A whole season’s work is on the line as Saints visit the AJ Bell to take on Salford Red Devils in their final BetFred Super League Super 8s tie on Thursday night (September 21, kick-off 8.00pm).
This is it. No, this really, really is it. I know you’ve heard that before during this curate’s egg of a season but really, really really. This is it. Failure to beat Ian Watson’s side in this one will finally sound the death knell for Saints’ hopes of reaching the Grand Final at Old Trafford on October 7. Yet win, and only a scandalous capitulation reminiscent of Peru against Argentina in the 1978 World Cup from Wakefield at home to Wigan on Saturday (September 23) could halt Justin Holbrook’s side’s progress. If Saints win then Wigan would need to beat Wakefield by 64 points plus whatever Saints’ margin of victory over Salford turns out to be. You might concern yourself with this if this was 1988, but a quick look at the current Wigan line-up suggests that they wouldn’t be capable of scoring that many points in three games against Parr High, much less doing so against a Wakefield side which at the time of writing still harbours their own slim hopes of reaching the last four.
So the task for Saints is simple. Win and you’re in. For the job Holbrook has selected the same 19 which were on duty for last week’s 40-16 home win over Huddersfield Giants. It was a fairly routine success against a side which quickly lost interest, but was nevertheless vitally important in keeping playoff hopes alive. Don’t expect too many changes to the line-up then, with Ben Barba set to continue at fullback after a much improved performance against the Giants. Jonny Lomax should stay in the halves alongside Danny Richardson, and the noises coming from Holbrook this week in the press suggest that it will be Theo Fages and not Matty Smith who takes the one place on the interchange bench that seems to be available for a back. Tommy Makinson, Ryan Morgan, Mark Percival and Regan Grace complete the back division.
The pack is still reliant on Alex Walmsley and Luke Thompson, with Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook and Dominique Peyroux also making much improved contributions in recent weeks. Peyroux may come into contention to start in the back row ahead of Morgan Knowles, although a minority of fans were quite vociferous about their desire for Jon Wilkin to be the man to miss out. Yet that seems unlikely given Wilkin’s defensive contribution so expect him to be leading the side out before kick-off as usual, perhaps at loose forward with Zeb Taia partnering either Knowles or Peyroux in the second row. James Roby is the one constant in the front row with Kyle Amor perhaps in contention to dislodge Luke Douglas as Matty Lees misses out on selection.
Salford’s hopes of a semi-final slot have blown up in smoke after a disastrous Super 8s phase which has seen them win just one of their six games so far. They play their final game of 2017 without a host of regulars including Michael Dobson, George Griffin, Greg Johnson, Lee Mossop, Todd Carney as well as former Saints duo Mark Flanagan and Lama Tasi. Another ex-Saints Josh Jones is included and he along with Ben Murdoch-Masila, Weller Hauraki, Craig Kopczak and Logan Tomkins will carry the battle up front for the Red Devils.
There’s another Saints connection in the backs with Gareth O’Brien who spent part of 2013 on loan at Langtree Park and still plenty of quality elsewhere in the likes of Junior Sa’u, Niall Evalds, Robert Lui, Kris Welham and Manu Vatuvei.
Saints lost the last time they visited the AJ Bell, going down 22-14 at the end of March in a game which saw Dobson cross for two tries and kick four goals while O’Brien added another. The reverse fixture at St Helens turned out to be pretty pivotal for both, as Saints came back from 24-8 down with just seven minutes remaining to steal a 25-24 win with Smith’s 40-metre drop goal at the hooter. It was a result that looked to have kept Saints’ hopes afloat at the time and from which Watson’s men have never really quite recovered, losing eight out of their last 10 league fixtures since then and slipping out of contention.
That lack of interest in a playoff place could be the one deciding factor in this one. Saints are desperate to keep the dream alive while Salford minds could be forgiven for wandering towards an off-season holiday as they recharge for another tilt in 2018.
Salford Red Devils;
- Gareth O’Brien, 3. Josh Jones, 4. Junior Sa’u, 5. Niall Evalds, 6. Robert Lui, 8. Craig Kopczak, 9. Logan Tomkins, 11. Ben Murdoch-Masila, 12. Weller Hauraki, 15. Ryan Lannon, 17. Adam Walne, 18. Jordan Walne, 19. Josh Wood, 20. Kris Brinning, 22. Kris Welham, 24. Jake Bibby, 26. Daniel Murray, 31. Manu Vatuvei, 32. Tyrone McCarthy.
- Jonny Lomax 2. Tommy Makinson, 3. Ryan Morgan, 4. Mark Percival, 6. Theo Fages, 7. Matty Smith, 8. Alex Walmsley, 9. James Roby, 10. Kyle Amor, 12. Jon Wilkin, 13. Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, 14. Luke Douglas, 16. Luke Thompson, 18. Dominique Peyroux, 20. Morgan Knowles, 24. Danny Richardson, 28. Regan Grace, 36. Zeb Taia, 37. Ben Barba.
Referee: James Child