Saints stay strong and look to Long

Dave Hadfield surveys the rollercoaster ride at the top of the table
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The Independent Online

Rarely can the fluctuating fortunes of modern rugby league have been more vividly illustrated than by the wild lurches in the balance of power between Wigan and St Helens over the last two weeks.

Rarely can the fluctuating fortunes of modern rugby league have been more vividly illustrated than by the wild lurches in the balance of power between Wigan and St Helens over the last two weeks.

A mere fortnight ago, Saints were thrashed 42-4 at home by Wigan - a result which seemed to signal not the end of their season, but the beginning of the end. On Friday night, they went to the JJB Stadium and won even more emphatically than they had lost, disappearing into the distance as 54-16 victors.

Such is the rhythm of the season that it would be no surprise if the two old enemies met again in the Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford on 14 October, and it would not even be astonishing if the form shifted violently in the opposite direction once more.

It all bears out the contention of the St Helens coach, Ian Millward, that there is little to choose between the top four sides in the competition and that, on their day, any one of them can not only beat any other, but also make quite a mess of them in the process.

The pace of contemporary rugby league is such that, once one team gathers momentum, it can be impossible to stop them racking up points. Wigan did it at Knowsley Road; Saints got their revenge at the JJB Stadium. If they meet again, it will not necessarily be close; one of them could run away with it once more.

Having said that, Saints' resilience over the last two weeks has been remarkable. Not only hammered by Wigan, they were within one second - or one tackle - of losing to Bradford last week.

Their ability to improvise their way clear of trouble got them out of that bind. It was a tribute to the way that Millward has encouraged them to keep the ball moving whenever humanly possible.

As he admits, though, it is a system that can break down spectacularly at times. "But you have to encourage them to try to create things - to give them confidence," he said.

For no player did that work better than Sean Long. "He was ridiculed as a loose cannon when we lost to Wigan," said Millward. "But he controlled things tonight. He's only young, and if we want him to be a great British half-back we have to be patient with him. I'm happy for him, because he copped a lot of flak."

Saints' success was built on other, less obvious, factors, such as the work of two young forwards, Tim Jonker and John Stankevitch, as emergency props; they stood up to a Wigan front row who have scattered their opposition of late.

On the beaten side, Andy Farrell can testify to how reputations can rise and fall in this game. So soon after leading Wigan to one of their most memorable wins over their traditional rivals, he must have had one of the worst 70 minutes of his career.

After looking like carving up Saints again in the opening stages, the Great Britain captain could not take a trick thereafter. His coach, Frank Endacott, came close to admitting that the continual turning inside of the ball - which worked so well a fortnight earlier - had been a mistake. "We probably overdid it, but you have to back your judgement," he said.

The way the game is now, even the best can get it wrong, and when they do, the collapse can be dramatic. What Saints have shown over the past two weeks, however, is that the best sides in Super League can bounce back equally dramatically - and Wigan could yet emulate that.

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