The interminable wait is nearly over as Saints prepare to host Leeds Rhinos in their BetFred Super League opener on Thursday night (February 9, kick-off 8.00pm).
The off-season has felt just that little bit longer than is usual thanks to the ineptitude of Ben Thaler’s performance in the Super League semi-final at Warrington back in late September. Now it is clean slates all around as a significantly altered Saints outfit prepare to take on a Rhinos side looking to bounce back from 2016 and a quite disastrous defence of the treble they won so impressively 12 months earlier.
Coach Keiron Cunningham’s first selection includes all of the new signings except for the much-discussed, much-maligned ex-Wigan schemer Matty Smith, who wouldn’t you just know it suffered a broken leg in Saints 16-0 pre-season victory over Widnes Vikings in mid-January. An exact timescale for his return to fitness is still shrouded in some mystery, leaving Cunningham with a dilemma regarding the make-up of his halfback combination. Will he hand a Super League debut to the untried reserve grade star Danny Richardson alongside Theo Fages? Or will Tommy Lee, drafted in from Salford to allow the now 31 year-old hooker James Roby to play less minutes, revert to a scrum-half role? Or….wait for it…..it’s unavoidable, will Cunningham persist with the back-up plan that has been used so routinely in recent years and deploy skipper Jon Wilkin in the halves?
In the press Cunningham has made noises about Wilkin playing as a loose forward, and not the plodding LMS-type extra prop that is all the rage in the modern snoozefest, but the old-fashioned ball-playing 13 who can also run into people when the need arises. It perhaps makes the most sense to use Wilkin in this role and allow any two from Fages, Lee and Richardson to be on the field at the same time. Wilkin may not be any Saints fan’s idea of a natural ball-player but nevertheless has invaluable experience which could help one of the younger players to bed in to the playmaking role with Smith out and Luke Walsh now enjoying a spell in the south of France.
The three-quarter line looks a lot healthier both literally and metaphorically as we start 2017. New signing Ryan Morgan should fit in well at right centre, inside the fit-again Tommy Makinson whose pace and acrobatics were sorely missed following another season cut short by injury. On the other side Mark Percival should partner Adam Swift with both hoping to improve upon their rather ropey fitness records and prove their value. At fullback Jonny Lomax is now an England international and has few peers in the position at Super League level.
The pack has been beefed up by the additions of Luke Douglas from Gold Coast Titans and Adam Walker from Hull KR. Both showed touches of class while on Scotland duty in the Four Nations in the autumn and both have looked more than useful in pre-season. They will challenge the established old firm of Alex Walmsley and Kyle Amor for starting berths up front either side of Roby, forming a rather more formidable-looking quartet than those of 2016 which too often included the plodding Lama Tasi (now back from whence he came at Salford) and the turf-fancying Greg Richards. In the back row Wilkin will be the key man behind two from Joe Greenwood, Morgan Knowles, Dominique Peyroux, Luke Thompson and Jack Ashworth. If this writer had any say then Knowles would partner Greenwood, but don’t be surprised to see Peyroux schmooze his way into Cunningham’s plans at some point. Greenwood has been strongly linked with a move to the Gold Coast and while that speculation probably refers to his employment in 2018 it might just have provided enough of a distraction to give Cunningham the excuse he needs to persist with Peyroux.
The Rhinos have added surprisingly few reinforcements to the squad which performed so miserably last season. A late rally saw them climb off the bottom of the table and eventually finish the regular season in ninth, and though they sailed through the Middle 8 Qualifiers it was not the end to the season that their fans would have envisaged when the campaign got under way. Ashton Goulding will likely feature at fullback with Zak Hardaker now on loan at Castleford after a spell with Penrith in the NRL, but there is more experience across the three-quarters with England internationals Tom Briscoe, Kallum Watkins and Ryan Hall featuring alongside the excellent Joel Moon. In the halves, Jordan Lilley’s loan move to Bradford Bulls was something of a surprise but again experience and class abounds here for Leeds with both Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow set to see action along with the impressive Liam Sutcliffe who can also operate at fullback if needed.
It’s in the front row where the most significant addition to the squad has been made, with Matt Parcell arriving from Manly to replace the errant James Segeyaro. Parcell played 15 times for Manly last season and should help improve a pack which capitulated completely in 2016 as it failed to recover from the losses of Jamie Peacock and Kevin Sinfield. Brad Singleton, Adam Cuthbertson, Mitch Garbutt and Anthony Mullally will all have to improve their productivity if Brian McDermott’s side are to cope with what looks an impressive Saints forward group. One possible X-factor for them in that area could be Stevie Ward who, though injury prone, has shown more than enough to suggest that he could be one of Super League’s best in the seasons to come. Old stagers Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Carl Ablett should also feature, while Jimmy Keinhorst can fill in either in the second row or along the three-quarter line should the injury jinx of 2016 strike again. Prop Jack Ormondroyd is included after coming in from Featherstone Rovers, while young back-rower Jordan Baldwinson makes up McDermott’s initial 19-man selection.
It’s almost impossible to predict what will happen in the first game of any season given the uncertainty surrounding new additions and around how well prepared each the teams may or may not be. Yet both Saints and the Rhinos have been handed a crashing wake-up call with this opening Thursday night fixture and both will need to be ready if they are going to take anything from it. Home advantage, returning stars and what looks to be some slightly smarter recruitment should just about be enough to get Saints over the line though replacing Smith adequately will be crucial.
- Jonny Lomax, 2. Tommy Makinson, 3. Ryan Morgan, 4. Mark Percival, 5. Adam Swift, 6. Theo Fages, 8. Alex Walmsley, 9. James Roby, 10. Kyle Amor, 11. Joe Greenwood, 12. Jon Wilkin, 14. Luke Douglas, 15. Adam Walker, 16. Luke Thompson, 17. Tommy Lee, 18. Dominique Peyroux, 20. Morgan Knowles, 23. Jack Ashworth, 24. Danny Richardson.
- Ashton Golding, 2. 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, 16. Brad Singleton, 17. Mitch Garbutt, 18. Jimmy Keinhorst, 20. Anthony Mullally, 23. Jack Ormondroyd, 24. Jordan Baldwinson.
Referee: Phil Bentham