You know how it is? You wait the best part of five months for the start of the rugby league season and then you get one game, one measly game, before it all gets rudely interrupted by some piffling trans-hemisphere skirmishes.
And so it is that after a gap of 15 days since the opening day victory over Leeds Rhinos Saints prepare to travel to the Leigh Sports Village to take on the Leigh Centurions this Friday night (February 24, kick-off 8.00pm).
While the team has been inactive on the field there has been more than enough going on off it to create a little intrigue ahead of this one. Most notably the swap deal which saw Joe Greenwood head for the NRL and Gold Coast Titans in a swap deal which brings former Catalans Dragons back rower Zeb Taia to St Helens. Taia will sit this one out as he waits for his visa and presumably so he can acclimatise to what are going to be chillier conditions than he has been used to out on the Gold Coast, but is aiming to be included when Saints host Wakefield Trinity next weekend.
For now coach Keiron Cunningham is able to fill the void left by Greenwood with the returning Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, who is back in the initial 19-man squad following a hip operation. He will compete for a spot in the second row alongside Dominique Peyroux, Morgan Knowles and possibly Luke Thompson with Jack Ashworth having been omitted. Ashworth misses out due to the reintroduction to first team duties of Jack Owens who, one suspects, has been included as cover should Jonny Lomax not be fully recovered from the concussion he picked up in the win over the Rhinos. Should that happen look for Tommy Makinson to switch to fullback as he did so expertly against Brian McDermott’s side, with Owens coming in to fill Makinson’s regular right wing position. Don’t worry, it may not come to that.
If Lomax is fit the rest of the backline picks itself, with Ryan Morgan partnering Mark Percival in the centres inside of winger Adam Swift. Danny Richardson impressed on his Super League debut against the Rhinos and should get another chance in the halves alongside Theo Fages as Matty Smith continues to recover from the broken leg he suffered in pre-season.
Up front Adam Walker will be keen to force his way into the 17 having missed out on selection in Round One. To do so he will have to replace one of Luke Douglas, Kyle Amor, Alex Walmsley or Thompson while Tommy Lee is likely to start ahead of James Roby to give the veteran hooker the opportunity to enter the fray fresh among tiring opponents. Both were on the field at times against the Rhinos which offered the attack two ball-playing dummy halves but for the most part expect Jon Wilkin to fill the loose forward role and to get involved with helping out the young halfback combination.
Leigh are playing their first season at this level for over 10 years and have started with a couple of defeats. They were fairly easily dismissed by Castleford on the opening weekend but turned in a much improved performance in narrowly losing to Leeds last time out. They have played one game more than Saints owing to the fact that they are one of four sides, along with Salford, Huddersfield and the Rhinos who will be required to enter the Challenge Cup one round earlier than the sides who finished in last season’s top eight. You can argue either way about whether that is an advantage, or whether Saints’ opportunity to rest bodies last weekend will actually give them the edge especially late in the game.
Ex-Saints Matty Dawson, Micky Higham and Atelea Vea are all included in coach Neil Jukes’ 19-man selection while there is also plenty of Super League experience in the likes of Gareth Hock, Harrison Hansen, Eloi Pelissier and Danny Tickle. Ben Crooks and Willie Tonga can both be major threats on their day while Ben Reynolds and Josh Drinkwater is a halfback partnership with potential. Curtis Naughton is on loan from Hull FC and could compete for a spot in the three-quarters along with Adam Higson with Mitch Brown as the last line of defence at fullback.
It is always difficult to judge what might happen in games played so early in the season and especially those involving newly promoted sides. However, Saints should have too much for the Centurions in this one, particularly in the pack which on paper looks like one which should be able to dominate most opponents at this level. It won’t be easy at the Leigh Sports Village as Leeds found out last week, but expect Saints to come away with the bacon.
Just one other point that might be relevant to the outcome. Ben Thaler takes charge of his first competitive Saints fixture since his disastrous performance in the Super League semi-final at Warrington in late September. Just like Saints in 2016 he can and must do an awful lot better…..
- 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, 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, 21. Jack Owens, 24. Danny Richardson.
- Mitch Brown, 2. Adam Higson, 3. Ben Crooks, 4. Willie Tonga, 5. Matty Dawson, 7. Josh Drinkwater, 8. Gareth Hock, 9. Micky Higham, 11. Cory Paterson, 13. Harrison Hansen, 14. Eloi Pelissier, 15. Danny Tickle, 17. Atelea Vea, 20. Ben Reynolds, 22. James Green, 23. Sam Hopkins, 24. Jamie Acton, 29. Lachlan Burr, 30. Curtis Naughton.
Referee: Ben Thaler