KEIRON Cunningham says the full benefit of 2017 signings Zeb Taia and Matty Smith will unfold as Saints' season progresses – and he likes the early signs!
Going into the clash with Huddersfield Giants tomorrow, Friday, head coach Cunningham partly credits the form of other players on the influence the experienced pair are injecting into a squad he feels will further benefit from a period of training and games with his first choice full-back, half-backs and hooker all involved.
World Cup 2013 Cook Islands skipper Taia, a swap-deal catch from Joe Greenwood's departure to NRL club Gold Coast Titans, has started the last four games in the vacated second-row berth, while England international Smith is two games into his return to the club after overcoming his broken leg.
Cunningham was also full of praise this week for Smith after revealing he played against Salford "on one leg".
"I think Zeb’s settled in really well and influenced how that left edge play," said Cunningham, who tried to sign the former Catalans Dragons man from Titans last year but was flatly refused.
"It’s no coincidence Percy (Mark Percival) is playing really, really well at the minute, and he’s involved in lots of good stuff. That’s because Zeb is playing inside him.
"He’s a really experienced professional and understands the game. That definitely helps and his influence is brilliant. It was great at the weekend, having Matty and Zeb in there and they’re saying and doing the right things.
"I knew Zeb would be a good signing for us and I thought he’d really influence. I just didn’t think he’d be this good.
"It’s been tough because he’s not done a pre-season with us. He’s just come in, he’s learning all the plays and learning how we play, and learning who to play with around him. I think once we get him bedded in and give him another month or two I think he’ll be hitting his straps.
"I’m really pleased. He’s a great player, a lovely guy to work with and he just wants to win – we’re all in the same boat there."
Smith was under immense pressure against Salford, having carried an injury into the game and then losing half-back partner Theo Fages to a head injury in the opening minute.
"Matty had a great first week against Warrington and got a bit of an injury against them so the poor fella didn’t train at all last week," said Cunningham.
“Matty was running around on one leg because he had a horrible dead leg. He couldn’t even bend his leg, it was a really bad one.
"We tried to go and get it drained and get stuff done but we couldn’t do anything with it so it was touch and go whether he would play.
"There’s lots of players I’ve played with and lots who are currently playing that wouldn’t have played with that injury.
"But that’s what Matty is. He’s of that generation where he’ll give everything for the club, try and fight, and I thought he did a good job considering what he was running around with.
"He had a tough night but was determined to play and not let his teammates down, so it was credit to him.
"It’s great to have him in the place, just his influence alone is helping everybody around him.
"Good players make good players look good. He is a great player and is only going to get better for us.
"He’s enjoying doing what he’s doing and everyone’s enjoying playing with him. He’s only going to improve us."
Smith came through training well earlier this week and resumed his normal duties.
Cunningham says leaders James Roby and Jon Wilkin are also benefitting from the arrival of Taia and Smith.
“It’s a bit of pressure off Robes," said Cunningham.
"We were heavily reliant on a bit of leadership aspect from Robes last year.
"He will probably be the first one to hold his hand up and say he is not a real big talker, he really leads by actions.
"We put a lot of pressure on him last year not only from playing but from a leadership type of role.
"Matty has taken a lot of pressure off a lot of people around him because he’s a natural leader and has come through a good school – he’s run around with me, Longy (Sean Long), Scully (Paul Sculthorpe) and all them boys.
"He’s learned from some good players how to run a team and he does it standing on his head.
"And that’s what Zebby’s brought as well. His leadership has been brilliant as well.
"Every one of those leaders takes a bit of pressure off the players from last year. Wilko was under the pump a lot last year, whereas I think he’s playing a lot freer this year and looks like he’s really enjoying his rugby which is only good for us."
Consistency is now key, having stuttered against Salford following the wins against Warrington and Catalans.
Cunningham said: "I said it in round one, all your sides that are going to play well consistently will have your 9, 7, 6 and 1 playing together for longer periods. We’ve not actually had that yet.
"We brought Matty back, Jonny Lomax wasn’t playing, and then game two for Matty we lose Theo in the space of a minute and you have to move everything about.
"You lose that little bit of rhythm and it really affected us at the weekend.
"It would be nice to just get a consistent run of three or four games of those boys playing and training together."