Rugby League: Saints reduced to last-gasp scramble

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The Independent Online
You could have got long odds at the start of this Super League season against Paris finishing it in a happier frame of mind than St Helens, but that is more or less the situation today.

In the only match on the last day of the league season that enjoys any significance, Paris can celebrate avoiding relegation while Saints - last season's champions and Cup winners for the last two - are reduced to scrabbling around for points for a top-four finish.

Failure to obtain them will deny St Helens a bye in the first round of the Premiership next week; not a disaster in itself, but another indicator of their decline over the past few months.

Saints thrashed Paris in the World Club Championship play-off 18 days ago but further problems have built up at Knowsley Road since then. With Steve Prescott, Joey Hayes and Andy Haigh all out injured and Alan Hunte facing a late test, Saints are stretched in the backs.

There is also the question of how well Bobbie Goulding will be able to concentrate on the job in hand. In a turbulent couple of weeks even by his standards, he has been sacked as captain, seen his infant daughter hospitalised and been sent off for the second time this season.

His little girl's condition is improving, but Goulding will not know his fate at the hands of the disciplinary committee until Thursday and must also wonder about his long-term future at the club.

Ironically, one player who has already been told to look for a new club - Derek McVey, the Australian second-row - played his best rugby of the season in the win over Leeds last week that kept Saints' top-four hopes alive. If the shop window continues to have a revitalising effect on him, Paris could find themselves in trouble this afternoon.

But it is open to doubt whether they will much care. Andy Goodway wrapped his best players in cotton wool during the matches leading up to the virtual relegation decider against his old club, Oldham, on Tuesday. A side much closer to full strength did the necessary that night; there could be a few more back-up players on duty again today.

There are a couple of extra ironies. The first is that, for all the success of their survival techniques under Goodway, there might be no team in Paris next season. There have been nights over the past two years when the bold move of planting a team in the alien territory of the French capital has looked as though it might succeed. There was even a crowd of 7,000 there, amid Paris's annual exodus, on Tuesday. But the strain of sustaining any sort of infrastructure in the city is exhausting and the club is likely to be operating out of a base in the league heartland of southern France next season.

Another possible twist is that today's opposing coaches could soon be getting to know each other better. The new coaching team to lead Great Britain into the series against Australia will be announced tomorrow and all the indications are that Shaun McRae's know-how could be called upon to assist Goodway.

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