I only need four words, just four, no more, no less. Four words that will send shudders down the spines of every St Helens fan. What are those words? Have you not guessed yet?
Jon. Wilkin. At. Halfback.
I apologise to the Saints faithful who are now enduring post traumatic flashbacks of days gone by. Believe me, I have endured the very same pain. Year after year, despite changes to tactical set-ups and the signing of new players, one guarantee the season would bring was…yes, Jon Wilkin at halfback. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a hater of Jon Wilkin. In fact, I’d go as far to say I’m an admirer of the second-rower. His determination in defence is rarely matched and his passion for the badge on his shirt is almost unparalleled. There is plenty to like about Jon Wilkin the second rower, my issue is with Jon Wilkin the Halfback.
So, why was Wilkin put in the halves in the first place? Why do it? The answer to these questions can be answered in a number of ways, but for me it’s pretty simple. Injury after injury, time and time again. Now, St Helens are not the only Super League team to endure their fair share of wounded personnel, I won’t pretend that to be fact. However, the Saints in particular are seemingly cursed when it comes to their creative positions. Other than the ever-present James Roby at Hooker, the pivots of the Red V never seem to be stable.
Trust in youth.
Following the departure of Head Coach Mick Potter in 2010, the Saints assigned Royce Simmons as the commander and chief. Simmons’ first year was a surprisingly motivating one, as youth prospects Jonny Lomax and Lee Gaskell enjoyed a fruitful partnership in the halves. In a year where exciting star player Kyle Eastmond decided to force his way out of rugby league, favouring a future in Union, and the usually reliable Leon Pryce suffered another injury blow, the reliance on the youth was unexpectedly thrust upon St Helens. However, much to the surprise of many, the two thrived and lead the Saints to another Grand Final. Unfortunately, the following year brought turmoil for the St Helens 6 & 7; Jonny Lomax began to struggle with a multitude of injuries which halted his involvement and his partner Gaskell failed to reach the performance levels of the past. Once again, St Helens’ search for consistency was unsuccessful. In the absence of former star players, injured youth prospects and under-performing pivots…Jon Wilkin once again did his utmost to plug a gap that was desperate to be filled.
Utility over specificity
A new priority was adopted in the 2012 season, and that was the focus on the utility player. Instead of signing a stand-off specialist or scrum-half master, the Saints opted to acquire the services of Kiwi star Lance Hohaia. Hohaia covered numerous potions on the field, such as fullback, hooker and both halfback roles. His all-round ability to slot in wherever needed was useful when the injuries inevitably began. However, this adaptability was a double edged sword, and could be seen as a weakness for the attacking play Saints tried to produce. Hohaia never really impressed in the ways the likes of Leon Pryce, Sean Long and Kyle Eastmond did. Throughout his time at Saints he never really found consistency in any one postion, a ‘jack of all trades but master of none’, if you will. This lead to Saints looking elsewhere for temporary fix after temporary fix, one example being a young Gareth O’Brien who spent a few months with the club. This swapping around of positions again allowed for Jon Wilkin to continue making sporadic cameos in the halves, something that began to frustrate many.
Luke Walsh…the saviour?
In 2014, I remember St Helens playing Warrington Wolves at the Halliwell Jones Stadium in what was the first round of the Super League season. New Saints scrum-half, Luke Walsh, had a brilliant game and lead his side to victory. In a pitch-side interview immediately following the encounter, Jon Wilkin expressed his relief that he wouldn’t have to play as a half-back anymore. The Walsh that graced the field for Saints in 2014 was simply sensational. I have seen very few players ease into a team as he did, not to mention his creative flair which made players around him express themselves. I believe his influence was a massive reason Saints had the successful season they did in 2014.
However, in July of the very same year Luke Walsh suffered a terrible injury which ended his season, meaning Wilkin had to take one for the team and play out of his comfort zone, again. Not to mention players such as Jordan Turner having to pull his socks up and give the halfback position a go (while his contributions here were limited, his shift in the 2014 grand final wasn’t half bad, if I do say so myself.)
The Luke Walsh that returned was never quite the same player, which is understandable after such a horrific injury. Therefore, what at first seemed like the answer to our creative problems, slowly fizzled out. Eventually, Walsh secured a move to the south of France to play for Catalans.
The KC years.
Fresh from winning the Super League title in 2014, St Helens appointed club legend Keiron Cunningham as head coach. What followed was a disappointingly dull two and a half year tenure, which eventually lead to the sacking of the former Saints great. A vital factor in the decision was the style of rugby that Cunningham enforced. For some reason, KC utilised Jon Wilkin as a creative option. Whether that be kicking on the 3rd or being the first receiver, Wilkin was ultimately doing what he had previously hoped he’d never have to do again. This torturous style of play lasted two years too long, with not only the fans suffering, but also poor Wilkin. Halfway through KC’s reign, a possible solution presented itself. The signing of Travis Burns from Hull KR opened up the possibility of some creative consistency. This however, was a short lived salvation, as the Aussie stand-off had a falling out with Cunningham and packed himself off to play for Leigh Centurions on loan. In another attempt to stabilise the halves, KC signed former Saint Matty Smith from rival club Wigan, a move that got people talking. Smith did his best to reinvigorate the Saints attack, and while he is far from awful, he ultimately continues to fall slightly short. Another KC acquisition came in the form of the Theo Fages, who signed from Salford. This little scrum-half gave the Saints faithful hope of entertaining rugby but much to everyone’s surprise, Cunningham refused to play him consistently. Fages applied himself as much as the Cunningham constraints allowed, but his potential was caged like an animal.
Present day. Is it all over?
This brings us up to date. Is the problem still unsolved? Well, following KC’s departure, St Helens appointed Aussie coach Justin Holbrook as the main man, despite him having little experience in the head coach hot-seat. One element that became immediately evident was his belief in the youth system. Saints is a club that prides itself in using homegrown talent in the starting 13, but not as much in the halfback roles. The last time this approach was used for the creative duties was Jonny Lomax and Lee Gaskell back in 2011. Gaskell ended up leaving, while Lomax suffered many injuries before reinventing himself to be a fullback. Therefore, Holbrook’s utilisation of academy star Danny Richardson was welcomed by all. Not to mention his application and reinvention of young KC signing Theo Fages, a player who seemingly stalled under the former coaches influence. Before long, Holbrook announced a new marquee addition in the form of NRL Dally M winner Ben Barba. Barba primarily operates at fullback, giving Lomax the opportunity to revert to old habits and become an extra halfback option.
Suddenly, St Helens find themselves within a new season with Danny Richardson, Theo Fages, Jonny Lomax and Matty Smith as halfback options. This newfound strength in depth is quite extraordinary, especially when taking into consideration the 7+ years of inconsistency in the pivots. The early season performances of Danny Richardson have been extraordinary, especially for a player of his age. It is this consistency that is surprising everyone in the rugby league world. Unfortunately, this means the likes of Matty Smith are still without game time despite being 7 weeks into the season. As a club, St Helens are in a fantastic position as regards to strength in depth and shouldn’t take that for granted.
Saying that, Smith will obviously want to play first team rugby. I know Holbrook is a brilliant coach – from what we’ve seen so far – but even he must find it is hard to justify to Smith that sitting on the bench all year is right for him. I’ve heard all sorts of rumours hinting at Smith departing and personally I hope they aren’t true. Injuries, suspensions or just poor form and fatigue will happen and when these do, we need a top quality replacement and Smith is that for me. I would however be open to him moving to a club on loan, getting minutes under his belt so when the time comes he is fit and ready.
So, is the heartache over? Are the years of frustration finally in the past, once and for all? Well, only time will tell. You only need to look back as far as 2014 to see that a seemingly comfortable situation can drastically turn sour, due to surprise injuries.
However, knowing that they have attacking flair once more, and that quality players are waiting to take their chance, I personally think Saints fans will rest easy, as will good old Jon Wilkin.