Saints And The Season That Just Won’t Die
In the dying embers of the Keiron Cunningham era at Saints you would have had to go quite a long way to find a Saints fan who considered a top four finish a realistic possibility. Or else log on to Facebook where the especially deluded rose-tinters reside. Yet since the introduction of Justin Holbrook as Saints coach they have somehow, despite setting new marks for inconsistency, managed to stay grimly attached to the race for a semi-final spot.
Their latest miracle came last week at home to Salford, when they came up with a positively Saintsy three tries in eight minutes to wipe out a 16-point deficit before Matty Smith provided the coup de gras of a 40-metre drop-goal following the otherwise brilliant Robert Lui’s last gasp brain boff. It all leaves Saints just five points adrift of fourth placed Leeds, who they face in tonight’s Round 20 opener at Headingley. Defeat would surely, finally kill off Saints hopes of maintaining their record of featuring in every playoff series in the Super League era but a victory would leave them just three points behind the Rhinos with 10 games still to play before the final four do battle.
The decision to uphold Ben Barba’s 12-game suspension casts a little bit of a shadow for Saints, although that rather depends on Holbrook’s ability to use that in his side’s favour. A siege mentality has worked wonders for coaches in many sports down the years so if the former Sydney Roosters man can convince his squad that it is them against the world from here on in he could inspire them.
Leeds will be looking to recover from last week’s defeat to Castleford Tigers and will be without Danny McGuire after he offered the referee the benefit of his wisdom too vociferously and too crudely, and with the added amplification of a Sky microphone. Also missing are Bretts Ferres and Delaney in the pack, but it is in the halves where Rob Burrow also misses out that Leeds are a little light with Jordan Lilley likely to partner Joel Moon. In Leeds favour is Saints’ wretched away form. They have won only once at the home of an opponent in Super League in 2017 and will need to overcome that mental block to get over the top of Brian McDermott’s much improved side.
Who Can Stop Cas Now?
Friday’s big game sees Castleford Tigers, topping the table by a ludicrous seven points following last week’s results, entertain Hull FC. The black and whites knocked Daryl Powell’s side out of the Challenge cup recently, but it appears ever more likely that nothing or nobody will stop the season’s surprise package from carrying off the League Leaders Shield. This one is a top of the table clash, with FC the Tigers nearest challengers. But even a win for Lee Radford’s side would leave them five points behind Castleford albeit with 10 games to go taking into account the Super 8s.
It’s probably a more important game for Hull because of the fact that they have Salford, Leeds and Wakefield breathing down their necks in that race for the top four. Not forgetting Saints and Wigan of course who, although they steadfastly refuse to hit any kind of form, should never be written off come the business end of a season. Shaun Wane’s salary cap has to be let out of that gym at some point. Defeat for Hull at the Men-A-Hose-Jungle in this one could see one or both of Salford and Leeds overhaul them (depending on the Rhinos result at home to Saints a night earlier) while Wakefield could draw to within one point of FC if they can win at home to 2017’s punchbag Warrington Wolves. There’s plenty on the line.
Expect points too, with Castleford having racked up 114 tries this season so far, and Hull 78. Cas lead the way in clean breaks too with 146, while Hull sit third in that category with 113. This could be an open, entertaining affair as it was when they met in the cup a few short weeks ago.