Posts Tagged ‘St Helens’

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…

Advertisements

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.

ClubCall Running Diary

September 27, 2009

1.23pm Turn on Sky Sports News. Would you believe it, there’s an interview with Wigan legend Andy Farrell, talking about his new role on the backroom staff at Saracens. In a complete reversal of the usual order, Farrell is asked in a Union piece what he thinks about Super League’s latest new innovation. He diplomatically answers “It’s got people talking” which is certainly true, because I can’t remember Sky Sports News putting this much effort into a Super League story since… hmm… the London Broncos / Harlequins changeover?

1.26pm An ad break. Oh joy. The first ad is some OTT thing for the Heineken Cup. Have there been any adverts for the SL playoffs? I can’t remember any.

1.27pm T-Mobile and their sh*tty ads can f**k off.

1.28pm “Time, care and attention. That’s what makes the M. That’s what makes McDonalds.” Actually, isn’t that the exact opposite of what you get from McDonalds? 

1.30pm And we’re back with SSN, going on about how ClubCall is a ‘world first’. Actually, that’s not quite true – the NBA Development League allows the teams with the three best records at the end of the season to choose their 1st round opponents. Sorry, Sky. 

1.31pm SSN is now live from Headingley. Eddie Hemmings is there, of course, blabbing on and showing he can name the four teams remaining in the competition. Well done, Eddie. Now he explains the process of how Leeds can pick either Catalan Dragons or Wigan. I wish they could pick St Helens as well (although I doubt they would). Oh dear, it appears they’ve let some fans into the suite for this press conference (bizarrely, they refuse to show any shots of them). 

1.33pm Eddie introduces Gary Hetherington and asks him to explain the process of selecting an opponent. Methinks I’m detecting a hint of padding. There’s no reason this process couldn’t take 30 seconds, is there? Apparently Gary and Brian McClennan have consulted with senior players and blah blah blah… JUST NAME YOUR OPPONENT ALREADY, GODAMN IT!

1.35pm “We had to wait and see the outome of this weekend’s games” says Gary. That was my understanding of how this works, too. Eddie asks Gary who Leeds will play, and after Gary ‘hilariously’ spinning it out a little longer, announces that next Friday Leeds Rhinos will play… Catalan Dragons. That took waaaay too long. 

 1.37pm Eddie now starts interview Dragons chief exec Christophe Levy. He’s got a pretty good grasp of English, at least as good as Stevo. He too starts waffling on a bit, about the challenge ahead etc. As Levy points out, the Dragons have never won at Headingley.

1.38pm Brian McClennan comes up to the podium to cheers of ‘bluey! bluey!’ from what I would have to assume are Leeds fans (although they don’t show these fans – it could be actors brought in to add some atmosphere for all we know). He’s now talking about how awesome the Dragons are, which seems odd considering he just chose to play them next weekend. Eddie keeps asking Bluey if he’s worried he’s just ‘done Kevin Walters’ job for him’. Somebody needs to stop trying to create a story where there isn’t one (hint: it’s Eddie). 

1.40pm Of course, this also means we now know the teams for the other semi-final, adn Eddie now talks to Brian Noble about going over to Knowsley Rd to take on St Helens. According to Brian, it’s going to be ‘all about performance’. *Sigh* can’t he say something slightly more interesting?

1.42pm Now Eddie is talking to Eamonn McManus, who seems to have a slightly odd shade of hair colour. It’s somewhere between blond and white. It seems like it’s glowing… anyway, McManus hopes for a sellout at the GPW Recruitment Stadium next weekend. He’s not the only one. 

Anyway, that’s the end of that and we have the two expected semi-finals: Leeds Rhinos vs Catalan Dragons and St Helens vs Wigan Warriors. Both should be interesting games and it will be curious to see whether Leeds’ momentum has been affected by the bye-week, because the Dragons have been right on form lately. And as for the big derby making up the other semi-final, it seems like a pick-em game at this point. 

1.44pm And we’re back in the SSN studio,  with an either over-excited or patronising (I can’t tell which) Sam Matterface and Charlotte Jackson. Hmmm, Charlotte. Maybe I’ll just watch SSN for a bit longer…

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.

Up For The Cup

August 8, 2009

CC_SF

Is it just me, or does the Challenge Cup semis feel more important this year? It certainly helps that we have two very compelling matchups this year and that there have been many good games this year (including a fantastic double header in the last round). It also helps that all of the four clubs left in the competition are bringing their own intiguing storyline to the competition.

Part of the interest is because the Cup has gone a long way to saving two seasons. For both Warrington and Wigan, the Cup has gone a long way to restoring their years, after both clubs began the year with appalling runs in Super League. Both sides have now turned it around and are pushing for playoff places. Both clubs also had fantastic performances in the Cup earlier this season (Wigan at Wakefield in the Fifth Round, Warrington at Hull KR in the Quarter Finals) that went a long way to showing that these sides have the character for a scrap. It’s interesting that they are playing each other, because these two sides who started off so below expectations now have the chance to make their season against each other.

For the Giants, the winning the Cup would go some way to legitimising their contendership. It’s well known that they have made massive strides this year, and they are currently in third place and keeping the pressure on Leeds in 2nd. Even so, very few people have been talking about them actually making a run in the playoffs and winning Super League. A Challenge Cup victory would show their aptitude for knock-out football and their mettle for big games with trophies at stake, and make them an even more interesting proposition in the playoffs.

For Saints, it’s about keeping up a tradition of victory. Since the start of the Super League era Saints have become the pre-eminent club, and a large part of that is down to their dominance of the Challenge Cup. In particular they have won the last three Finals, and are establishing a new equivalent to the great Wigan run in the late 80s / early 90s. However they have seemed more vulnerable of late, and it is clear that some of their more established names are approaching the end. Saints are the big favourites for this, and they need this win to show that they deserve this attention, and for their big names to show they’ve still got it.

Whoever wins today and tomorrow, I’m just glad that there’s so much attention back on this competition. I just hope the games live up to expectation and set up a fantastic Wembley final. Because this is the only live domestic Rugby League on the BBC, the Challenge Cup serves as a showcase for the sport. When the games are of such high quality and drama, it looks good for the game. So let’s hope the four teams and the three games left do the sport proud.

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.

Potter’s Potty About Perceived Change in Ruck-Speed

March 13, 2009

St Helens coach Mick Potter seems to have noticed a trend in refereeing this season, one which he feels is affecting his team and hje’s not too happy about it. Potter claims that referees are slowing down the speed of the play-the-ball, and that St Helens are unable to get over the advantage line as quickly:

“It is harder to get over the advantage line with your dummy halves if the rucks are slower.

“Having good dummy halves, who get over that advantage line, is a great asset to have and that has been St Helens’ strength over the past few seasons.

“I did not know there was going to be a change – if there has been somebody needs to tell me but what am I seeing at the moment is a slower ruck.”

On the one hand, if  there has been an official mandate from the RFL that the play-the-ball is to be slowed down and this hasn’t been communicated to the coaches, then that’s a mis-step. They have a right to know what rules theyll be playing to, as it can affect gameplans and coaching decisions. Also, assuming that the interpretation of a slower PTB is in order to change the speed of the game, actually telling the coaches about it means they are far more likely to actually adopt plays that work with slower rucks. How can teams adapt to new parameters if they don’t even know that they’re using them?

On the other hand, if there has been a concsious decision to slow down the speed of the ruck, then good. A fast ruck may encourage a frantic, entertaining style of play, but it isn’t condusive to ball skills. It’s telling that the coach of St Helens is the one who’s brought this up, because if any side relies on a quick play-the-ball it’s Saints. A large portion of their attacking style is based on getting a quick play-the-ball and letting James Roby or Leon Pryce run at a still-retreating line. I’ve been trying to write an epic piece on the importance of the defensive attitude of the NRL in establishing its dominance (Potter’s comments serve as a reminder to finish it) and allowing a slower ruck-speed here is a good first step in trying to develop players who can compete under international rules.

Challenge Cup 4th Round Draw Prevents Best Final / Gets Monotonous Repeats of Grand Final Out of Way

March 9, 2009

 

Meh. May as well get the hard stuff out of the way first.

Meh. May as well get the hard stuff out of the way first (Getty Images)

So Super League clubs once again begin their quest for Wembley this year, and for one of the two best sides in the country it’s going to end almost as quickly:

Wakefield Trinity Wildcats v Leigh Centurions
Halifax v Widnes Vikings
Oldham v Lezignan (Fra)
Leeds Rhinos v St Helens
Keighley Cougars v Castleford Tigers
Catalans Dragons v Bradford Bulls
Featherstone v Wath Brow Hornets
Hull FC v Salford City Reds
Doncaster/Queens v Gateshead Thunder
Harlequins RL v Huddersfield 
Barrow Raiders v Wigan
Sheffield Eagles v Dewsbury Rams
Warrington Wolves v York City Knights
Swinton Lions v Rochadale Hornets
Batley Bulldogs v Kells/Hunslet Hawks
Hull KR v Celtic Crusaders

Indeed, there are five all-Super League ties, meaning that the next round could be very interesting indeed. The draw might just open up to allow a Championship club a long run deep into the later stages of the competition. I’m actually quite glad that we’re going to get this Leeds-Saints thing out of the way now because a) it’s going to free up the competition for another team to make a run b) we’ve seen this as the Grand Final for the last two years, so we don’t really need another final with these two and c) it’s probably the best chance of seeing Saints knocked out before Wembley (nothing against Saints, mind, but I’ve seen them in the final for the last three years and I’m in the mood for a change). Wath Brow Hornets might also be fancying their chances against Featherstone after knocking off pro opposition in London Skolars in the last round (although as a Skolars fan even I ddn’t find it that much of a shock). Both Doncaster and Queens are in the draw, because the RFL haven’t made their mind up about how to deal with the abandonment of their game.