It’s going right down to the wire! Who will join Castleford Tigers and Leeds Rhinos in the semi-final stages of the Super 8s is still unclear heading into this week’s crunch round of fixtures in the most exciting and nerve-shredding season since the format was introduced.
Saints are first on stage so to speak when they travel to Salford Red Devils - now out of the race for a top four spot - on Thursday night and while the Mancunians have only pride to play for they toppled their neighbours 22-14 at the AJ Bell Stadium in March and will be more than keen to repeat the feat.
Two points will seal St Helens a place in the top four but defeat will open other options which are dependent on the result of League Leaders’ Shield winners Castleford’s clash against third-placed Hull FC at the Jungle on Friday and sixth-placed Wakefield Trinity’s showdown with Wigan Warriors, who are fifth, at the Beamont Legal Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Saints did their semi-final hopes no harm by the way they dismantled Huddersfield Giants at the Totally Wicked Stadium on Friday night.
The 40-16 victory was built on arguably one of their best all-round performances of 2017, especially in the opening hour, when Aussie new boy Ben Barba weaved his magic, scoring one breath-taking try and having a hand in others.
A small minority of Saints’ fans had been concerned Barba would initially be off the pace after the lack of competitive action and while he didn’t pull up any trees against Wigan and Wakefield in the previous two fixtures, coach Justin Holbrook never doubted his ability to live up to all the hype which accompanied his arrival in St Helens.
Holbrook said: “I’ve been saying for a while, it would take Ben at least four games to reach fitness and he showed some really good signs tonight. He tired towards the end but showed his capabilities.
“It’s something we needed and I am happy for him.”
He added: “I thought Jonny Lomax went well, too. I am also a big fan of Theo Fages (a sub on the night). He hasn’t done anything wrong and we all know that.”
Saints now face the Frenchman’s old club in what is a do-or-die 80 minutes.
Hollbrook said: “We now have a really big game at Salford. We have said all along that we need to be consistent every week and the points we have scored could come into the reckoning.
“The Super 8s have had a few too many dead rubbers in previous seasons but this year has been an exception.
“Every game is vital and it has been a very good format - you wouldn’t want to change it.”
The decision to leave playmaker Matty Smith out of the starting 17 against the Giants raised a few eyebrows but Holbrook who, on his own admission, has been searching for the right combinations in certain areas seems to have found a successful pairing in the halves with Danny Richardson and two-try Jonny Lomax.
They have brought extra fluidity and pace to Saints’ game, reflected by the razor-sharp precision and quality of some of their tries.
Smith, Adam Swift and Kyle Amor, who have a wealth of first team experience between them, were all included in Ian Talbot’s reserve team at the weekend.