Can anyone challenge St Helens?

MARTYN SADLER ponders the implications of St Helens’ dominant victory over Leeds Rhinos


Sometimes we can identify long term trends in sport.

In Rugby League, the trend is that St Helens are gradually leaving the rest of the game behind.

On Saturday they will contend for their third successive Grand Final win, while this season they have already won the Challenge Cup.

Their dominance on the field isn’t yet at the level of Wigan’s dominance in the 1980s and 90s, but it looks to me to be heading in that direction.

And the reason, of course, is that St Helens are the best club in the game, both on and off the field.

Off the field, under their Chairman Eamonn McManus, they transitioned into a new stadium, which the club has full ownership of, retaining full control and benefiting from all the income potential from its ownership.

In fact if we compare St Helens off the field with Wigan from 30 years ago, we see that Wigan’s period of great success was achieved at a very heavy cost, with the club eventually running out of money, losing its home and having to move in as tenants of Wigan Athletic at the DW Stadium, without full control over its home venue.

St Helens, on the other hand, exudes financial stability under McManus’s leadership and it’s almost impossible to imagine anything that could change that state of affairs.

On the field, St Helens have a superb development system that brings through young players every year to join the first-team squad.

If we look at the matchday 17 that turned out on Friday night, we find that there are nine players who either came through their Academy or who made their professional debuts with St Helens – Tommy Makinson, Mark Percival, Regan Grace, Jonny Lomax, Lewis Dodd, James Roby, Matty Lees, Morgan Knowles and Jack Welsby

There are four players who were signed from the NRL – Lachlan Coote, Kevin Naiqama, Sione Mata’utia and Agnatius Paasi.

And there are four players who St Helens signed from other clubs – Alex Walmsley (Batley Bulldogs), Joe Batchelor (York City Knights), Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook (Harlequins RL, now London Broncos) and Kyle Amor (Wakefield Trinity).

If we look at the 21-man squad, we see that there were three more Academy products who didn’t make the 17 – Aaron Smith, Jake Wingfield and Ben Davies, while Joel Thompson, a fifth former NRL player, also didn’t make the matchday squad.

There were another two players who were unavailable through injury – Theo Fages and James Bentley – who came to St Helens from Salford and Bradford Bulls respectively.

So if we are looking for a template for success in Super League, St Helens are presenting it to us right in front of our eyes.

Their Academy gives the club a conveyor belt of successful talent, their recruitment policy hardly ever seems to hit a wrong note and they have the knack of recruiting coaching and backroom staff who are capable of getting the best out of the players who are available to them.

And it doesn’t stop there. St Helens have also gone wholeheartedly into Women’s Rugby League and they have possibly the best team in the Women’s Super League. They will face Leeds Rhinos in the WSL Grand Final this Sunday.

It raises the question of who will be able to challenge them in the years ahead.

The only negative for St Helens is that the salary cap, which the club is meticulous in operating within its quite complex rules, tends to mean that they can’t keep all their talent, because success leads to players wanting larger contracts and so some players inevitably can’t be retained.

So Saints will be losing players like Coote, Bentley and Fages to other clubs next season, while others, like Naiqama and Thompson, will head back to Australia and into retirement at the end of this season.

But the club has already got replacements in place for next season, with Curtis Sironen (Manly), James Bell (Leigh), Will Hopoate (Canterbury), Danny Hill (Widnes), Joey Lussick (Parramatta) and Konrad Hurrell (Leeds, although not yet officially confirmed) all set to arrive at the Totally Wicked Stadium.

On Friday night Saints were far too strong for the Rhinos and the result never looked in doubt from very early in the game.

It wasn’t necessarily that the scoreline was one-sided, at least until the final ten minutes, but that St Helens looked so much stronger, faster and skilful throughout the game. It was clear that the tries would come and that the Rhinos lacked the ammunition to compete on anything like even terms.

Perhaps the best hope for their opponents is that some St Helens stars are now reaching the veteran stage and it’s legitimate to ask whether, without Roby, LMS, Amor and perhaps even Walmsley, who turned 31 this year, they will still be as good as they are now. I’m afraid the answer is that as valuable as those players are, when they hang up their boots there will be other younger players ready to step up to the same standard.

Of course, all this doesn’t necessarily mean they will automatically beat the Catalans Dragons and win the Grand Final on Saturday.

As anyone who is interested in Boxing will know, most pundits thought there was no way that Anthony Joshua could lose his world titles last Saturday. But it happened!

But somehow I can’t see lightning striking twice.