Saints look to continue their crawl up the BetFred Super League table when they visit the AJ Bell Stadium for a Round 7 meeting with Salford Red Devils on Thursday night (March 30, kick-off 8.00pm).
The last two weeks have seen a marked improvement in performances by Keiron Cunningham’s men. After fairly dismal defeats to Leigh Centurions and Wakefield Trinity Saints have hit back with fine wins in Perpignan over Catalans Dragons and at home to Warrington Wolves last time out. It leaves Saints sixth in the standings going into this clash with Ian Watson’s improving Red Devils side who themselves sit one place higher having played a game more.
Saints are boosted by the return to the 19-man squad of Jonny Lomax. The fullback has missed the last three games with a knee injury but could return to the starting line-up for this one. That will mean a return to his familiar right wing positon for Tommy Makinson despite some outstanding performances at fullback in Lomax’s absence, while Jack Owens looks set to keep his place after Adam Swift picked up an arm injury in the victory over Warrington. Matty Fleming has been drafted in as cover should Lomax not prove his fitness so there are options for Cunningham in terms of shuffling the three-quarter line should the need arise. All being well, Makinson and Owens will operate outside of the regular centre partnership of Ryan Morgan and the outstanding Mark Percival.
Matty Smith returned to great effect against namesake Tony Smith’s side last week and will again look to lead the side around the park alongside Theo Fages in the halves, with Jon Wilkin excellent in the loose forward role last week also. The latter has competition for that role with the return from injury of Morgan Knowles but should get the nod with Zeb Taia and either Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook or Dominque Peyroux completing the back row. Up front Alex Walmsley has been superb in recent weeks and with Luke Thompson still out he will feature heavily in the prop rotation alongside Luke Douglas, Kyle Amor and Adam Walker. Tommy Lee started ahead of James Roby last week and could do so again, or else come off the bench in relief of Saints’ veteran hooker.
Salford go in without the strike power of centre Junior S’au as well as utility back Niall Evalds, while in the pack Weller Hauraki misses out. Former Saint Gareth O’Brien has been in impressive form for the Red Devils so far in 2017 and is a real threat from fullback, with Todd Carney now challenging the dynamic Robert Lui for a place in the halves alongside former Hull KR, Wigan and Catalans man Michael Dobson. Despite S’au’s absence there is thereat in the three-quarters in the shape of another Carney, former Castleford man Justin as well as the pacy Greg Johnson. In the trenches Craig Kopczak, George Griffin, Ben Murdoch-Masila and ex-Saints men Josh Jones, Lama Tasi and Mark Flanagan could all feature as well as former Wigan man Lee Mossop.
Salford are coming in off the back of a 46-10 thrashing of Widnes Vikings last weekend and remain the only team to have beaten Castleford Tigers so far this term. They can also count Warrington among their victims as well as Huddersfield. Conversely, they have shown a vulnerability in losing narrowly to Wakefield (sound familiar?) as well as Leeds and Wigan. Of those defeats only the one at the hands of the Warriors came at the AJ Bell Stadium, and that was on opening day when a sleeping Salford side allowed Wigan to run up a 26-0 half-time lead before clawing it back to a respectable 26-16. They have been formidable at home ever since.
So it is a tough ask for Saints despite their recent upturn in form. Their last visit to the AJ Bell holds painful memories as they were whacked 44-10 in a game notable for the presence of McCarthy-Scarsbrook as a makeshift centre. While there should be no need for that kind of shenanigans this time around the uncertainty over Lomax and the absence of Swift is a possible cause for further anxiety. A large enough margin of victory will see Saints leap-frog the Red Devils into fifth in the table and keep them in touch with leaders Castleford, but defeat would leave Cunningham’s side clinging on to a top eight berth seven games in. Alarm bells would ring again should that happen and no doubt pressure would again mount on the coach after what has been a period of some relief for him following a poor start to the season.
Salford Red Devils;
- Gareth O’Brien, 2. Justin Carney, 3. Josh Jones, 6. Robert Lui, 7. Michael Dobson, 8. Craig Kopczak, 9. Logan Tomkins, 10. George Griffin, 11. Ben Murdoch Masila, 13. Mark Flanagan, 14. Lama Tasi, 16. Olsi Krasniqi, 17. Adam Walne, 20. Kristian Brining, 21. Gregory Johnson, 22. Kris Welham, 23. Lee Mossop, 24. Jake Bibby, 29. Todd Carney.
- 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, 15. Adam Walker, 17. Tommy Lee, 18. Dominique Peyroux, 20. Morgan Knowles, 21. Jack Owens, 22. Matty Fleming, 36. Zeb Taia.
Referee: James Child