A new era begins when Saints travel to face Wigan in Round 9 of the BetFred Super League on Friday (April 14, kick-off 12.15pm).
Keiron Cunningham’s 24-year association with Saints came to an end on Monday (April 10) when it was announced that he had parted company with the club. It came in the wake of last Friday’s less than Totally Wicked draw with Huddersfield Giants (April 7) and brought to a close a two-and-a-half year term as Head Coach. During that time Saints reached the Super League semi-finals twice and the semi-final of the Challenge Cup in 2015, but in truth the distance between them and those really competing for honours was always a little too great for comfort. The conservative style of play preferred by Cunningham meant that without trophies he was always going to struggle to justify his position at a club steeped in a tradition of winning in an entertaining fashion.
While the search for a new Head Coach continues the decision makers have put together a three-man coaching team to oversee first team affairs. Sean Long is another on-field Saints great looking to make his mark in the coaching arena, and he will be joined by current backroom staffer Jamahl Lolesi as well as under 19s coach Derek Traynor. It’s not quite clear to this observer which of them will have final say on on-field matters but Lolesi has been the one to speak publicly today (April 12) about how the new regime will go about the task of taking on Wigan this weekend and then Castleford Tigers at home on Easter Monday (April 17).
While we shouldn’t expect too much to change too quickly there is one glaring omission from the trio’s first 19-man squad announcement. Dominique Peyroux has come in for a lot of criticism since joining from New Zealand Warriors at the start of 2016 and this has only intensified in the dying embers of the Cunningham reign. He has paid for his poor form with his place in the squad, while Luke Thompson returns from a thumb injury to take his place. Even more daring, the coaching team have called up Regan Grace to the first team squad for the first time and although he may sit the match out should everything be fine with the fitness of Jonny Lomax, the introduction of a bit of youth to the first team set-up is something that fans have been desperate to see for some time. Lomax has looked distinctly out of sorts in recent weeks and may have a question mark over his fitness which could see Grace come in on the wing and Tommy Makinson filling in at fullback once more. Whether he plays or not the inclusion of Grace would seem to be bad news for Jack Owens, who is omitted from the squad after being the go-to guy for cover along the backline under Cunningham.
The rest of the backs pick themselves really, with Ryan Morgan inside Makinson or Grace and Mark Percival and Adam Swift forming a potent attacking duo on the left outside of the halfback combination of Theo Fages and Matty Smith. Fages had a mixed night in the draw with Huddersfield, scoring two good first half tries before a couple of defensive lapses helped Rick Stone’s side back into the game. Smith was meant to be the man to come in and help push the team on to great things when he was signed by Cunningham at the start of this season but after a promising debut in the win over Warrington was decidedly quiet last time out. More will be expected from him and we might get it now that in Long he has a legendary half-back perhaps having a little more input into how he goes about his job. Smith should need no further motivation against the club who basically discarded him at the end of last season despite his role in their successful 2016 Grand Final winning campaign.
James Roby could be out for up to six weeks and so his place is again likely to be taken by Tommy Lee at hooker, with props Alex Walmsley and Luke Douglas completing the likely starting front row. Thompson may be considered as an interchange prop along with Kyle Amor and Adam Walker, or as a challenger for Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook’s right sided second row role. Saints need something to get that right hand edge of Makinson and Morgan into the game more and although neither Thompson, Morgan Knowles or Jon Wilkin are a long term solution in that position they may get an opportunity in this one. Wilkin has played his best rugby at loose forward this season and should do so again for the most part. Yet it would be no surprise to see him moved to the second row at some stage to add a bit of creativity there with either Thompson, Knowles or McCarthy-Scarsbrook reverting to the 13 role. Of those, only Knowles looks like a traditional loose forward, with the other two more like auxiliary props. But hey, it’s not like we’re not set up to accommodate another battering ram…
No such problems on the other side of the field where Zeb Taia has regularly been providing the ammunition of Percival and Swift with his strong-running, offloading exploits. You get the feeling that another back rower like him on the other side of the field would transform the whole side as an attacking force.
At the risk of getting all nostalgic Wigan’s squad selection takes me back to the 80s and 90s when a date with Saints would prompt the return from injury of a whole host of star names. I can recall Ellery Hanley and Dennis Betts taking fitness tests on the Wembley turf before Challenge Cup finals which were nothing but cruel mockery. There’s no pots at stake here but that hasn’t stopped Shaun Wane bringing out reinforcements in the shape of Anthony Gelling, Joe Burgess, Michael McIlorum and Sean O’Loughlin all of whom return from injury for this one. If you were in any doubt as to whether Wigan want to beat Saints as much as ever then doubt no more.
They are still without Sam Tomkins, who apparently used to be a rugby league player but is now only that in the way that Daniel Sturridge is a footballer, and also John Bateman, Oliver Gildart, Dom Manfredi and also Tony Clubb. Morgan Escare will continue in Tomkins’ fullback role and with Lewis Tierney also out one of Liam Marshall, Liam Forsythe or Tom Davies will operate on the right wing with Willie Isa filling in at centre for Gildart.
George Williams has just become Wigan’s second marquee player, signing a deal that keeps him at the DW Stadium till at least 2020 and he will be key to Wigan’s hopes operating in the halves alongside Thomas Leuleuai. Sky favourite Ben Flower heads up the pack with Control + V and Control + P’s Frank-Paul Nuuausala, Taulima Tautai and Ryan Sutton also competing for front row spots with either McIlorum or Sam Powell taking the hooking role. Back row options include Liam Farrell, Joel Tomkins as well as O’Loughlin.
This is something of a free-hit for Saints, in as far as any derby can be. The pressure is completely off the new coaching team with expectation as low as it has been for some time, and bearing in mind that they are bound to needs some time to bed in their ideas. Saints have been pretty good defensively so far so fears of a thrashing seem unfounded, particularly given that for all their ‘tactical nous’ (cheating) and defensive solidity Wigan’s is not an attack to inspire too much fear. They should have enough to hold Saints off, especially at home, but if Saints can produce an improved performance and stay reasonably competitive then even a defeat could provide reasons for optimism for the rest of the campaign.
- Anthony Gelling, 5. Joe Burgess, 6. George Williams, 7. Thomas Leuluai, 8. Frank-Paul Nuuausala, 9. Michael McIlorum, 10. Ben Flower, 11. Joel Tomkins, 12. Liam Farrell, 13. Sean O’Loughlin, 16. Sam Powell, 17. Taulima Tautai, 19. Ryan Sutton, 20. Willie Isa, 22. Morgan Escare, 24. Joseph Bretherton, 32. Liam Forsyth, 35. Liam Marshall, 36. Thomas Davies.
- Jonny Lomax, 2. Tommy Makinson, 3. Ryan Morgan, 4. Mark Percival, 5. Adam Swift, 6. Theo Fages, 7. Matty Smith, 8. Alex Walmsley, 10. Kyle Amor, 12. Jon Wilkin, 13. Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, 14. Luke Douglas, 15. Adam Walker, 16. Luke Thompson, 17. Tommy Lee, 19. Greg Richards, 20. Morgan Knowles, 28. Regan Grace, 36. Zeb Taia.
Referee: Ben Thaler