I have two apologies to make with regards to this article – one to Steve for making him wait this long for my thoughts on his questions and one to the Saints fans who read this – for having to think about those semi finals again!
Was not picking Fages a mistake? How long will Fages stay at Saints?
Based on the result of the semi it’s easy to say yes it was a mistake. Based on the fact Danny Richardson picked up an injury it’s easy to say yes it was a mistake.
We’d employed a similar tactic when we came unstuck against Wigan, leaving out Theo Fages in favour of a bigger bench. In the weeks before the semi final, Morgan Knowles had been asked to play at 9 and had done a fine job, proving he can step in as a hooker as a short term fix at least (I still don’t think he’s a long term option at 9 – he offers far more at 13). The fact that Roby wasn’t 100% fit probably meant Fages had to start the game, with Roby coming off the bench to add dynamism. Morgan Knowles had played well in his couple of stints at 9, so I think the coaching staff were justified in making the decision not to start the French captain.
There’s also the thought that there was no guarantee Theo would have played well. Coming into a game midway through as a pivot is a difficult job, would Theo being pitched in, with the pressure of the semi final – when we looked completely devoid of ideas – have helped us win the game? Unfortunately we’ll never know.
I think Theo will give it 6 months or so of 2019 to weigh up his playing time. If he isn’t heir apparent to Roby and Morgan Knowles, Aaron Smith or Josh Eaves are preferred, or if he hasn’t had a shot at half back for a decent run of games with a settled partner I can see him knocking on Justin Holbrook’s door.
Why do we change the way we play for semis? Did we play our usual game against Wire?
This season, I don’t think we gave Catalans enough respect in the Cup, especially for the first half, then I think we gave Warrington too much respect. It probably goes without saying that the Cup semi final would’ve played on the minds on the players and/or coaching staff but I thought we were very conservative. If I’dve been a Warrington player when Saints took the shot at goal from a penalty near to the touchline, I’dve gathered the players together and said ‘They don’t think they can score a try here lads, we’ve got them’. At the time I bemoaned that decision, and now I still do. We had such a potent attack all year and we didn’t back ourselves to at least turn Warrington over on their own line. We played percentage rugby, trying to keep the scoreboard ticking, but we never killed the game off.
Do we rely too much on Danny Richardson?
I think there’s more than Danny Richardson who makes decisions on the field. Jonny Lomax is an experienced player and we’ve had James Roby and Jon Wilkin on the field more often than not to guide us round.
I’m half surprised that he wasn’t taken out of the team to be rested, especially with us so far ahead in the league table. I know that isn’t the Justin Holbrook way, but with Theo Fages available it would have made sense to give Richardson a rest, even for a week or two.
I’d say we rely on his kicking game too much. I think the work could be shared a little more. Danny was a fan of the bomb this season where a couple of times a grubber into the in goal area might have worked better (easy for me to say while watching rather than playing). I think he’ll be better for having a full interrupted season under his belt though and he strikes me as the type of player who thrives on leading a team round the park – which is only good for the club.
Where does Naiqama fit in?
If rumours are to be believed it will be right centre. Reports suggest that Ryan Morgan has been told he is free to leave Saints, but that may be easier said than done. If Morgan stays, Naiqama has got to earn his place, which will put pressure on those battling for the full back, wing and centre positions – with probably only Makinson and Percival guaranteed starting spots in the back 5.
What will Holbrook/players have learnt from this season?
I have no doubt the whole club will take a lot from this season and will learn a lot about themselves and what is required as a team. It’s easy to forget it was Justin Holbrook’s first full season as a club sides Head Coach. He has already shown his promise and his willingness to learn (visiting different sporting clubs in the last off season).
I’m not sure it’s ever Justin’s style to drop I form, fit players but I hope that a few more rest weeks are given to players who really need them – Danny Richardson played every game this season, Luke Thompson probably would have if not for a ban he picked up. We have a squad, and at the end of the season needed to use it. The players who came in didn’t disgrace themselves in any way, shape or form so hopefully this will give the coaching staff confidence to be able to pick out players who need a week off and let them rest up.
I’m hoping the players have learnt what level of respect to show the opposition in big games. I’m hoping they have learnt how to break the semi final hoodoo that has seemingly gripped us. We’re putting ourselves into positions to get to finals – hopefully they now know what’s required to take us to those finals. Also, I hope all the players have taken as much experience and rugby knowledge from Jon Wilkin as they can. He might not have been everyone’s favourite player but you don’t have a 16 year career and captain the club if you’re not a top player.
Will our style of play change next year?
Obviously the loss of Ben Barba will take some sting out of the attack. When Barba was on his game he was unplayable and I hope that fans don’t expect the same from Lachlan Coote. Barba was never signed for his defensive prowess – so Coote may provide a little more steel as last man.
That all said, hopefully with a full year under his belt Danny Richardson will continue to improve in the same way that the likes of Morgan Knowles have. I was critical of some of Richardson’s last tackle options, I’d like a touch more composure from him but hopefully this will come in time.
Will change in format of play offs help or hinder Saints?
The new top 5 system will definitely assist those who finish top, and rightly so. There should be more kudos given to winning the league. We had a game said to be worth a million pounds for promotion, if the powers that be can secure the funding the team who finishes top should be rewarded with £1,000,000 prize money. And a proper trophy – one with handles and a lid, one that you can’t serve a buffet on or looks like a hubcap. And give them a proper name like ‘Premiers’ not just League Leaders.
Add to that, why not bring back the Charity Shield – it could be the first league game of the season between the Champions and the Cup Winners. If they’re the same team then the Champions play the League Leaders.
Would Saints have Barba back?
Ben Barba has been the most talented player to pull on a Saints jersey since Jamie Lyon and I think the club would have him back in a heartbeat. Some fans made him their pantomime villain and looked for fault in what he was doing when he had a dip in form, some looked for a conspiracy within the club and called for the club to comment further.
If people don’t believe the clubs stance on Barba being injured then that’s up to the individual. It later emerged that Barba had lost a family member and Saints had granted him compassionate leave, which Ben turned down to stay and play. We had a gentleman tweet us to say how difficult it was when you lived away and lost a family member – it was an insight which brought realism to the situation – make me think of Ben Barba the person, the man who plays rugby for a job rather than going to a factory or an office and made me consider how difficult it must be for anyone.
If the question was ‘Would Kev Pender have Barba back at Saints?’ I’dve answered this with just the word ‘Definitely’.
Do Saints need another prop?
As it stands we’ll go into next season with Luke Thompson, Matty Lees, Luke Douglas, Kyle Amor and the returning Alex Walmsley – as well as Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook and Jack Ashworth who can stint at prop.
I would still like to see a David Fifita, Pauli Pauli, Mose Masoe style forward just to provide something different as some of our forwards are very similar in stature. However, that might just be me being a bit greedy. One of the players I’m most excited about seeing next year is Matty Lees. He’s won man of the match in the first England Knights game away in PNG and though he is guilty of conceding penalties he’s a young player learning his trade – and if Paul Anderson doesn’t have an issue with that, neither should we.