St Helens’ opening round victory over Leeds Rhinos two weeks ago was far from the thrilling spectacle many hoped would open the Betfred Super League campaign.
Nevertheless, for all of the sloppy handling errors, the disappointing execution of final plays and a fair share of unnecessary penalties, victory for Saints on that dull and damp evening was yet another example of an ever growing resolve that Keiron Cunningham has instilled in his side since last July.
Leeds lacked imagination and adventure on the night. Without Danny McGuire they lacked quality, their lateral movement with the ball was slow and predictable and their kicking game wasn’t devious enough in the tricky conditions. Nevertheless, the Saints defence was still only breached once on the evening, despite spending extensive spells defending their own line. Regardless of their opponent’s shortcomings, St Helens’ defensive effort was superb.
However, their defensive toughness has shown improvement since last summer, and this was just another indication that they have strengthened further during the off-season.
St Helens score lots of points. We all know that. But their defensive insecurities have been the underlying reason behind their inability to win silverware since Cunningham stepped into the Saints hot seat for the 2015 season. During his first two seasons, they have consistently scored on average around 26 points per game. Only Warrington and Castleford have scored more points during Cunningham’s tenure.
Defensively, however, their performances slumped at the Super 8s split in 2015. They boasted the second best defence during the regular season that year, but during the Super 8s, they conceded at an average of 26 points per game, significantly higher than those around them.
That trend continued into 2016. They leaked 138 in their opening six matches and continued to concede at a similar rate until they faced Widnes on July 8th. At that point, defensive improvements have been evident. In the final 10 games of 2016, the points against tally took less of a beating – and they conceded at a rate lower than 15 points per match while their offensive strengths remained.
That positive trajectory has, so far at least, continued this season. In pre-season, they kept Widnes to zero, and although they had a slight lapse against Castleford, they rediscovered their sturdy efforts in the 6-4 victory over Leeds.
Now, Cunningham faces a different proposition, as he must replace a player that has been pivotal to their defensive strengths.
Outgoing back-row Joe Greenwood will be sorely missed. The 23-year-old was Saints’s fifth highest tackler in 2016, averaging almost 28 tackles per game. Perhaps more impressively, however, was his tackle success rate, a phenomenal 97%. It’s therefore perhaps no coincidence that without him in the team, Saints conceded over 40 points against both Salford and Huddersfield, both of whom ended up in the Qualifiers, while Saints also conceded over 30 points in defeats to Hull FC and Catalans with Greenwood on the sidelines.
Greenwood’s immediate replacement is Zeb Taia, a fine player who made the 2015 Super League Dream Team. However, it was his offensive attributes that earned him acclaim, rather than his work without the ball. Taia contributed to numerous tries in Catalans colours that year and scored 12 himself, but he also was exploited defensively at times. He averaged under 18 tackles per game, far less than Greenwood, while his tackle success rate was under 90%.
In Taia, St Helens have found a new weapon in their already elaborate offensive arsenal, but defensively they may have lost an integral brick in their red and white wall.