St Helens v Warrington – Challenge Cup Final Preview Phil Jones 22nd August 2019 2019 Match Previews, 2019 Season Since booking our place at Wembley four weeks ago, every single Saints fan has been counting down the days and the games until we finally reached Wembley week and here we are, just two days to go. It’s been great to see pictures of the town adorned in red and white flags and memorabilia, getting behind our Saints. We’ve won all three of our league games since beating Halifax in the Semi Final against Wakefield, our Challenge Cup Final opponents Warrington and Leeds last week so we go into the game in buoyant mood. Whilst it was great to win all those games, the most important thing was to pick up no injuries and in the main we did that, apart from the injury to Matty Lees, who will sadly miss out and looks like he will miss several games. We’ve established a huge sixteen-point lead in the Super League table and we’re now the only side in the division with nothing left to play for until the Play Offs, but this all counts for nothing this Saturday where everything is on the line. This is not a normal game and there is no point pretending otherwise. We have not played at Wembley for 11 years, so every single fan and player will be incredibly excited about this Saturday’s game, some will be making their first trip to Wembley. Apart from James Roby none of our players have played at Wembley before, which gives Warrington the edge experience wise, although it’s fair to say most Warrington’s players experience at Wembley is suffering in defeat. It has been a very slow week at work waiting for this one and we all just want the game to start now. Last game review Seven of Saints stars missed out against Leeds due to injury and rotation – Lachlan Coote (knee), Tommy Makinson (rested), Alex Walmsley (eye), James Roby (groin), Morgan Knowles (ill), Joseph Paolo (hamstring) and LMS (rested) those that missed out, but despite the missing players we still put a very good display at Headingley, winning 36-20. Some of Saints young stars did well again. The likes of Jack Welsby, Josh Eaves, Matty Costello, Matty Lees and Jack Ashworth put in good performances, but it was the experienced heads of Jonny Lomax and Kevin Naiqama that played exceptionally well to win us the game. Kevin Naiqama can go long periods of games doing very little, but when he’s in the mood he is unstoppable, and he tore Leeds apart in a short 2nd half spell bagging two further tries along with his 1st half effort to make it a hat trick. Naiqama’s form will be extremely encouraging for Holbrook as we head into Wembley. Journey to the final Sixth Round The Saints started their cup campaign with a tricky away game against Huddersfield, where we struggled our way to a 22-16 victory. Whilst we never really looked like losing this game, it certainly showed that Saints had work to do in handling pressure situations as our kicking game and composure was poor that day. Warrington on the other hand beat Wigan 26-24 in a classic cup tie, which could’ve gone either way and was remembered for a controversial no try that was given against Wigan for a knock on, which had a huge bearing on the outcome. Quarter Final The Quarter Finals was a completely different story though as Saints destroyed a hapless Wakefield 48-10 at the Totally Wicked Stadium. This attacking performance displayed Saints at their best and the scoreline ended up flattering Wakefield slightly. Warrington once again struggled their way to victory as they just about overcome a determined Hull KR 28-22, in another closely fought cup tie. Semi Final In the Semi Final, we of course defeated Halifax 26-2. It wasn’t a vintage performance as we struggled to dominate the game in the 1st half. In the 2nd half our superior fitness told, and we ended up winning the game comfortably. The weather had a huge impact on the game as both Semi Finals ended up being low scoring, tight affairs in extremely wet conditions. We never really looked like conceding a try though and you would describe it as a professional display. Warrington put in their best performance of the last two months in their Semi Final against Hull FC. It was a tight 22-14 win, but their kicking game especially was strong as Blake Austin’s influence on the game made the difference. Our opponents Warrington go into the game in terrible form. Right up until June, they were very close to us in the league ladder and it looked like Saints and Warrington would be battling it out for top spot at one stage. Warrington now lie 2nd on points difference with Wigan and they are sixteen behind us. I’ve watched their last few performances and they have looked a very average side without Blake Austin. Stefan Ratchford has made them safer at the back, but without Austin they have lacked a spark to break teams down. They will be hoping to play Ratchford, Austin and Clark for the 1st time since they lost to Catalans, and you imagine without Austin they would really struggle to break us down. Austin picked up a sprained ankle 3 weeks ago against Catalans and is a doubt for the final. He hasn’t been named in the 19-man squad for Warrington but until the day we won’t know for sure. The focus shouldn’t be on will he or won’t he for me, Saints should prepare as if he’s playing and if he isn’t then so be it. When Warrington are on their game, those trio of Austin, Ratchford and Clarke can cause anyone problems, especially if their props Hill and Cooper get on the front foot early. The key for us is to control their play the balls and make sure those two forwards don’t get on top as that will allow Clarke, Austin and Ratchford to combine and cause damage. We haven’t seen the best of Warrington in the last few months of the season, but I cannot see them playing that badly on Saturday. They will risk everything for this game and I’ve no doubt last season’s Semi Final will be used as a motivator and a confidence booster to help them on Saturday. Saints need to be very wary of this and prepare for Warrington’s best side and their key attacking weapons. If I was Holbrook, I wouldn’t watch any of their recent games, I’d be focussing on their early season games when they were putting scores on sides, because that’s the side that could turn up on Saturday if we’re not careful. The Squads St Helens Jonny Lomax, Tommy Makinson, Kevin Naiqama, Mark Percival, Regan Grace, Theo Fages, Danny Richardson, Alex Walmsley, James Roby, Luke Thompson, Zeb Taia, Joseph Paolo, LMS, Morgan Knowles, Kyle Amor, Dom Peyroux, Jack Ashworth, James Bentley, Lachlan Coote. Warrington Sita Akauola, Josh Charnley, Daryl Clark, Jason Clark, Mike Cooper, Ben Currie, Matt Davis, Bryson Goodwin, Chris Hill, Jack Hughes, Toby King, Ton Lineham, Harvey Livett, Jake Mamo, Ben Murdoch-Masila, Dec Patton, Joe Philbin, Stefan Ratchford, Ben Westwood. Saints have gone with a very strong squad as expected with Coote, Makinson, Roby, Walmsley, Paolo, Knowles and LMS all returning to the side. It is likely that Richardson and Bentley will be the unlucky ones to miss out, but it will depend on the fitness of one or two players. Head to Head Last 6 games – Saints 5 wins, Warrington 1 win. Last meeting – Warrington 12 – 30 St Helens, HJ Stadium, Att. 10,987. The last meeting in the Challenge Cup between the two sides was back in 2008, the last time we won the cup (is that an omen?). Saints won the game 40-34 in a high scoring clash at Knowsley Road. Our recent record is very good against Warrington with five wins out of six. I mentioned it in my last preview against Warrington, but the one defeat came in the one that mattered last season. Saints need to use this as a motivator and hopefully last season’s disappointments will fuel the fire and help us get the victory this Saturday. Key battles Coore v Ratchford – The two full backs will have a big say in this game. If Coote is 100% he could hold the key for Saints, with his kicking game and composure under pressure whilst Ratchford is a very dangerous runner and also links the play exceptionally well in the backs. There’s not much between the two so I’m not going to make any rash claims about who is better, but both will be crucial on Saturday. Lomax v Austin – Even though Austin hasn’t been named in the squad, I still believe he will play. Lomax has been outstanding for Saints this season and you feel his time to shine is now. He doesn’t have a Lance Todd or Harry Sunderland award to his belt, and you feel if he wins the MOM award on Saturday he could finally get some of the recognition he deserves. Austin is Wire’s key man, he needs to be shut down and not allowed time on the ball, otherwise he could be the match winner. Roby v Clarke – Arguably the two best hookers in the league and whilst Roby has missed a lot of games recently, he is still absolutely crucial to us. He got the ball rolling in the Semi Final, when others were suffering from nerves, and it’s that experience and know how that makes him so important, not just for this game but also for our Grand Final hopes too. Clarke is a younger version of James Roby, he just works tirelessly for Warrington and will always try and pick the space around dummy half if there is any. Saints will need to dominate the forwards and slow Warrington down to ensure Clarke has very little space to work with. Prediction Saints will be favourites, given both teams recent form and our head to head record this season. But this is a cup final, and we’ve seen it time and time again when an underdog has pulled off a shock win and upset the bookmakers’ odds. Warrington are not as big an underdog as some people may think. Their last 2 months aside, they’ve been the closest team to Saints this season and our first battle at the HJ Stadium which was eventually won by 11 points and last year’s semi final which was won by Warrington near end of the game is a closer testament to where the sides are. For Saints it’s all about grabbing this moment and turning a good side into a great side. I get the feeling this will be very close and uncomfortable for large parts, but I’m going to go for a narrow Saints win. Saints by 6.