Defence was at the forefront on Super League’s opening night, when St Helens posted a 6-4 victory over Leeds Rhinos at, what we must now refer to as, the Totally Wicked Stadium.
Each half saw only a single try, Joel Moon barging his way over for the visitors at the beginning on 22 minutes, and Theo Fages slicing his way through the Rhinos defence a few minutes into the second half. Mark Percival’s conversion proved to be the difference between the two sides.
The game was maligned in some quarters for failing to provide the try-scoring excitement that many have come to expect. Yet far from the bore-fest it was portrayed as by some, this was a tight, low-scoring, exciting match between two sides which defended superbly throughout.
A few years ago I argued that very high-scoring games don’t really reflect rugby league at its best – this was after a 40-40 draw between Catalans Dragons and Salford in Perpignan, a game in which both sides crossed the whitewash seemingly at will – only to be told to start watching rugby union if I wanted “boring rugby with no tries”.
And low-scoring games can indeed be boring, if they’re the result of poor playing conditions, handling errors, or poor attacking play. One game of this type stands out. It was also between Salford and the Catalans Dragons, this time at the Willows ten years ago, an occasion when the atrocious conditions led to one of the most tedious games I’ve ever seen, and a 10-0 win for the hosts. Those who witnessed Hull’s 12-8 win at Wakefield on Sunday afternoon might understand what I’m talking about.
Yet last Thursday’s game wasn’t like that. It wasn’t, as some would say, a knockonathon. Nor was the evening characterised by mud and rain. It was just that both sides defended to the absolute best of their ability.
Ashton Golding was the stand-out player for Leeds, the full-back making crucial tackles, coping well under the high ball, and generally proving himself an adept custodian in an era where the full-back often finds himself acting more like a third half-back. Tommy Makinson made a similar contribution for Saints. The winger’s tackle dragging Liam Sutcliffe into touch was a thing of beauty – I’ve seen it at least half a dozen times since Thursday and it never ceases to impress – and Makinson may have saved the game in the final moments with another tackle which prevented Ryan Hall from crossing and stealing the points for the visitors.
These defensive displays were reminiscent of one of the key moments of 2016, Danny Houghton’s try-saving tackle on Ben Currie at Wembley which saw Hull lift the Challenge Cup. It’s hard to imagine – unless you’re a Warrington fan – that the game would have been improved in any way had Currie been able to score.
It will be interesting, firstly, to see how defences hold up throughout the Super League season. In a league which focuses more on attack, defence could certainly win games. That’s a lesson that may have been learned by Castleford Tigers – despite their fifth-place finish last season, the Tigers had the second-worst defensive record in the league, having conceded 640 points at the end of the regular season and 808 by the end of the Super 8s. A tighter defence, such as we saw at times during their 44-16 win over Leigh, could see Castleford finally break into the top four.
Secondly, we’ll see whether Warrington or Wigan are able to match the defensive efforts of their NRL opponents this weekend. The NRL focuses more on defence than Super League – the average number of points scored in a Super League game is 47, compared to just 41 in the NRL – and a lack of defensive steel may be one of the factors involved if Super League representatives fall short once again.
Keep Your Eye on Rugby League