Archive for the ‘St Helens’ Category

Super League Grand Final Super Duper Grand Preview

October 10, 2009

R4_GF_Leeds_Saints

Previous Meetings: Saints have a 2-1 edge this season, with their cup win at Headingley the only time the away side won this game this year. They’ve been fairly even over the last few years, although it’s worth pointing out that Leeds have won their last two encounters at Old Trafford. 

Backline: Saints have the experience, Leeds have the talent, although the Rhinos aren’t exactly lacking in experience here and the Saints line-up isn’t too shabby. Leeds definitely seem to have a pace advantage. The wild-card in all of this is Kyle Eastmond, who is supposed to be a halfback but has spent most of this season roving in from the threequarter line, often to explosive effect. He is also the only person in either threequarter line never to play in the Grand Final, and along with Paul Wellens the only man not to score in the big game. Will he cower under the spotlight? I sort of doubt it.

Halves: Perhaps the most crucial battle in this match. Sean Long and Rob Burrow are both probably going to cancel each other out, although Long will try his hardest in his last ever Saints game. However, at Stand-Off we have a confrontation that in the last few years has extended beyond the Leeds-Saints rivalry: Leon Pryce or Danny McGuire? Since Pryce moved to Knowsley Rd the winner of this battle has usually been on the victorious side (the possible exception being their last regualr season game). Pryce has been mailing it in the last few months, whilst McGuire got a double in his last game. Pryce needs to pull his weight for Saints to win. 

Back Row: Both sides are pretty evenly mached at the back of the scrum. Leeds skew a bit younger, but Saints have Lee Gilmour (who might also end up in the centres) who remains one of the most underrated players in Super League. Leeds also have Ali Lauitiiti back, and he’s seemed to be Saints’ nemesis the last few times they have met. Look for Kevin Sinfield to carry out his usual playmaking role and for Jon Wilkin to occasionally do the same (although his kicking game was woeful last week). 

Front Row: This should be fun. In James Graham and Jamie Peacock, this confrontation features the two best English props not named Morley, and they’re ably backed up by the likes of Kylie Leuluai (consistent go-forward) and Maurie Fa’asavalu (who seemed back in form during the Wigan game). There’s also an underrated subplot to this game going on here – both James Roby and Matt Diskin will be wanting to show they have what it takes to be rake for the England FOur Nations campaign (Roby will almost definitely be in the squad, but this might be Diskin’s last chance to prove himself worthy). 

Coach: Brian McLennan has a pretty good track record in big finals, winning the Tri-Nations with New Zealand and only losing the second time in extra time. He’s also won at Old Trafford at his first attempt last year. He also seems to know when to mix it up and when to change the gameplan, which will be a boon tonight. This is Mick Potter’s first Grand Final as a coach, but he was Coach of the Year last season. People have criticized his management of Saints this year and this is his chance to prove them wrong.

In Conclusion… everything seems to be pointing towards a Rhinos victory, except for one thing: I’ve seen Saints live in three finals before (2006 & 2008 CC Final, 2006 GF) and they’ve won all three games, convincingly as well. Personally, I don’t think either of these sides will crush the other one, and I expect a good tough battle. If it rains, that plays into Leeds’ hands, although the forecast is currently saying it will just stay cloudy. Either Leeds are going to have the class to outmanouvre Saints (they’ve scored readily down the flanks in the last two Grand Finals) or Saints are going to send off Sean Long properly, which is something I keep coming back to. Never underestimate the poer of a good story…

St Helens 14 – 10 Wigan Warriors

October 4, 2009

Forget what I said yesterday, this was the best game of the playoffs so far. Historic local rivals, tough forward play, good tries and no shortage of controversy. Top players were at the top of their game and both Sam Tomkins and Kyle Eastmond went head-to-head in what I hope is one of many playoff encounters that we’ll see in years to come. This game was fiercely contested throughout, and went right down to the final minutes. Leeds were obviously hoping that these two sides would wail on each other and they got their wish. This game came down to a few key moments that went St Helens’ way, and that was all they needed to take them past the Warriors.

I tended to agree with most of the calls that the referees had to make (Richards didn’t touch the ball, Long just got the ball on the line) but I really wasn’t sure about the call on Joel Tomkins being put in touch by Sean Long. Obviously, the touch judge believed that the tackle hadn’t been completed when Sean Long put Tomkins’ foot into touch, but I thought that Tomkins had stopped moving and thus the tackle was complete. In many respects though Tomkins got what he deserved because nce the tackle count has been restarted so close to the opposition line, you should be absolutely certain that you can make it down the flank without going into touch. It’s a shame he blotted his report with that moment of madness, because he had a good game overall and it was his peach of an offload that sent George Carmont away brought Wigan back into the game. 

Even so, you can hardly say that Wigan were robbed. They played well and were able to mix in the forwards, but they lacked composure at the crucial times by the Saints goal-line. You could see Sam Tomkins running at the line many times hoping to find support, only to find no one there backing him up. You have to wonder how much of a blow losing Michael McIlorum just before kick-off was, because Mark Riddell didn’t really do much around the ruck and they probably could have done with a change of pace. Wigan were able to match Saints in the middle, and even outmuscle them at time, but they were unable to do anything with it. 

It also didn’t help that Saints were pretty damn good for the most part. Tony Puletua has been probably the import of the season, Sean Long had a fantastic home game at Saints, Paul Wellens had his best game for a while, and what can you say about James Graham? The man is a beast, and if Saints win at Old Trafford next week I expect he will have had a central role in it. Credit is also due to Kyle Eastmond who drifted in and out of the game, but when he was in it led to things like their first try. Saints haven’t been winning pretty over the last few months, but they have at least started winning again. They will probably have be back somewhere approaching their best next week if they hope to beat Leeds, but at this stage it’s hard to rule out that happening.

Playoff Preview: St Helens vs Wigan Warriors

October 3, 2009

R3_Saints_Wigan

Previous meetings: Saints won two games to one this year, although oddly Wigan have outscored Saints in this year’s meetings due to the beatbown at Murrayfield. Saints have had by far the better of their meetings over the last few years, and haven’t won a Super League game at Knowsley Rd in six years. 

Form: Wigan are red-hot right now, with their battering at Huddersfield the only real blip. St Helens have been, erm… mixed since the Challenge Cup semi-final loss to Huddersfield, and although they did look like they were back at their best for the opening quarter of the playoff game against the Giants, they faded somewhat after that. 

Personnel Concerns: Both sides are at full strength. Saints were a little worried about Matt Gidley and Kieron Cunningham, but obviously that bye-week has been good for them. 

Thoughts: This game is what the playoffs is all about. Former champion side versus great pretenders, and local rivals to boot. I really don’t know what to make of St Helens right now. They’ve been mediocre for a few months now, yet they somehow managed to look like their old selves for a bit against Huddersfield. Then they fell back into bad habits for a bit without actually ever looking like losing. They’re clearly a side in transition. Wigan by contrast have looked good in the playoffs and their win at Craven Park last weekend was no small achievement. 

What is a very big deal about this game is that it is Sean Long’s last game in the red vee at Knowsley Rd, and I imagine he wants to give the fans a worthy send-off. In return I imagine the atmosphere should be something special, which will probably favour the home side. Wigan are also a fairly  young side, and players like Sam Tomkins won’t have played in a game of this magnitude before, although they got preparation for a hostile environment last weekend. 

I’m often a believer in karma in sport, and Saints haven’t been giving off good signals for this lately. In their last few games at the GPW Recruitment Stadium Wigan have come really close to beating Saints, and you have to wonder whether their time has finally come. Add to that the news that Sean Long is doing a book signing on the afternoon of the game, and that he’s been openly talking about rejecting a move to Wigan for next season, and I just wonder if the stars will align against Long and St Helens. This could well be the kind of game where divine intervention matters, because I don’t expect a blowout either way. 

In Conclusion… I really don’t like picking against St Helens, particularly when they’re at home, and it’s hard to argue with their Super League pedigree. With that said, if any side can beat them it’s this Wigan side. Basically, I’m sitting on the fence for this one, which is a sign that this could be the best playoff game we’ve seen in a long time.

St Helens 15 – 2 Huddersfield Giants

September 20, 2009

St Helens are increasingly becoming a bizarre and downright difficult team to follow. They stink up the joint for a few games (even in victory) but then look good in defeat to Leeds, only to follow that with a crapfest against the Catalan Dragons. Come their first playoff game against an in-form Huddersfield Giants, they suddenly start the game looking like a monster team and threaten to completely rip apart the Giants after twenty minutes, only to retreat into their shell and narrowly hold on for the remaining sixty minutes.

Well, actually ‘narrowly hold on’ isn’t really fair, because the Giants didn’t really look all that threatening. They kept making too many mistakes at crucial times and that cost them dearly. Nathan Brown must be getting a little worried, because the Giants haven’t exactly performed admirably in their last two high-pressure games (this and the Cup final). They seemed more than capable of holding their own during the attritional forward battles that dominated the majority of the game, but they lacked a cutting edge. Worse, in the opening quarter they were ripped apart by St Helens as Kyle Eastmond and Leon Pryce troubled them with runs at the line and nifty footwork.

As for Saints, it’s hard to know what to make. If they attack like they did in the opening quarter, they could quite easily win this competition, which of course leads to the question as to why they couldn’t maintain it for a whole game. However, the one thing that will worry opposition teams is that their defence looked pretty much impregnable. It’s often understated how important defence was to the St Helens sides that dominated in the recent past, but if they have confidence that the opposition can’t score, it in turn gives them more confidence to try more outlandish attacking and consequences be damned. Saints looked like they might be gaining some confidence back, which is a worrying thought for the teams left in the playoffs.

Playoff Preview: St Helens vs Huddersfield Giants

September 19, 2009

R1_Saints_Giants

Previous Meetings: St Helens won both League games, but the Giants won the cup semi-final. One of the Giants’ losses was with what was basically a reserve team just before the Cup Final.

Form: definitely favours the Giants, as Saints have been poor for a few weeks now. 

Thoughts: St Helens have really been worrying me in the last few weeks. I thought their loss to Leeds at least showed some improvement and fire, but then they went and followed that up with a horrible showing against Les Cats. If Huddersfield’s pack is on the ball, this could be a long night for St Helens.

In Conclusion... I really don’t know who to pick here, because I don’t know which St Helens side will show up.

Sean Long to Hull FC

June 1, 2009

 

An artist's impression of what Sean Long playing for Hull FC may look like

An artist's impression of what Sean Long playing for Hull FC may look like

Well, I can’t say I saw this one coming. It has been officially announced that Hull FC have signed Sean Long for next season on a two year deal. Long had been vocal about his disappointment that St Helens had not been offering him a two-year contract. 

I think the fact that this has been sorted out so early offers an indication into Long’s mindset. He’s approaching the end of his career and is beyond the point where he wants to faff around. He clearly thinks he’s got something to offer for the next two years, so why wouldn’t he take up the longer deal? At least he’s got it all sorted out now, as we’re fast approaching the business end of the season and I doubt contract talks were something Long wanted distracting him at crunch time. 

This also clearly offers some insight into the thinking at Hull FC as well. This experiment with Chris Thorman hasn’t really panned out after a good start, and they will obviously be looking for the experience that Long offers to have a stabilizing effect at the club. However, with this signing added to that of Craig Fitzgibbon, there’s a lot of veteran players coming into the KC Stadium next year, and you have to wonder how wise a move that is considering their notorious injury problems over the last few years. If Long or Fitzgibbon fail, they’ve set themselves up to take a lot of flak. 

Of course, it will be interesting to see what Saints will do now. Long has been the lynchpin of their attacking game for over a decade now, but Saints have clearly been about his successor for a while, with both Matty Smith and Kyle Eastmond logging up game time in the past few seasons. Smith appears to have fallen out of favour and I’m not convinced that they think Eastmond is where they want him to be (although the dilemma of course is that they haven’t been able to start with Long there). We shall see if Saints are happy with what they’ve got, or if they feel the need to bring someone else in.

Wigan 38 – 18 St Helens

May 2, 2009

AKA Reversal of Fortune

Like the Bradford-Wakey game earlier in the day, this was a game in which the margin of victory could have been both a lot larger and also a lot smaller. Wigan were comfortably the better side for pretty much the entire duration of the game, but they also denied Saints at rather key intervals during the match just as they looked like they might be sneaking back into it. In the end though, it was a pretty comprehensive victory and one that showed Wigan are still contenders this season, even if they have given away a massive headstart. 

Wigan had all their forwards seemingly peak on the same day, which was a major factor in their victory. Stuart Fielden was on a tear, Andy Coley was a workhorse in the middle, and Feka Pa’aliasena and Gareth Hock caused mayhem whenever they touched the ball. Conversely, there was alarmingly little fight in the Saints pack bar James Graham, who actually seemed to make more of a contribution with his passing game than with his hit-ups. Saints really seemed off the pace and looked laborious and jaded. Wigan absolutely dominated the tackle area, which in turn meant they were able to take advantage out wide; this is a reversal of almost every other Wigan-Saints game in the past 3-4 years.

It also helped that Wigan seemed far more composed. As well as Tim Smith and Thomas Leuluai leading them around the park, Shaun Tomkins came off the bench and again made a massive impact (in defense as well – his cover tackle to prevent Sean Long scoring was one of the turning points of the game, and again reduced the credibility of those who claim he is too small for the pro game). Saints looked flat and flustered for the majority of the game, and for the second week in a row managed to blow about thirty metres of field position on the final tackle. I know there’s a perception that Saints play off-the-cuff, but this has always been launched from a base of solid, calculated play that seems to have vanished in the last few weeks.

The fact that the margin of victory was only 20 points shows that Wigan still have some improvements to make. Compared with the massacres that Saints had inflicted upon them in the past few seasons where it was a non-stop barrage for the whole game, Wigan seemed to take their foot off the accelerator towards the end of the game instead of rubbing it in. Mind you, I suppose 20 points isn’t a too shabby margin of victory. The game (along with the defeat to Bradford) also exposed what might be the major flaw with Saints at the minute: they don’t seem to have that sixth gear when things start going wrong. For all Eddie and Stevo’s talk of ‘beware the Saints’ comeback’ I’m not sure that this particular outfit are that sort. When they tried to up the pace and spread it wide it kept falling apart, either because they knocked it on or because they ran into a defensive brick wall. I still expect Saints to be contesting for a Grand Final spot in October, but I’m now thinking that this season may be closer that first suspected. On today’s performance, it wouldn’t surprise me if Wigan were one of the sides challenging them.

So Near, Yet So Far. Again.

February 13, 2009

As the clock hit 44 minutes, I began writing an article in my head taking back what I said about Warrington in my predictions. They somehow had gotten themselves 14 points against St Helens, and more impressively they hadn’t conceded any points. In fact, their defence had looked really solid. As well as that, they had completely dominated the middle channel of the pitch, with new signings Gareth Carvell and Mickey Higham seeming like the missing ingredients for a Wolves side for whom attack was never really the problem. They were a little fortuitous with their first try (there’s a case to be made that Louis Anderson blocked the potential tackler from the play-the-ball) but their second try was very pleasing on the eye, crafted from a beautiful offload from Chris Riley ( it was an impressive performance from the winger-cum-fullback) allowing Paul Rauhihi to crash over and give Warrington a three-score advantage. Warrington possessed attacking threat, but most revelatory was their defensive stint, where they worked the man in the tackle repeatedly and limited Leon Pryce’s running game to a bare minimum.

They were winning the territorial battle and they had built an imposing lead. Warrington were looking good. They were looking really good.

Then it all fell apart.

As soon as Lee Gilmour got past Paul Johnson (usually a reliable performer) and sprinted to the line, I began deleting my ‘Warrington: The Real Deal’ tract from my brain. Sure enough,Warrington’s defensive effort began to implode at such a rate that I began to wonder if they were going to form a black hole on the Knowsley Rd pitch. Saints, having been kept scoreless in the first half, proceeded to run in six tries in the second half. What was really noticeable was how five of these six tries came down the wide channels, with only James Graham scoring near the posts. It would be wrong of me to forget to give any of the credit to Saints because they really stepped up a few gears in the second half, and the Gidley / Gardner combination once again looks like it should be pretty fruitful. However it’s hard to get away from the fact that a side who had been playing with such intensity and composure for 45 minutes could suddenly collapse in such a drastic manner (and it seems unlikely to lay the blame on fitness either, since it only took 5-10 minutes from the restart for the rot to set in).

It’s not like Warrington can’t take any positives from this game; Higham and Carvell added impetus to the Wolves’ front-row, and Ben Westwood (when he wasn’t testing the limits of the high-tackle law) had bite and aggression with every charge he made. Even so, it’s hard not to feel that Wire blew it. I can’t recall when I last saw a team look so good for so long in one game and still manage to stink up the place afterwards. Their wide defence really needs attention, because if they don’t mend it then there’s a ready-made gameplan for every other side in this league. More than that though, it seems like a mental thing: as soon as Gilmour scored his try, the body language changed and the Wolves players just didn’t look like they thought they could win. If this side wants to be title challengers, they need to show that it will take more than a silly try to break their spirits.

St Helens: Saints’ need to prepare for the future with success in the present

February 5, 2009

sthelens

Since the start of the Super League era St Helens have perpetually started each campaign as one of the favourites, and this year is certainly no exception. With the names of Cunningham, Long, Pryce, Roby and Graham amongst the superstars of the British game, there is certainly no lack of quality amongst their squad. This year the Saints start the season with a new coach who did very well with limited resources before, and no doubt Mick Potter will enjoy having more toys to play with at Saints. So Saints are definitely a team to be reckoned with, but with two Grand Final defeats in a row there is also a sense of unease at Knowsley Road.

I’ve wondered about Saints ever since the 2007 Grand Final. For that match, Saints picked Sean Long (who had played one match in the prior month) over Matty Smith (who had been a more than adequate replacement for Long in his absence, especially in their narrow victory over Leeds in the Final Qualifier). I understood the logic behind the pick (after all, up until that point Long had never lost a Grand Final) but something about the move didn’t sit right with me. Long missed an easy early kick and Saints got steamrolled by the Rhinos, and to me it showed an unwillingness to give the kids a chance to shine at Saints.

Well, the day is rapidly approaching when they won’t have a choice in the matter. Long and Cunningham are both 32, and it’s hard to see either of them being around in three years time and still playing at this level. Saints have already dabbled with finding their successors and there are two heirs apparent. James Roby is of course the long term future of the club at Hooker, but he needs to show he’s just as effective when he starts as when he comes off the bench. Kyle Eastmond showed flashes of brilliance last year, but now he needs a sustained period of playing at a higher level, if for no other reason than to remind Long that he has competition. Saints have actually done very well integrating youngsters into the forwards in the last few years, but it could be to no avail if they don’t sort out the future of their pivots.

I’ll admit, for all my my scaremongering here there’s little doubt that Saints are the most likely side to ruin Leeds’ quest for a third title, and they are developing their own mastery of the Challenge Cup as well (they’ve won the last four finals played in London). There’s no reason to think that Long and Cunningham won’t be still playing at a high level, which in turn means they can seriously aim to win every trophy on offer to them this season. I just think that this great side is coming to its natural end very soon, and this season is the time they really need to start considering the possibility.

(more…)

Senior: There was no unity

February 1, 2009
Well, at least these guys want to be my friends! (Getty Images)

"Well, at least these guys want to be my friends!" (Getty Images)

Interesting article up on Sporting Life at the minute, in which Keith Senior spills all the beans about the World Cup. By which I mean he says that Saints and Leeds players didn’t get on that well:

“There was a big divide – so many Saints players and so many Leeds players and we didn’t gel on the field which was a big disappointment.

Of course Senior can now come out with these revelations as he has now retired from the international game, and even so he’s still tiptoeing around the subject. Even so, it’s interesting that this has come out, and in retrospect makes a lot of sense. There was a definite lack of cohesion in England’s play. It probably didn’t help that one of the most contentious and important positional decisions (that of who should be Stand-Off) involved two players from either side of this divide.

Personally, although I can understand their dislike of each other (after all, they’ve been the two outstanding sides for a few season now) but if they can’t put aside their differences for a damn WORLD CUP then I have to question why they get to represent their country. It seems symptomatic of a lack of professionalism in that England team, and considering how much the side had to go up against anyway, a lack of unity is the last thing needed. Whilst I doubt England would have won the World Cup anyway, the idea of that side not performing at its fullest because of a few personal gripes pisses me off. I hope Tony Smith and his coaching staff are paying attention, becuase this is a problem that needs to be fixed sharpish.