At first glance Mick Potter doesn’t look as if he could hack it as water-boy, let alone a State of Origin and Premiership winning full back in the toughest rugby competition on earth, Australia’s NRL.
Yet his slight build (5’9” 13st) and softly spoken demeanour mask a steely tough determination to win. He coached the socks off the Catalans Dragons in a three year stint that saw them reach the Challenge Cup Final and the Super League Playoffs. And he jumped at the chance to coach perennial contenders, St Helens, replacing Daniel Anderson for the 2009 season.
Quite whether Potter thought that decision through or not is open for debate. Because as successful as Saints had been under Ian Millward and Daniel Anderson, a period of transition and upheaval was always inevitable.
In his first season Potter has had to cope with a team desperately missing the experience of Paul Sculthorpe and lacking a keystone prop to support the still developing James Graham. In addition the natural replacement of ageing stars such as Sean Long, Lee Gilmour and possibly the talismanic hooker, Keiron Cunningham continues to undermine the season.
Long is destined for Hull, Gilmour for Huddersfield and KC is still to make up his mind. In addition stalwart fullback, Paul Wellens, is beginning to show signs of wear and his lack of pace and mobility are increasingly being exploited.
Quite how you can effectively coach players who know they won’t be here this next year is hard to imagine. To my mind it is a serious flaw in the current system, that it allows players to contract to another club in mid-season.
All of that coming on top of injuries that robbed the Saints of props Maurie Fa’asavalu and Jason Cayless for most of the year.
Furthermore Gilmour’s impending move seems to have impacted on fellow traveller and car-sharer, Leon Pryce, whose performances in the latter stages of the season have been sluggish.
Dealing with the turmoil that this upheaval inevitably creates would exercise the mind of even the most accomplished man-manager.
Although younger players – and exciting ones at that – are emerging they are not yet at the level Saints need them to be to retain their competitive advantage. But Potter has hitherto managed their use well, getting some great performances from the likes of Kyle Eastmond, Jonny Lomax, Andrew Dixon and Matty Ashurst.
Yet the loss to Huddersfield Giants in the Carnegie Challenge Cup semi final was a major blow to the club and in particular to the fans, who are clearly nervous of the position; lacking confidence in their new coach and the ‘boring’ new style of play he seems to favour.
That style of play is being dictated though by defences who have finally found not only the strategy to slow Saints down, but also the rules which enable them to successfully implement them. Flopping on and slowing the play the ball successfully negates Saints ruck-based attack and Potter has yet to come up with a way to counter that, which is challenge number one for him right now.
The second challenge is keeping the restless fans at bay.
A 50% win record over the six games that Sean Long was absent undermined the team’s morale and that defeat on the back of a scrambled 12-10 win over a virtual reserve Huddersfield outfit the week prior have fans running scared.
Leeds Rhinos are next up. It’s a game that will likely determine who is Minor Premiers this season and the Saints are rank outsiders. A loss would probably deal a fatal blow to their season as it’s hard to see them rallying morale enough to do serious damage in the playoffs, which we are constantly told are all about momentum.
This next month is the acid test for Potter. If he can come through it with a creditable playoff performance then he will live to fight another day. But he will need to call on all that steely determination to hold together a team whose body language displays a collective lack of confidence and spirit; something that was the core of their success.
Potter’s magic trick will be to find a way to rekindle the competitive fires in Pryce, Gilmour and Long. To harness the strength and courage of Cunningham and utilise the craft and pace of rising star, Eastmond. More than that he needs a strategy to protect fullback Wellens lack of pace.
For mine I’d include Eastmond in my 17. He can slot in at half back with Long, whilst Pryce switches to centre with Gilmour adding experience to the pack. Pryce adds an extra dimension to the three-quarters and bring his skills to play in a way opposing defences may not be used to. When Saints are defending I’d drop Eastmond back to provide pace to cover for Wellens.
But in the end only one man can drink of the poisoned chalice and live. Whether that man is Mick Potter remains to be seen.
He’s earned the right to try. Now we can only stand and support.