St Helens half back Theo Fages will be fresh for Wembley showdown
A few eyebrows were raised when Saints' 21-strong squad was announced at noon yesterday (Wednesday) ahead of Friday's Betfred Super League game at Wakefield Trinity - and French international Theo Fages was conspicuous by his absence.
But any fears he was in danger of missing the following week's Challenge Cup final against the Castleford Tigers at Wembley on Saturday, July 17, were allayed later in the day by head coach Kristian Woolf when talking to the media a few hours later.
Woolf said: ''Theo has played the full 80 minutes in every game this season but is suffering from one or two bumps and bruises and thought it was a good opportunity to give him a break and at the same time ensure he is fresh and ready for the cup final."
When asked by Press Association journalist Ian Laybourn had he decided on his line-up for Wembley, Woolf insisted there were still a couple of places up for grabs.
And Woolf says prop Matty Lees will have an opportunity this week to secure one of two spots still open in his Challenge Cup final team.
Lees has not played since breaking an ankle in Saints’ 26-18 opening-round Cup win over Leeds in April but will make his comeback with the incentive of knowing he can clinch a Wembley appearance, two years after missing out against Warrington due to a perforated bowel.
“There’s a bit of jostling going on and for a couple of blokes there’s a real opportunity to either cement a position for next week or push their way into the squad," Woolf said.
Lees, 23, stepped up following Luke Thompson’s move to the NRL midway through 2020 and, fully fit, would be an automatic starter in Woolf’s team.
“He’s going to be on shortened minutes this week but it’s great to be able to give him an opportunity to get back on the field,” Woolf said.
“We were really happy with how he was going before he got injured and he’s worked really hard to put himself in this position.
“The one thing we don’t want to do is put too much pressure on him straight away. He’s had quite a significant injury and a long period out. We’re not expecting him to be at his best or where he was when he was in round three.
“He’s a tough bloke who runs really hard and direct and challenges blokes to put themselves in front of him. He does the same when he hasn’t got the ball.
“He enjoys the contact, he works really hard and defends really well. If he can do those couple of simple things really well, he gives himself a chance of playing next week.
“We know what sort of character he is and we know that he’s the type of bloke you want in a big game. But we need to know what level he’s going to be at first.”
England centre Mark Percival made a successful return from a catalogue of hamstring issues in Sunday’s 24-6 win over Wigan and, with Lees and second rower Joel Thompson back this week, it leaves James Bentley as the only injury absentee for the champions.
“It’s great that we’re starting to get a little bit healthier and at a really good time with big games coming up,” Woolf said.
Playing only one game over the last month due to Covid call-offs has removed any temptation for Woolf to rest players ahead of Wembley.