League Express previews St Helens’ 2021 season as we ask whether their run of tremendous success can continue.
St Helens have lost a considerable degree of forward strength in the close season, with the retirement of the vastly experienced James Graham and Zeb Taia, who have played 206 and 174 Super League games respectively during their careers (including 75 that Taia played with the Catalans Dragons from 2013 to 2015).
They have also lost more forward power in the experienced Dominique Peyroux and Joseph Paulo, who will both head to Toulouse Olympique after playing 113 and 31 games respectively for St Helens, although by the end of the 2020 season Paulo wasn’t forcing his way into the matchday squad.
They have also lost 25-year-old loose forward Jack Ashworth (43 Super League appearances) to Huddersfield Giants and 22-year old centre Matty Costello (44 Super League appearances) to Salford Red Devils, as well as 22-year-old forward Callum Hazzard, with only one Super League appearance, to North Wales Crusaders.
The new signings
St Helens have made four significant signings in the close-season to replace the talent they have lost, including three NRL players, with Manly forward Joel Thompson perhaps the headline signing.
Second rower Thompson, 32, comes to St Helens with 234 NRL appearances under his belt since making his debut for Canberra in 2008, before joining St George Illawarra in 2014 and Manly in 2018. Thompson has also been a regular for the Indigenous All Stars since 2010 and also made two appearances for NSW Country.
Prop forward Agnatius Paasi, 29, joins St Helens from New Zealand Warriors with 107 NRL games under his belt for the Warriors and the Gold Coast Titans. Paasi is a Tongan who played for his country in 2014 and is noted for his rugged style.
Centre or second rower Sione Mata’utia, 24, has played 124 NRL games since 2014, all of them for Newcastle Knights. He played three matches on the wing for Australia in the 2014 Four Nations tournament at the age of 18, but was never selected again, and he played in the second row for Samoa against England in the mid-season Test in 2017. He will be anxious to impress the Samoan selectors for this season’s World Cup.
St Helens’ only signing from an English club is Dan Norman, 23, from London Broncos. Norman made one Super League appearance off the bench for Widnes in 2018, playing 19 times for them after their relegation in 2019 and playing five times for the Broncos in 2020 before the season closed down.
One of St Helens’ greatest strengths in recent seasons has been the consistency of their spine. Fullback Lachlan Coote, halfbacks Jonny Lomax and Theo Fages and hooker James Roby made 64 Super League appearances between them in 2020, with Roby in particular reported to be as effective as ever in pre-season training.
All four are itching to go again in 2021, but they will be challenged increasingly by Jack Welsby and teenager Lewis Dodd, with the latter possibly being a distinct threat to scrum-half Theo Fages, while Aaron Smith, at the age of 24, will again understudy Roby and is likely to be a constant presence on the bench again as the season unfolds, while Josh Eaves will also be hoping for an opportunity in the hooking role.
There have been some changes in the St Helens squad numbers 8 to 13, reflecting a changing of the guard at the club, with the only players retaining their pack squad numbers being Alex Walmsley and James Roby, with shirt numbers 8 and 9 respectively.
The big success in the pack for St Helens in 2020 was James Bentley, who played 16 Super League games and has now inherited Dominique Peyroux’s number 12 shirt, while Joel Thompson steps into Joseph Paulo’s number 11 shirt and Matty Lees has taken the number 10 shirt of Luke Thompson, who left for Canterbury Bulldogs during last year’s lockdown. And the fourth player to enter the top 13 is Morgan Knowles, who has taken Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook’s number 13 shirt, with LMS, at the age of 35, being given number 15 shirt for the new season.
According to the squad numbers, the Saints bench is likely to include a combination of Mata’utia, LMS, Kyle Amor, Paasi, Smith and perhaps Joe Batchelor, who played four games last year after signing from York City Knights, but is likely to try to emulate Bentley’s 2020 success in 2021.
Unlike the forward pack, there has been no movement in St Helens’ threequarter squad numbers, with the same four players retaining their numbers for 2021.
Mark Percival retains the number 4 shirt despite having played only four Super League games in 2020 after suffering a hamstring injury, but retaining the number 4 shirt is a vote of confidence from coach Kristian Woolf. But Percival will be hoping that surgery will have cured his injury problems for good.
Jack Welsby played left centre in the Grand Final and will be challenging all over the backline again in 2021, while Josh Simm was outstanding at centre in his six Super League matches, scoring a hat-trick of tries in the 40-8 victory over Leeds Rhinos on 23 October and he will be ready to further his claim for a regular selection in 2021.
Kristian Woolf has named ten younger players in squad numbers 21 to 30, with the youngest of them, Lewis Dodd, who turned 19 in January, earning pride of place with shirt number 21.
Woolf gave debuts to several of his youngsters in a narrow 12-10 defeat to Salford Red Devils on 26 October. And with a result like that against a team that had narrowly failed to win the Challenge Cup nine days earlier, no one would bet against all those players getting some Super League game time in 2021, with Josh Simm in particular ready to step into the threequarters again at the slightest opportunity.
The only player in Saints’ 30-man squad who has yet to make his Super League debut is Sam Royle, who will wear shirt number 30. Sam is a second rower who captained the St Helens Academy side to a Grand Final in 2019, while he made four appearances in the curtailed reserves season in 2020. Big things are expected of him at the Totally Wicked Stadium.
The real question facing St Helens is how they will give match experience to some of their younger stars. There could be some rich pickings for other clubs, either in Super League or the Championship, who can persuade St Helens to loan out some of these youngsters.
The coaching team
Head Coach: Kristian Woolf
Assistant Coach: Paul Wellens
Assistant Coach: Ian Talbot
Head of Strength and Conditioning: Matt Daniels
Head Physio: Nathan Mill
First Team Physio: Charlie Wilton
Sports Scientist: Matt Fairbank
Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach: Adam Daniels
Club Doctor: Simon Perritt
Matchday Club Doctor: Paul Stockton
Welfare & Education Manager: Neil Kilshaw
Chairman: Eamonn McManus
Chief Executive: Mike Rush
Finance Director: Colin Whitehead
Marketing Manager: Mark Onion
Sales Manager: Gary Wilton
General Manager: Dave Hutchinson
Media and Content Manager: Jamie Allen
A realistic aim for 2021
St Helens won the Super League Grand Final in the most thrilling way possible, with a last-second try by Jack Welsby, but they finished behind Wigan in the battle for the League Leaders’ Shield and they were knocked out of the Challenge Cup by Warrington.
Most St Helens fans will think it perfectly realistic for their club to win all three trophies in 2021.
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 Matty Lees, 11 Joel Thompson, 12 James Bentley, 13 Morgan Knowles, 14 Sione Mata’utia, 15 Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, 16 Kyle Amor, 17 Agnatius Paasi, 18 Jack Welsby, 19 Aaron Smith, 20 Joe Batchelor, 21 Lewis Dodd, 22 Josh Simm, 23 Jake Wingfield, 24 Josh Eaves, 25 Dan Norman, 26 Tom Nisbet, 27 Matty Foster, 28 Nico Rizzelli, 29 Ben Davies, 30 Sam Royle.
Joel Thompson (Manly Sea Eagles), Sione Mata’utia (Newcastle Knights), Agnatius Paasi (New Zealand Warriors), Dan Norman (London Broncos)
Zeb Taia (retired), James Graham (retired), Callum Hazzard (North Wales Crusaders), Joseph Paulo (Toulouse Olympique), Dominique Peyroux (Toulouse Olympique), Jack Ashworth (Huddersfield Giants), Matty Costello (Salford Red Devils)
Home Shirt: White with the iconic Red Vee
Away Shirt: A contemporary deep navy blue and red colour scheme. The shirt features a red gradient pattern that stretches across the chest and covers the left sleeve, blending into the navy body
Betfred odds to win the Grand Final: 5/2
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