Saints will be looking to cement their place in the BetFred Super League top eight when they host Leigh Centurions in a Round 12 clash on Friday night (April 28, kick-off 8.00pm).
The mini-revival over Easter under interim coaches Jamahl Lolesi, Sean Long and Derek Traynor stalled somewhat Widnes last time out, when a jaded-looking Saints somehow managed to lose 16-14 at Widnes Vikings. It was only a second win in 11 outings for Dennis Betts side and a first at home, and showed those of us thinking that Saints might have turned a corner with the Easter Monday win over Castleford Tigers that there is still some way to go.
To start the task of clawing Saints back into something like form the coaching trio have made three changes to the 19-man selection for the visit of Neil Jukes’ side. Luke Douglas and Ryan Morgan have struggled to impress since they joined Saints from Gold Coast Titans and Melbourne Storm respectively at the start of the season, but both are included after injury. Also included is Jonah Cunningham, son of statued rugby league legend and recently axed coach Keiron Cunningham. He will compete for game time at hooker with Tommy Lee with James Roby still a week or so away from full fitness.
Jonny Lomax is also still out but we are likely to see the return of Tommy Makinson who was left out of the Widnes clash apparently due to concerns about how his oft hammered knees would handle the i-Pitch. That means no place in the squad for the unfortunate Ricky Bailey whose return to first team action last week showed promise but was somewhat error-prone at times also. Matty Fleming might consider himself unlucky not to have held off the challenge of the underwhelming Morgan for the right centre slot after he gave a good account of himself against both the Tigers and the Vikings. Greg Richards makes way for Douglas in the other change to the squad.
With Makinson again required at full-back expect Adam Swift to remain on the right wing outside Morgan with Mark Percival again partnering the exciting Regan Grace on the left side of the attack. Percival jets off with England as part of their squad which will face Samoa at Campbelltown Sports Stadium next Saturday (May 6) along with prop Alex Walmsley. The form of both will be crucial to Saints chances of a victory over the Centurions who despite not winning any of their last five league games since beating Warrington on March 16 and crashing out of the Challenge Cup to Hull KR last weekend have still made a reasonable fist of life back in the top flight. One of their three wins came against Saints in Round 2 back in February, a fact which should not be lost on the home side this week.
Matty Smith and Theo Fages look set to control things in the halves for Saints despite recent criticism of the former’s performances. The pack is led by Walmsley and if Douglas is ready to come back into the starting line-up that will leave Kyle Amor and Adam Walker to vie for bench spots with perhaps Cunningham, Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Dominique Peyroux and Morgan Knowles also in contention. Luke Thompson may get another start at loose forward if the coaching team persist with Jon Wilkln’s greater creativity at right second row. On the other side of the back row Zeb Taia picks himself despite a sub-par performance at Widnes last time out.
Leigh are without former Australian international Willie Tonga as well as former Saint Mickey Higham who was crucial to their success over Saints at Leigh Sports Village in February. Ticking time-bomb Gareth Hock also misses out along with former Hull KR man Corey Paterson, so the pack is led by ex-Catalan Dragon and storied NRL veteran Glenn Stewart along with former Grand Final winner Harrison Hansen. Atelea Vea is another ex-Saint looking to make an impression on his former employers as is three-quarter Matty Dawson while Jukes could also call on Curtis Naughton, on loan from Hull FC. Look for Ben Reynolds and Josh Drinkwater to try to provide the creative spark in the halves, while others to watch include former Hull and Castleford centre Ben Crooks and ex-Wigan youngster Ryan Hampshire.
This column has spectacularly botched its last two Saints predictions. It was almost certain of defeat to the then high-flying Tigers on Easter Monday, while the win that eventually transpired convinced most people that Saints would be too good for lowly Widnes. And look what happened. So predicting a Saints win is an endeavour fraught with risk. If we see the team which took on and beat Castleford, confident, expressive and motivated, then Saints should have far too much for a Leigh side which has hit a bit of a wall after a good start to their campaign. Yet if we see the clapped out mob that rocked up at Widnes then we really could see a defeat that could leave Saints floundering outside the top eight by the time of next week’s visit to Warrington.
2. Tommy Makinson, 3. Ryan Morgan, 4. Mark Percival, 5. Adam Swift, 6. Theo Fages, 7. Matty Smith, 8. Alex Walmsley, 10. Kyle Amor, 12. Jon Wilkin, 13. Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, 14. Luke Douglas, 15. Adam Walker, 16. Luke Thompson, 17. Tommy Lee, 18. Dominique Peyroux, 20. Morgan Knowles, 28. Regan Grace, 30. Jonah Cunningham, 36. Zeb Taia.
1.Mitch Brown, 2. Adam Higson, 3. Ben Crooks, 5. Matty Dawson, 6. Martyn Ridyard, 7. Josh Drinkwater, 10. Dayne Weston, 12. Glenn Stewart, 13. Harrison Hansen, 14. Eloi Pelissier, 15. Danny Tickle, 17. Atelea Vea, 19. Ryan Hampshire, 20. Ben Reynolds, 21. Liam Hood, 23. Sam Hopkins, 24. Jamie Acton, 29. Lachlan Burr, 30. Curtis Naughton.
Referee: Gareth Hewer