St Helens v Wigan: Three key battles ahead of derby day clash
By Tom Mordey
Last Updated: 01/09/17 9:49am
What a game on Friday night. It's derby day in St Helens, but there's so much at stake.
Fourth place is on the line for both Saints and rivals Wigan, with the two sides locked together on 27 points, behind Wakefield in the race for the play-offs. So who will win? Here's three head to heads to decide the Sky Live encounter:
Ben Barba v Sam Tomkins
It's been a long time coming. But Ben Barba is finally included in a St Helens squad. He's been kicking his heels on the sidelines ever since last year's NRL Grand Final when he scored in Cronulla's win over Melbourne. Plenty of water has passed under the bridge since then, with Barba banned for testing positive for cocaine.
He moved to rugby union and to France with Toulon and then onto Super League after just four games. So here he is, with four games to make an impact in a Saints shirt. And how Justin Holbrook could use him. Chasing that play-off spot, St Helens need that X-Factor that Barba will offer at full-back. It means shifting Jonny Lomax out of his natural position, but could Barba make that little difference to take St Helens all the way?
Barba's opposite number is a man he'll know all about. He faced Sam Tomkins in the NRL. And the Wigan full-back will be looking for a big performance after Saturday's Wembley disappointment.
Tomkins had never lost a final in the Cherry and White, winning two Challenge Cups and two Grand Finals. But now that's over. Tomkins is still settling into this Warriors side after the long stint out injured. He's up to four tries and five try assists for the season, offering crucial experience from the back. Will he find his best form going into the end of the campaign to help push Wigan towards another Old Trafford appearance?
Matty Smith v Thomas Leuluai
Matty Smith's had a hit-and-miss season injury wise for St Helens. He broke his leg shortly after the move from Wigan and then had to have his eyeball stitched back together after an accidental collision with Jon Wilkin against Leeds in June.
Smith's admitted his eye isn't quite right yet and will take longer to heal, but he still returned to help his side past Castleford in the opening round of the Super 8s. Justin Holbrook will need his scrum half firing in the business end of the season. He's scored two tries and provided nine try assists.
But it's his kicking game that's really crucial to St Helens' cause. Smith's put in 105 attacking kicks - over twice as many as any other team-mate. Don't expect his former club to go easy on him either.
Thomas Leuluai was the man brought back to replace Matty Smith at the DW Stadium. He has formed an effective partnership in the halves with George Williams, helping his team-mate with organisational responsibilities.
But Williams has provided the majority of the creativity, scoring 10 times to Leuluai's two and providing 28 try assists compared to Leuluai's 11. Williams has also put in 17 more attacking kicks. But don't underestimate the role Leuluai plays in this Wigan side.
His experience is vital, especially earlier in the season when Shaun Wane had to field so many inexperienced players with his injury problems mounting up. Leuluai has already tasted Grand Final glory in the Cherry and White. Will he provide the impetus in this side to do so again?
Zeb Taia v John Bateman
There will be an interesting match-up in the packs on Friday. And St Helens will be looking to Zeb Taia to make a big impact. It's still his first season with the Saints after swapping the NRL and the Gold Coast Titans for Super League, but Taia will be looking to finish with a flourish.
His offloading game has made a difference for the Saints, indeed the back rower has thrown 43 offloads, 12 more than any other team-mate, with Alex Walmsley the next best. Taia is a strong carrier too, notching up 2679 metres from his 388 carries, at an average gain of 6.90m a drive. Throw in four tries and an impressive nine try assists and you've got a player that Justin Holbrook can rely on going into the end of the season.
Shaun Wane has one of those players himself. John Bateman's injury absence for a chunk of this season had a massive impact on the Warriors side. He is the ideal all-round forward, tackling, carrying and offloading.
And he's already made 267 hits from his limited amount of games, while also carrying 136 times for 879 metres. Bateman has two Super League tries to his name, but he also crossed in Saturday's Challenge Cup final, albeit in a losing team.
He is the sort of player who loves derby day and if Wigan need a man to step forward when the stakes are high, you can count on Bateman delivering a big performance.