holbrook must do everything in his power to keep Walmsley at Saints for this year at least, because trying to replace him in the 92 days that remains before the kick-off is almost impossible.
It will be here before you know it.