With St Helens ready to open their new season at the Totally Wicked Stadium on Friday night against Salford Red Devils, MARTYN SADLER previews Saints’ 2020 season with their coach KRISTIAN WOOLF
St Helens held off a spirited challenge from Salford Red Devils to win the 2019 Grand Final. And the relief was palpable, not just from the coach Justin Holbrook, who will now try to revive the fortunes of the NRL’s Gold Coast Titans, while he has replaced at the Totally Wicked Stadium by Kristian Woolf, who comes to St Helens with a sky-high reputation after guiding the Tongan team to victories over both Great Britain and Australia in New Zealand earlier this autumn.
Few people recognised Woolf’s name when Saints announced him as their new coach earlier last year, but he now looks like an inspired signing.
“It was a relatively easy choice to come here,” says Woolf.
“I saw it as a great opportunity with a great club. The history of St Helens is really attractive to me. To be able to come over here and experience not just the football side of things, but also the lifestyle, is something I was really looking forward to. It was an easy choice in that sense.”
Woolf is aware, however, that there are certain difficulties in taking over a side that has enjoyed so much success.
“You come into a side that has just won the Premiership and it adds pressure with the expectation that we are going to enjoy similar success,” he admits.
“I came over here very aware of that, but it didn’t change anything from my point of view, because I was aware that the club has a great record of success and an expectation that it will continue, so I want to be a part of that as well.”
One of the biggest games of the season will face St Helens on 22 February, when they face Sydney Roosters in the World Club Challenge, which Woolf admits he’s looking forward to.
“The World Club Challenge puts an emphasis on us to be really competitive,” he argues.
“Certainly we will be going in to win that game and we have a little more motivation to ensure that we do compete. The Roosters have been the benchmark in the NRL for the last couple of years and it’s a terrific opportunity for us to show where we sit on the world scale.”
One unusual feature of St Helens, however, as the club heads into the 2020 season is the lack of new recruits, with not a single one having been announced so far.
“One thing coming into the club that I identified really early is that there isn’t a lot of need for change, either in the staff or the playing roster, or in how things have been done in the past,” says Woolf.
“That’s shown by the success the club has enjoyed in 2019. At the same time we need to find ways to improve and be a little bit better. That’s down to the staff. I will bring differences in my own personality and style of coaching, which the players are getting used to at the moment. The challenge for the players is to find a little bit more from within themselves and how to be better. That doesn’t mean that we need new personnel and certainly I am very happy with the squad that we’ve got. If at some stage we think we need to add to the squad, then that certainly would be a possibility, but if we can find ways to improve, then we’ll be hard to beat.
“A lot of time from this club goes into developing juniors and I’ve been very impressed by what I’ve seen of some of the younger players who are training with us at the moment and some of the players from younger grades. My first impressions were very good in terms of how the players have been developed, but also how they want to develop. There is a terrific attitude here amongst the players in how they apply themselves to training.”
Although pre-season training started in early November, the Saints stars who formed part of Great Britain’s touring party were given additional time before returning to training just before Christmas.
“It’s always a really delicate one and conditions are a little different to what I’ve been used to, since we get playing really early in the year. It’s a fine balance between making sure that players get time off and are mentally refreshed, but at the same time, if there isn’t enough lead-in time, then there’s a danger that players will suffer injury from being under-prepared. Pre-season is about building a buffer, as well as developing skill and fitness so that when the season starts you are not going to get injured and the players are fit and ready to play.”
Woolf recognises that some of his players returned from the tour with a sense of disappointment, if not failure.
“Sometimes a little bit of failure can act as a great motivation for next year and can lead to success. Maybe it will help those players to re-focus for this year. I will get to gauge that a little bit more and then make some decisions.”
As part of their preparations, Woolf admits he wasn’t anxious to have many pre-season games. and he quickly canned a proposal to play a pre-season game in Valencia.
“The key is making sure that we are mentally and physically ready for the new season and you test that through trials to discover whether things will work or not or whether we’ve made improvements. So we did have a trial, but only one because we do play a lot of footy over here. Our aim is to play well at the start and rack up some wins, but you need to be playing your best footy at the end of the season.”
St Helens did have some injury concerns at the end of last season, but Woolf is happy that there aren’t too many lingering problems at the start of the new season, with Matty Lees having recovered from a perforated bowel injury. But captain James Roby (groin), Morgan Knowles (shoulder) and Tommy Makinson (shoulder) are still recovering from close-season operations.
“Matty Lees (abdominal injury) has come on really well and I’ve been really impressed with him. He’s obviously a very good player with a lot of development ahead of him. He applies himself really well to everything he is asked to do.
“Tommy Makinson is also recovering well. There is a terrific work ethic in the group. All the guys have a genuine drive to get better. They really apply themselves well and it’s the same on the field with their rehab and recovery.”
And Woolf admits that he is well aware of the traditions of St Helens in playing attractive rugby that pleases the club’s supporters.
“Players will be given free rein to express themselves,” he says.
“I am very aware of the history of the club and that the history is an attacking style of Rugby League. That is exactly what we want to continue to do. We may make some minor alterations to our attacking play but a lot of changes are not needed, particularly in the way we attack and the style of footy we play. I will be looking to improve different things, either with or without the ball. The best example I can give is get a gauge of what we have as a squad and what the players’ strengths are so that we can allow them to play to those strengths while giving them the tools to improve.”
Woolf is unsure, however, whether he will have a policy to rest players individually at various points of a long season.
“It’s not part of my planning at the moment,” he says.
“I haven’t gone into that sort of detail yet. Not playing players for every single game would be very new to me, coming from the NRL, except around the Origin period.
“There are certain things that I’ll need a little feedback on from our leading players and our other staff and at some stage we do need to discuss how we treat players. It’s a fine balance but I don’t have an answer now because I haven’t been here long enough to do so.”
2020 Squad: 1 Lachlan Coote; 2 Tommy Makinson; 3 Kevin Naiqama; 4 Mark Percival; 5 Regan Grace; 6 Jonny Lomax; 7 Theo Fages; 8 Alex Walmsley; 9 James Roby; 10 Luke Thompson; 11 Zeb Taia; 12 Dom Peyroux; 13 Louis McCarthy-Scarsbrook; 14 Morgan Knowles; 15 Matty Lees; 16 Kyle Amor; 17 Jack Ashworth; 18 Joesph Paulo; 19 Aaron Smith; 20 James Bentley; 21 Matty Costello; 22 Jack Welsby; 23 Joe Batchelor; 24 Josh Eaves; 25 Callum Hazzard; 26 Josh Simm; 27 Lewis Dodd; 28 Nico Rizzelli; 29 Matty Foster; 30 Tom Nisbet; 31 Jake Wingfield.
OUTS: Danny Richardson (Castleford Tigers), Luke Douglas (retired), Adam Swift (Hull FC), Liam Cooper (Widnes Vikings)
19 January: St Helens 36 London Broncos 6 (Louis McCarthy-Scarsbrook Testimonial)
Head Coach: Kristian Woolf
Assistant Coach: Paul Wellens
Assistant Coach: Richard Marshall
Assistant Coach: Ian Talbot
Head of Strength and Conditioning: Matt Daniels
Head Physio: Nathan Mill
First Team Physio: Ryan Flanagan
Sports Scientist: Matt Fairbank
Club Doctor: Simon Perritt
Player Welfare Manager: Neil Kilshaw
Home shirt: White Shirt with a Red Vee
Away shirt: Blue with white shoulders and a white and blue chevron