League Express editor MARTYN SADLER previews St Helens’ 2019 season.
For much of last season you would have got short odds from Betfred on St Helens winning all three major trophies.
From early in the season they were running away from their rivals at the top of the Super League table, which made them strong favourites for both the League Leaders’ Shield and the Super League title, while they were also favoured to make a first visit to Wembley since they last won the trophy in 2008.
As it turned out, they won the Shield, but were eliminated at the semi-final stages of both the Challenge Cup – to the Catalans Dragons at Bolton – and the Super League play-offs, where Warrington Wolves got the better of them at the Totally Wicked Stadium.
Both defeats were a shock to the system for Saints supporters, but they were particularly disappointing for their coach Justin Holbrook, who had brought the sparkle back into their play since arriving in time for the 2017 Magic Weekend at Newcastle, with Ben Barba the symbol of their reversion to a traditional style of St Helens play.
However, St Helens haven’t appeared at Wembley since 2008, when they defeated Hull FC to win the Challenge Cup, and they were last at Old Trafford in 2014, when they defeated their great rivals Wigan. So it’s hardly surprising that their supporters believe an appearance at both venues is long overdue and Holbrook would certainly like to deliver in at least one case, and preferably both.
“Those two semi-final defeats were very disappointing,” he admits.
“But they were two very different games. We went into the Cup semi-final and I don’t think we’d lost for 16 weeks. But the Catalans ambushed us early in that game.
“Some people thought we might have underestimated them, but that wasn’t true. Everyone knew they were coming good and their chance was in the Cup, and credit to them for raising their game.
“In the Super League semi-final there was not much in it against Warrington. We made a couple of defensive errors and they just managed to edge a very tight game.”
Saints were unfortunate in that the play-off system last season didn’t give them a chance of redemption after losing to Warrington, unlike the top-five system that will be in place from 2019, when the team finishing at the top of the league will be able to lose its opening game but still reach Old Trafford.
“I think the top five is a better format,” says Holbrook.
“You only have to look at last year, when we almost beat Castleford in the semi-final. It’s harsh when you can be so far in front and yet not have a play-off advantage with the risk of immediate elimination. You do deserve a bit more leeway. But we knew what the format was and we didn’t handle it.”
Since then, Saints have lost Barba, but have signed Lachlan Coote from North Queensland Cowboys as a direct replacement, although Holbrook admits he is unsure yet whether Coote or Jonny Lomax will be pencilled in as the starting fullback.
“I haven’t locked it in yet, but Lachlan will be fantastic for us,” he says.
“He’s a different player to Ben, but a very smart player who won a Grand Final with the Cowboys in 2015. Obviously Ben will be sorely missed, but in 2017 he missed six games and we won all six of them, so we’ve shown that losing him is not fatal to our chances.
“Then we have Kevin Naiqama and Joseph Paulo coming to the club.
“Kevin will be great for our club and for Super League. He is electrifying with the ball in hand and he will really add quality to our side.
“Joseph is a ball-playing type of forward with the skills of a stand-off but the toughness of a forward and he reads the game well. He is likely to play at loose forward.”
Coote and Naiqama arrived at the club in November, while Paulo followed the duo a month later.
Another newcomer is centre or back-rower Joe Batchelor from York City Knights.
“It’s hard to predict how many games Joe will play next year, but he’s a late bloomer in Rugby League terms,” says Holbrook.
“He has been fantastic in League 1 this year in a great season for York. He wants to learn and works hard.
He even wanted to come to our sessions once a week when we first signed him. We can’t guarantee when he’ll get an opportunity but he is determined to do well when he gets the chance.”
And then there is Alex Walmsley, whose return to the side at the start of the season will almost be like bringing a new player into the club, after he suffered a season-ending neck injury in March this year.
Saints fans can look forward to a front row of Walmsley, James Roby and England sensation Luke Thompson, which looks like a combination that will be hard to beat.
“Alex is coming along great,” reveals Holbrook.
“He has looked that way for five months now. If we could go back 20 years he would have been playing in June, but these days medical technology gives us a greater insight into recovery from injury. We kept thinking he was coming back, but the scans revealed there was not enough bone re-growth to allow him to play.
“But he has been fantastic at training. There are lots of good packs in the competition, though, so we won’t be taking anything for granted.
Another significant loss in 2019 will be Jon Wilkin, who has joined the Toronto Wolfpack after a long and distinguished career with Saints. St Helens will seem a strange place without him, while his fellow veteran Matty Smith will also leave the club after a frustrating season when he lost his place to Danny Richardson.
“It was a really tough decision to let Jon go,” admits Holbrook.
“He was a great help to me when I first came over and he will continue to be a leader in his life and a smart player. It was hard for him to leave and hard for us to let him go.
“Matty only just missed out and our season started so well with Danny at scrum-half. But I know he’s looking forward to his new challenge. He was really disappointed with last season and the Catalans will be the beneficiaries.”
St Helens released their squad numbers last week, with Coote inheriting Barba’s iconic number 23, while Naiqama takes the number 3 shirt from Ryan Morgan, who will spend a year on loan with London Broncos, and Paulo takes Wilkin’s number 12.
Promoted into the top 13 are Regan Grace (19 to 5) Danny Richardson (18 to 7) and Luke Thompson (16 to 10) taking the shirts of Adam Swift, Matty Smith and Kyle Amor respectively. Swift and Amor have dropped back to numbers 18 and 16 respectively.
2019 SQUAD: 1 Jonny Lomax, 2 Tommy Makinson, 3 Kevin Naiqama, 4 Mark Percival, 5 Regan Grace, 6 Theo Fages, 7 Danny Richardson, 8 Alex Walmsley, 9 James Roby, 10 Luke Thompson, 11 Zeb Taia, 12 Joseph Paulo, 13 Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, 14 Luke Douglas, 15 Morgan Knowles, 16 Kyle Amor, 17 Dominique Peyroux, 18 Adam Swift, 19 Matty Lees, 20 Jack Ashworth, 21 Aaron Smith, 22 James Bentley, 23 Lachlan Coote, 24 Matty Costello, 25 Joe Batchelor, 26 Liam Cooper, 27 Josh Eaves, 28 Callum Hazzard, 29 Jack Welsby, 30 Josh Simm
INS: Kevin Naiqama (Wests Tigers), Joseph Paulo ( Cronulla Sharks), Lachlan Coote (North Queensland Cowboys), Joe Batchelor (York City Knights)
OUTS: Ryan Morgan (London Broncos season loan), Matty Smith (Catalans Dragons), Jon Wilkin (Toronto Wolfpack), Ben Barba (North Queensland Cowboys), Jake Spedding (Barrow Raiders), Ben Morris (Rochdale Hornets), Rob Fairclough (Swinton Lions)
Saturday 19 January: Hull FC (won 28-18) – Jonny Lomax Testimonial Game
Head Coach: Justin Holbrook
Assistant Coach: Sean Long
Assistant Coach: Paul Wellens
Head of Strength and Conditioning: Matt Daniels
Head Physio: Nathan Mill
Home shirt: White Shirt with a Red Vee
Away shirt: Combined Sky Blue and Navy Blue