10 Nov 2021

Season Review: St Helens

The Silverware Collectors

A three-peat of Grand Final victories added to the Betfred Challenge Cup collected earlier in the season made it a golden year for Saints.

Many said the Challenge Cup was the final missing piece of the jigsaw missing for a team that had dominated the Betfred Super League for three years but back-to-back-to-back Grand Final victories probably establishes them as one of the most consistent high performing sides in Super League history.

Runaway League Leaders’ Shields in 2018 and 2019 and back-to-back Grand Final wins had observers using the word dynasty, and comparing this current St Helens teams to those from the past during the summer era. An so it was to be, when on an unforgettable Grand Final night, Saints made it three in a row and wrote their names into the Super League history books alongside Leeds Rhinos.

But without a Challenge Cup since 2008 and the era of Sculthorpe, Cunningham and Long - it always felt like there was something missing from the Saints trophy cabinet though.

All of that changed in mid-July when skipper James Roby - the last surviving member from 13 years prior - helped steer them to a 26-12 win over Castleford Tigers in a superb final.

“It's been a long time coming,” Roby admitted after the game. “I hope it's not so long until we win it again.

“I don't know if I'll ever be back here again, but it's very special for me to be captain of this team. There's definitely more to come from us.”

For the second successive year however Saints missed out on finishing top of the pile, although for the most part again they looked like one of the top two teams to beat.

Remarkably they conceded only six tries in total in their opening six wins over Salford, Hull KR, Wakefield, Huddersfield, Leigh and the Red Devils again, providing a platform for their season to be built on.

But they tasted defeat for the first time in Round Seven, falling 20-16 to Catalans in a result that would allow the Dragons to set the pace for the rest of the campaign.

Another loss soon followed, 2-6 at home to Warrington, but with the Challenge Cup still such a clear target, Woolf’s squad did well to combine the battle on two fronts, and would not lose again until mid-August.

Included in that run were accomplished wins over rivals Wigan and at home to the Dragons, before Castleford shocked them with a first triumph at St Helens in over three decades.

That left Catalans firmly in the driving seat for top spot, only for Dacia Magic Weekend to provide a chance at keeping the race alive when the teams met for a third time.

It looked like job done when Saints led 30-12 with just over four minutes left on the clock, only for one of the most remarkable sequences of play in Super League history to end with the Dragons securing a famous golden point victory.

That made the run-in largely irrelevant for the top two, and a youthful Saints lost a fifth game of the season on the final weekend against Salford.

But with the cup now long secured and a home draw in the Play-Offs locked in, it had to be seen as another successful campaign for Woolf and his squad.

Within that, Roby was again a tremendous leader from hooker, aided by the incessant charges of Alex Walmsley up front and support from the likes of Kyle Amor, Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook and Matty Lees.

Morgan Knowles was an absolute model of consistency at loose forward, as was Lachlan Coote at the back, while Steve Prescott Man of Steel nominee Jonny Lomax stepped up in the extended absence of first choice half-back partner Theo Fages through injury,

But arguably the brightest point of the season came via multi-talented young duo Jack Welsby and Lewis Dodd, who were running the team between them at various stages later in the season.

Asked about their influence, Woolf said: “We get a bit of an advantage because we see what they do at training every day.

“There were plenty of sessions last year where Jack and Lewis hadn’t quite cemented their places and we would do opposed sessions and they would give us plenty of reminders of what they were capable of by asking plenty of questions of the main team.

“But it is one thing knowing what a young player can do - it is another thing him going out and doing it under pressure and consistently. That has been the impressive thing with both of those young players.”

The bad news for Saints’ rivals is that - with the likes of Welsby and Dodd a year further on in their development and a queue of other academy products ready to push through next - they look arguably stronger for 2022.

Coote, Fages, Naiqama and Bentley are undoubted losses, but coming in will be NRL trio Will Hopoate, Curtis Sironen and Joey Lussick, plus impressive Leigh utility player James Bell.

The standards the club has prided itself on in recent years look certain to be upheld under Woolf next season.

Star man - James Roby

If you ask a group of St Helens supporters who their best player this year was you’d probably get a host of different answers - the likes of Lomax, Knowles, Walmsley, Coote and Welsby all have their claims. But skipper James Roby continued to produce performances that, if they had come from an up-and-coming young hooker, everybody would be raving about each week. Instead, there is an acceptance now of just how good the 35-year-old is and has been - but that shouldn’t prevent him from collecting deserved accolades on a regular basis.

Season highlight – Grand Final versus Catalans Dragons

A three-peat of Grand Final victories with a 12-10 win over Catalans Dragons at Old Trafford will long be remembered as a special night in the club’s history. A Harry Sunderland winning man of the match performance from Kevin Naiqama in his last game for the club may have alerted a few NRL clubs that he still had plenty in the tank for another bash in 2022.

Rising star - Lewis Dodd

This was the season that Dodd firmly established himself as one of Super League’s best young talents. His performances in the club’s academy had long signalled him out as one to watch and he made his first team debut in 2020, but his integration into Kristian Woolf’s team was accelerated by an injury to Theo Fages and Dodd grabbed his opportunity with both hands. Skilful, visionary and direct, he looks to have all the ability to follow in some legendary Saints’ footsteps if he continues to progress at his current rate.