St Helens v Warrington: The key thing to keep an eye on ahead of Thursday night blockbuster

James Gordon

The reigning champions host the current Super League leaders in what promises to be a Thursday night blockbuster live on Sky Sports, as we enter the second third of the season.

Warrington’s perfect start to the new season came to an end in their ninth game at home to Wigan last week.

The nature of that defeat, and the unavailability of key players in the pack, gives Daryl Powell plenty to ponder as he considers the best option for a run-on 17 at the Totally Wicked Stadium.

A one-match ban for Paul Vaughan sees him sidelined alongside Gil Dudson and Joe Philbin through suspension, while Joe Bullock is missing through injury.

St Helens aren’t short of problems of their own, with Alex Walmsley, Siona Mata’utia, Curtis Sironen and Agnatius Paasi all missing from Paul Wellens’ pack.

They do welcome back Joe Batchelor for the first time in Super League this season, as they look to avoid a third straight defeat.

Coach Wellens was asked how his side responded to their fourth defeat in eight away at Hull KR last weekend. He said: “Like this group always do, with honesty. The easy thing to do is to look at who’s not playing and use that as an excuse. But this group of players will not do that. There are improvements to be made, but at the same there’s a lot of stuff we’re doing really well.

“We’re missing at the moment is what we’d call our more potent ball carriers, like Ignatius (Paasi), Alex (Walmsley), Sione (Mata’utia) and Curtis (Sironen). We’re doing things a little bit tough at the moment but we can actually grow as a team off the back of this and add a few things to our game.”

MORE: ‘You need to lose’ – St Helens’ adversity a positive test of character insists ex-player

Big match verdict: St Helens v Warrington

I think there’s always pressure on St Helens and Warrington games because of the local angle and bragging rights, and in some ways there’s less expectation at the moment because of the form St Helens are in, that if Warrington were to turn them over, people wouldn’t be surprised. At the same time, if St Helens were to beat Warrington it would give them quite a boost.

Warrington won their first eight games and hit a little bit of a bump in the road last week and they were second best against Wigan. But at the same time, they only lost by seven points and they had a couple of decisions go against them that on another night, might have seen them score another couple of tries.

They’ve hit a little bit of an issue in the middle with players being suspended and the departure of Thomas Mikaele. Now Paul Vaughan has joined Gil Dudson and Joe Philbin on the sidelines through suspension, and that’s just hurt them a little bit. I thought it exposed them a little bit last week and the interchange options they had exposed them.

Maybe it highlighted there’s a reluctance to chuck young players in and it will be interesting to see how Daryl Powell picks his team for the St Helens match, because if you look at what St Helens and Wigan do when they’re low on bodies, they put faith in youngsters.

And sometimes it doesn’t work, but I think it helps a lot of these young players we’ve seen come through at the likes of St Helens and Wigan, they’re thrown in at the deep end and it’s either sink or swim for them. Warrington are at that point now that if they’re missing three or four forwards from the pack, they’ve got to put some faith in some of the young lads. The academy captain Lucas Green was in the squad last week, but only came on for seven or eight minutes, so maybe they’ve just got to manage that process a little better.

Warrington fans were looking at this period games where they face Catalans, Wigan and St Helens as a real litmus test to see where they’re at. Obviously they had a horrendous season last year, then they’ve won their first seven, then beat Catalans away, which was a great result. I don’t think losing to St Helens away would be the end of the world for Warrington. I think maybe they’d start asking themselves a few questions about whether they can sustain this form they’ve shown for the whole season, but as people say – and I don’t like it – it’s not about how you start, it’s about how you finish. And I’m sure that’ll be going through Warrington’s minds at the moment.

The problem with Warrington missing Vaughan is that they will feel it even more because of the others they are already missing in the middle. I think his presence against Wigan alone probably helped cover up for the fact they were missing some of the other middles. When you look at this match, they were already going to be under strength without Vaughan, so when you take him out as well, it makes things difficult.

On Vaughan’s absence, Daryl Powell said: “We couldn’t really afford to lose a middle unit players, but it is what it is. The game’s fast and there are some tackles that are getting pulled up. The game is a difficult one at times, Vaughany’s lost his legs a little bit and there’s absolutely no malice at all. There’s an inconsistency there. But it is what it is.

“We just have to cop it and move on. I think it’s a bit of a hip drop tackle where he swings round on the tackle and he just catches Kai Pearce-Paul foot underneath him.

“It’s a tough one to take as there’s no real intent in there. Matty Lees was potentially lucky to get away with his watching that back!

“You’ve got three or four blokes making decisions and you just have to go for it. It’s disappointing because he’s been pretty good for us. It’ll be a miss, but we’ve been dealing with this sort of stuff all season in our middle unit.”

On the flip side of that though, St Helens are also missing some of their big hitters in the middle so it might make for a different game to the sort of one we’ve come to expect from St Helens against Warrington.

I think the interchanges are going to be the key. That’s what let Warrington down against Wigan last week, how they used their interchanges. If Daryl Powell gets his starting team right and gives himself the right options off the bench, then Warrington can beat St Helens. Clearly they can’t repeat what happened last week, where they had two outside backs, a hooker and a rookie forward as their interchange options. If they don’t get that right, I think St Helens could get on top of them like Wigan did last week. St Helens haven’t clicked a great deal yet but they’re still tough to beat and they don’t concede many points.

It’ll be very interesting to see what the run on 17s are for the match. I’m expecting a close match and we’d love it to be a close match, it was a great game last week. There was some hyperbole about the quality of the match last week, and while I don’t necessarily agree with getting as carried away about it as some people did, clearly we all want to see tight, well contested games live on TV on a Thursday night.

The result of tonight’s game won’t define either club’s season. It doesn’t necessarily matter where you are in the table at this point, but perhaps psychologically for Saints, you don’t want to lose another game and have a less than 50% winning record. It’s a good opportunity to for Warrington to play St Helens at this time, but perhaps the players they have missing negates that opportunity.

Squad news

St Helens: Welsby, Makinson, Hopoate, Percival, Bennison, Lomax, Dodd, Roby, Lees, Batchelor, Lussick, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Bell, Royle, Hurrell, Baxter, Ritson, Hill, Delaney, Buckley, Bruines.

Suggested 17: Welsby, Makinson, Hurrell, Hopoate, Bennison, Lomax, Dodd, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Roby, Lees, Batchelor, Percival, Bell. Subs: Lussick, Royle, Delaney, Baxter.

Warrington: Dufty, Thewlis, Mata’utia, Ratchford, Ashton, Williams, Drinkwater, Harrison, Clark, Currie, Nicholson, McGuire, Kasiano, Walker, Minikin, Whitehead, Thomas, Hayes, Lynch, Russell, Green.

Suggested 17: Dufty, Russell, Minikin, Ratchford, Ashton, Williams, Drinkwater, Harrison, Clark, McGuire, Currie, Nicholson, Mata’utia. Subs: Kasiano, Walker, Thomas, Green.