St Helens stutter in season start
A prolonged St Helens stutter is like a badly timed Manchester United title push - it just does not happen.
Yet as a shock home defeat to Hull FC extended the beaten Grand Finalists' winless run to four games, the concern around Saints's sparkling new home was audible. It takes an absolute madman to write off a side that shared a decade-long domestic dominance with Bradford, but this weekend those two sides lock horns at Odsal without a Grand Final win between them in six seasons.
Royce Simmons was particularly scathing of his side after last Friday's Langtree Park defeat. The Saints coach claimed that so clueless were they with ball in hand that even he had no idea what they were doing. So how can Saints, having contested the last six successive Grand Finals, be firing rugby league blanks?
I caught up this week with two club greats, Sean Long and Paul Sculthorpe, the magic men in Saints's all-conquering era.
Sculthorpe and I ran the St Helens 10k race last weekend for the Steve Prescott Foundation and the two-time Man of Steel destroyed me by a full five minutes.
Sculthorpe (left) and Long celebrate for St Helens after winning the 2006 Challenge Cup against Huddersfield. Photo: Getty
"It is purely a lack of confidence," said the former Great Britain captain - on Saints rather than me. "Individual players making big errors at key moments in games is killing us."
Fans have criticised a lack of direction on the pitch for defeats to Hull FC, Catalan, Huddersfield and a draw at Hull KR. How they would love to have chief orchestrator Long back in the side in the form that landed him a hat-trick of Lance Todd trophies.
Long is now part of Salford's coaching team, and is far more critical of the current Saints than former team-mate Sculthorpe.
Saints have shipped 109 points in their four-match barren spell and Long says: "A run like this is very rare for Saints. They're scoring heavily enough to win every game so there's an issue defensively. Top teams don't let sides score so many points.
"When we were winning everything, our coach Daniel Anderson coached us to win games through defence," says Long. "There was a huge emphasis on that, maybe Royce is concentrating on other areas. "
Sculthorpe feels the players have let Simmons down, and rates him as a word-class coach. He insists criticism of the former Australia hooker is ludicrous. "He is one of the best man-managers there is.
Coaches get too much flak. It is the players' responsibility to perform. They haven't been performing for Royce and that's not his fault. He gives the players the structure, picks the team, then it is down to them to go and do it. If they keep making errors what can a coach do?"
Long doesn't agree. The former Saints scrum-half feels Simmons is being found out tactically and seems unwilling to change a playing style that isn't working. In fact the warning to St Helens from one of the club's most famous names is stark.
"Royce is a good bloke and is well respected but it seems to me the team only knows how to play one way," he told me. "They have become too one-dimensional, and too predictable which is most unlike Saints.
"They have a plan A but no plan B and so the team is knackered if A doesn't work. They have played the same way now for two years and teams can read it. If a team studies Saints during the week they will know what to expect.
The dummy half is deep, then the ball goes deeper from number nine to seven and then to six. The line is so deep that if opponents know what is going on they can just press up and dominate territory."
Long was an integral part of the Saints side that swept the board in 2006, winning every domestic honour plus the Team of the Year award at Sports Personality. Anderson was named Coach of the Year, the only rugby league boss to receive that honour.
"Anderson wanted to play a "red set" style, being tight from dummy half and working over the same defenders all the time to wear them down," he explained.
"We convinced Daniel about eight weeks in that this wasn't working as we were too small and the forwards overpowered us.
He agreed to change to how we wanted to play and we won something like 18 or 19 games in a row. Royce needs to have an alternative up his sleeve."
This however is a very young side being guided by vibrant half-backs Jonny Lomax and Lee Gaskell, neither of whom you could imagine knocking on Simmons door with a play board of set pieces to run.
Long acknowledges the team needs a vocal leader. "That was always Jammer (Graham)" he says. James Roby is world-class at hooker but is too quiet so there is too big a reliance on Jon Wilkin and Paul Wellens."
One thing both Long and Sculthorpe do agree on is that this young breed of Saints will be okay, and you will write them off at your peril.