Even before he had officially taken charge at St Helens, Justin Holbrook had won plenty of admirers in the media.
Often when an Australian coach arrives in Super League, it can go one of two ways. They can instantly get off on the wrong foot and prove to be difficult to deal with for the duration of their stay, or they can be the complete opposite.
It took around two minutes of Holbrook’s first press conference – after their win against Hull at Magic Weekend 12 months ago – to deduce it would be the latter for the likeable Australian.
When he was asked if they wanted to sign Ben Barba, most of the press (they would admit as much themselves) were probably expecting a straight bat from Holbrook. The ‘if he was available, we’d be interested in a player of his calibre’ sort of response.
Instead, Holbrook admitted they’d spoken to Barba, and they were desperate to get a deal done. And just like that, the era of transparency, openness and ultimate happiness at St Helens began.
Now, if you gathered a random poll of 1,000 rugby league fans and asked them what St Helens’ biggest challenge was for 2019, at least 990 of them would probably mention the words ‘Ben Barba’ and ‘NRL’.
It’s true, if the Saints can keep hold of Barba beyond this season, it will be a remarkable bit of business (which sounds strange, given how he’s under contract) – but at the rate Holbrook is going at transforming a club who looked a million miles from title contenders this time last year, you do start to wonder if he is gaining some admirers back home, too.
It’s important to stress that is still some time away, and this is not a speculative comment piece trying to suggest he should go home. Far from it, in fact; Holbrook has proven himself to be one of the most refreshing coaches to arrive in Super League in years with the way he’s open and transparent. He does his job with a smile on his face – and it’s not hard to see why that demeanour Holbrook possesses has shifted to the Saints’ training ground.
St Helens’ players have publicly said on record that they don’t believe Holbrook has changed a great deal in terms of their style – which, given how they have definitely reclaimed the entertainers tag in Super League this year, may be hard to believe. But he’s simply got his players enjoying their rugby, expressing themselves on a day-to-day basis and, come the weekend, that more often than not adds up to a sparkling performance.
He is passionate about Super League. He’s passionate about England. His slip-of-the-tongue during last year’s World Cup coverage when he referred to England as ‘we’ underlined that. He’s got the bug for British rugby league – and St Helens and many neutrals have got the bug for Holbrook, too. Here’s hoping that doesn’t end for years to come.
In the end, it’s inevitable most Australian coaches return home. There are exceptions to the rule – Tony Smith arrived at Workington in 1996 in the twilight years of his career and never went back Down under. But Nathan Brown shone here and got admirers aplenty. Trent Robinson did too. Michael Maguire also fell into that bracket.
If he keeps going the way he is, Holbrook will probably be the next in the queue to be sized up by an NRL club looking for a coach who ticks all the boxes. But in all honesty, it’s a joy to have him here and a joy to hear him champion our game. Long may that continue for a good while yet.
Ben Barba going home? In all honesty, St Helens’ biggest dilemma would be losing the mastermind behind their remarkable transformation into a side capable of winning the lot this year.