Wigan (H) – Qualifying Semi Final Preview Phil Jones 25th September 2019 2019 Match Previews, 2019 Season After putting their feet up and watching the other four teams battle it out, the Saints head into this Friday’s derby semi final refreshed and ready to go following a well-earned week off. Some people claim the week off can be a disadvantage, but at this stage of the season, I think it can help get over the bumps and bruises you’ve suffered during a long, hard season. We will soon find out whether Saints take advantage of that or not. Saints have been ultra-consistent in the league this season, swatting aside every opponent, apart from Catalans Dragons and our new bogey side, the London Broncos. Thank god, they’re getting relegated! As a Saints supporter, you would have every right to be confident this Friday, especially given our record against all our Play Off rivals, which currently stands at played 8, won 8 this season. But the Challenge Cup Final defeat to Warrington has scarred many Saints fans, and for many, Saints have a point to prove in the big games and their handling of them, before people will feel confident in them. Since the Challenge Cup Final, Saints have won their last three and have slowly started to pick up their form again. It has been helped by the likes of Coote, Knowles, Roby and Walmsley all getting some much-needed game time. The performance against Hull was scratchy by all accounts, but our defence since the Challenge Cup Final has been outstanding, conceding just two tries (12 points) in their last three games. It’s that type of defence that will win big games, so we will need to muster that over the next few weeks if we are to have any chance of lifting the big prize on October 12th. Justin Holbrook was keeping a close eye on our next opponents at the Wigan and Salford game on Friday, as he was a studio guest for Sky’s coverage, and he will have been impressed by Wigan’s commitment to their defence but will have also seen them delivering an under-par performance in attack. Our opponents Wigan have had an impressive second half of the season after a disastrous first half, where they found themselves near the bottom of the table. Since then, they’ve hit a good run of form, got key players back from injury and managed to climb the table. To finish 2nd was very impressive given the position they were in at the start of June. There’s no doubt they’ve been helped by Warrington falling off a cliff in the league from June themselves and the others around them having very inconsistent runs of form. The likes of Hull, Catalans and Castleford will be kicking themselves for not finishing higher up the table when in good positions, but Wigan took advantage and you must take your hat off to them, because they looked a mess at one point. When it comes to this time of year, they get into the zone and it’s almost like they go into auto pilot mode and know what it takes to win these games. It’s not pretty at times and for the purists of attacking rugby, it’s not always enjoyable to watch, but they get the job done and for that you’ve got to credit them. They struggled with the ball last week, most Wigan fans will admit that, and they haven’t been great with the ball most of the season. They’re the fourth highest scorers this season having scored over 200 points less than Saints but defensively they are 3rd best, only six points worse off than Warrington. It is their defensive resistance and ability to sucker punch the opposition that makes them a threat on Friday and for the rest of the Play Offs. The Squads St Helens Jonny Lomax, Tommy Makinson, Kevin Naiqama, Mark Percival, Regan Grace, Theo Fages, Alex Walmsley, James Roby, Luke Thompson, Zeb Taia, Joseph Paolo, LMS, Morgan Knowles, Kyle Amor, Dom Peyroux, Jack Ashworth, Aaron Smith, James Bentley, Lachlan Coote Wigan Joe Burgess, Liam Byrne, Tony Clubb, Liam Farrell, Ben Flower, Bevan French, Oliver Gildart, Joe Greenwood, Chris Hankinson, Zak Hardaker, Willie Isa, Thomas Leuluai, Liam Marshall, Romain Naveratte, Sean O’Loughlin, Ollie Partington, Sam Powell, Morgan Smithies, George Williams. Apart from Matty Lees, Saints are at full strength. It is likely that Saints will be unchanged from the Hull game, which means Joseph Paolo will miss out and James Bentley’s versatility will earn him the last remaining bench spot. Holbrook has pretty much confirmed in his recent press conference he will go with the same team as last time out, so I wouldn’t expect any changes. There was a doubt over Sam Powell for Wigan but it is looking likely he will play and Ollie Partington will return from suspension, so Wigan will be pretty much full strength, which sets us up for a cracking game. Head to Head Last 6 games – Saints 5 wins, Wigan 1 win. Last meeting – St Helens 32 – 10 Wigan Warriors, Totally Wicked Stadium, Att. 17,088. It’s unusual to see such one-sided derby games, but Saints have had the rub over Wigan in recent times winning five of the last six. All three encounters this season have been comfortably won by Saints. The last non regular round game between the two sides was five years ago, the 2014 Grand Final, which as we all know Saints won 14-6. A repeat of that this season will do for me! Key Battles Coote v Hardaker – Hardaker has arguably been Wigan’s most consistent player this season and when others were misfiring earlier in the year, Hardaker was putting in some decent performances for Wigan, and if it wasn’t for his previous off field behaviour, he would probably be in the GB squad at the end of the year. Coote has had a fantastic 1st year at Saints earning himself onto the shortlist of the Man of Steel award. His injury against Wigan in July put a halt to his good season though and his return performance at Wembley six weeks later was his poorest to date. Since then, he’s featured twice and has looked back to his early season form. That link up play between him, Lomax and the three quarters will be crucial to our chances of Grand Final success. Lomax v Williams – Both of these players have been integral to their teams form this season. Lomax has 16 tries, 21 assists whilst Williams has 14 tries and 21 assists. Williams had a slow start to the season but along with Liam Farrell, has really helped Wigan climb up the table and his running and kicking game are crucial to the way Wigan work as a side. He will be a big loss for them next season, even though they have replaced him with Jackson Hastings. Lomax incredibly missed out on the dream team, as pundits continue to undervalue his worth to Saints and the competition. He’s been excellent this year, without doubt his best season in a Saints shirt. Knowles v Smithies – Two young players, who have impressed massively this season. Knowles has been in sensational form this season and has earned his way into the dream team as a result. After a few seasons of finding his feet, Knowles’ game has gone up a level or two this year. His aggression with and without the ball and subtle hands makes him a great all-round loose forward / back rower and he is critical to how we function as a side. Smithies came into the Wigan side in the 2nd half of the year due to injuries and has been excellent. He made a Super League record 72 tackles last week which is insane, Steele Retchless will be gutted. Both have great futures in the game (Knowles and Smithies, not Steele Retchless) and are developing into two of the best young forwards in the country. Prediction Play Off games are very rarely high scoring and one sided and I don’t anticipate this to be any different. Saints have won all three games against Wigan quite comfortably this season, but I feel this will be the toughest so far. The key will be in the forwards, and if Thompson and Walmsley hit their best form, Wigan will struggle to handle the size and power of that duo and speed at the ruck that it creates. The bench options Saints have are strong, and could play a big role on Friday. Saints need to ensure they speed the game up as much as the referee will allow and don’t allow themselves to be dragged into a niggly, slow game which will suit Wigan. Wigan’s stubborn defence will be difficult to break down, so Saints will have to be patient. The weather also looks to be raining which will level the game up and make it low scoring. I predict Saints by 8.