St Helens boss Paul Wellens has told The Sportsman he feels Morgan Knowles is being lynched and will back his star forward to silence the deafening “external noise”.
Wellens spent over half an hour talking to journalists at his weekly media briefing and almost every second was consumed with defending his controversial England enforcer, following yet another suspension.
The 26-year old Knowles misses the next two games after being sent off in the last minute of their Betfred Challenge Cup win over Halifax Panthers at the weekend, his first match back from a five-game suspension.
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The World Cup star has had five bans since last October’s Grand Final, a game he was only free to play in after Saints successfully overturned a two-match ban.
In short, the knives are out for the no-nonsense Knowles, and Wellens admits he has a duty of care both to the player’s mental health through this storm, while at the same time a professional duty to mend the team’s errant disciplinary ways of which Knowles has been the protagonist.
“I’m not one to come on and join in the frenzy around lynching Morgan Knowles,” Wellens told The Sportsman, in a ferociously passionate and well-balanced defence of one of his most important players.
“I can appreciate that there is a lot of external noise around Morgan but the people talking about him and who want to trash him, they are much more comfortable with Morgan being sat in the stands because they know how good a player he is.
“I need to support him through a tough period. I absolutely love the bloke and love everything that he is about.
“All Morgan Knowles needs to know is that we are here to help him, we absolutely love him, and he is going to be a hugely influential figure for us moving forward.”
Wellens is preparing the champions for a trip to Leeds, against a Rhinos side dumped out of the Cup by Wigan at the weekend, just a week after beating the Warriors with only 12 men. Wellens says that was one of the standout performances in Super League history.
But the Saints head coach has revealed he has had to sit his own squad down and give them a group warning about this season’s unwelcome disciplinary problems, with Knowles the big reason for concern.
“What I have got in Morgan Knowles is a player who is so dedicated, so hard working, so committed to the club and to being successful. But at the same time he just needs to understand that in terms of performance he needs to be a little bit better.
“What I don’t want to do is catastrophise Morgan Knowles’s situation. I’m his coach, I’m here to help him and so are his team-mates.”
Wellens’ first season as a head coach has had a lively start. After winning an historic World Club Challenge Down Under, the defence of their domestic crown has endured a sluggish start that sees Saints down in seventh.
And of the teams above them, it is Hull Kingston Rovers rather than the heavyweights of Warrington Wolves, Wigan and Catalans Dragons, that Wellens has singled out as one of the most dangerous challengers.
The Robins have been rampant with eight wins from their first 12 games under Willie Peters, and while many have been surprised by the speed of their progress, Wellens is not one of them.
“It doesn’t come as a surprise to me,” he said.
“Look at their playing group. We had a player here at Saints for a number of years in Lachlan Coote who is held in such high regard at this club. I know from personal experience that players like Lachlan go into places and affect the environment and set a higher standard in terms of what is expected to be successful.
“You can see his influence and so too Shaun Kenny-Dowall. It makes a good recipe for success so that young players like Mikey Lewis can play with a freedom and confidence.
“There are a lot of ingredients going into making them a successful team and for the rugby league neutral it is wonderful to see a team like Hull KR having such a successful year.”
Hull KR host Wigan this week having already beaten the Challenge Cup holders this season.
Another England forward has been in the headlines for the wrong reasons this week, with veteran Huddersfield prop Chris Hill being accused of cheating by former Hull KR and Hull FC half-back Paul Cooke.
Hill left the field for a Head Injury Assessment during the Giants’ thrilling Challenge Cup defeat at Salford on Saturday night. HIA substitutions do not count towards a team’s permitted number of interchanges, and there have thus been some whispers that the system is open to manipulation. Indeed Cooke felt Hill had feigned injury to gain his side a free interchange at a point in the match where he would have been coming off anyway.
“Chris Hill isn’t hit in the head” said the opinionated Cooke. “It is cheating in my opinion. It’s like the Harlequins bloodgate scandal.”
Hill reacted furiously to this and defended himself on Twitter, as one would when their good name is being tarnished in public while not present to defend yourself.
It was another disappointing episode of the sport airing its dirty linen in public, something that rugby league unfortunately does so well.
For the record, this writer was on the touchline on Saturday night in the game in question and observed Hill going down the tunnel for the HIA before returning, declared fit to resume but visibly groggy. There had been a head-to-head contact and it was correct to be checked. There was nothing untoward that I could see in the actions of Hill or the Huddersfield staff, and Cooke’s words were both badly chosen and poorly judged.
On the field, this week’s round of games look terrific, with Wigan’s trip to East Hull and Leeds’ Grand Final repeat with Saints the standout ties.
While the Summer Bash concept returns in the Betfred Championship as the round of fixtures heads to York with the weather set fair and Featherstone locking horns with the hosts York, already six points clear at the top of the table.
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