Salford v St Helens: Three Super League head to heads
By Tom Mordey
Last Updated: 26/04/18 7:26pm
The Super League leaders continue to dazzle. St Helens have been tearing apart the competition in 2018 and it is looking a difficult task to stop Justin Holbrook's side. How will Salford get on this Thursday?
Here are three heads to heads that might decide it:
Niall Evalds v Ben Barba
There is a real opportunity for Niall Evalds this season. Following Gareth O'Brien's departure to Toronto, the full-back slot has opened up, giving Evalds a run at his favoured position.
He has admitted the number one slot suits his skills better, having often featured on the wings for Salford. Evalds has played all but one Super League game this season, turning out at full-back on eight occasions and on the wing on three.
Ironically, it's out wide where Evalds has scored three of his five tries this campaign. But that's enough to make him the Red Devils' second top scorer. He's capable of big metres. Evalds averages 7.70m a carry and has nine clean breaks and 26 tackle busts to his name. The question is, will he match St Helens' number one?
What a revelation Ben Barba has been in Super League. Just take a look at his try against Huddersfield, a sensational breakaway solo effort, leaving defenders trailing in his wake. It's easy to see why he's making so many headlines. Barba has 12 tries to his name and is the competition's joint top scorer with teammate Mark Percival and Hull FC's Fetuli Talanoa.
His stats are eye-watering with ball in hand. Over 1000 metres at an average gain of 7.89m a carry. Plus 14 clean breaks and then 76 tackle busts, the most in the competition. And even if you stop him scoring, Barba has the ability to create as well. Just the 14 try assists for the full-back, level only with Richie Myler in Super League. St Helens have stepped up as a team in 2018 under Holbrook, but Barba is the icing on the cake. A class act.
Jack Littlejohn v Jonny Lomax
There is going to be extra pressure on the shoulders of Jack Littlejohn this week. He is missing his regular half-back partner Robert Lui, arguably Salford's most important player. Littlejohn will have to take on the bulk of the creative stuff on his own, though he has only got one try and two assists to his name so far this season.
He has shared organisational responsibility with Lui so far in the campaign, putting in 41 attacking kicks, although that is 28 less than his teammate. Littlejohn was an off-season signing from the Wests Tigers, given the unenviable task of replacing the departing Michael Dobson.
He has played in all 12 of Salford's games so far, but has dropped to the bench on three occasions, with the now-departed Gareth O'Brien starting one and Josh Wood two, as Ian Watson mixed his team selection up. Without Lui to rely on, Salford will need Littlejohn to step up on Thursday night.
You could have forgiven Jonny Lomax for worrying about how 2018 might have gone in pre-season. With Ben Barba pencilled in to play full-back, Lomax faced competition from Matty Smith, Theo Fages and Danny Richardson for a half-back spot. But Lomax, along with Richardson, have nailed down the slots.
He has played 11 of St Helens' 12 games this season, ten of them in the halves and filling in once at full-back when Barba was injured against Hull FC. And Lomax has been a creative force for Justin Holbrook's side so far.
He has scored seven tries himself in 2018, including a hat-trick last week against Huddersfield, while providing six try assists. That's more in both respects than Richardson.
Richardson has done more of the organising, putting in 29 more attacking kicks than Lomax, but their partnership, along with Barba at full-back, has turned St Helens into a seriously dangerous side.
They have scored the most tries in the competition (63), seven more than nearest rivals Wigan. Lomax will be hoping to retain his England spot after appearing in the World Cup final, but what position will Wayne Bennett pick him?
Sky Live: Salford v St Helens
Salford are set to welcome back prop Lee Mossop for Thursday's Super League clash with leaders St Helens.
Ben Nakubuwai v Luke Thompson
Salford's Fijian international - Ben Nakubuwai - has caught the eye so far. He signed quite late in the off-season, joining from the Gold Coast Titans in December after excelling in Fiji's run to the World Cup semi-finals.
At just 22-years-old, there are big expectations around Nakubuwai. His coach Ian Watson compared him to legendary prop forward Petero Civoniceva when he first signed. No pressure there then!
After missing the opening game of the season, he's featured in every game since. And Nakabuwai has come into the starting thirteen in the last two Super League rounds, even scoring in the win over Huddersfield. He's provided solid go-forward so far in a Salford shirt, recording 862 metres from his 112 carries. That's at an average of 7.70m a drive.
Nakubuwai also works hard in defence, he's joint-fifth on Salford's tackle rankings, putting in 255 hits so far. Given his inexperience in this competition, Salford will be pleased with what they've seen so far and will expect plenty more in the second half of 2018.
Luke Thompson has really stepped up for St Helens in 2018. With Alex Walmsley ruled out for the season with that neck injury, Justin Holbrook has lost some serious metres from his pack. But Thompson is offering plenty of go-forward instead.
He has made the most metres in this St Helens side, notching up 1526m already from his 202 carries. And that's at an average gain of 7.55m. Those are impressive figures considering the Saints pack still includes the ball-carrying skills of Kyle Amor, Luke Douglas, Zeb Taia and Louie McCarthy Scarsbrook, even in the absence of Walmsley. Thompson is a no-nonsense front rower and St Helens use him from the start to try and punch holes in the opposition.
He's started all 12 games this season, with the likes of Douglas used off the bench instead. With Saints possessing such electric backs, it's important the side get on the front foot early. And Thompson and company have excelled so far in that regard.