St Helens give Kristian Woolf the send-off he deserves by reaching Grand Final

League Express editor MARTYN SADLER reacts to St Helens’ success in reaching their fourth successive Betfred Super League Grand Final.

Our League Express Image of the Week is the post-game guard of honour given to Kristian Woolf by the St Helens team and the club officials, following the full-time hooter after Saturday’s clash between the Saints and Salford Red Devils.

It was a great sight after a wonderful match that brought and end to Salford’s season in front of about 3,500 of their travelling supporters, who also gave their coach, and their team, a great reception at the end of the game. They had given St Helens a much tighter game than many people would have imagined after Andy Ackers was taken from the field in only the second minute, never to return after failing a head-injury assessment in the Red Devils’ dressing room.

Things looked ominous as the Saints came out like a raging torrent in the opening minutes of the game, going 12-0 up early on through two tries from Joe Batchelor, who has been such a great success story at the Totally Wicked Stadium since joining St Helens from York and making his debut in 2019.

Both those tries were created by St Helens halfback Jonny Lomax, as was their decisive third try scored by Jon Bennison, while Lomax also kicked the field-goal just before half-time that also had a massive bearing on the game, preventing Salford from ever getting on level terms.

If Lomax isn’t the best player in Super League, it’s difficult to know who is. I’m amazed that he isn’t one of the three-man shortlist for this week’s award of the Steve Prescott Man of Steel award.

One of the contenders for that particular label in 2022 has been Salford’s Brodie Croft. It must have been desperately frustrating for everyone involved with the Red Devils to see Croft on the sidelines serving out the eleven-day concussion protocol while his team-mates did battle on the field.

But it got much worse for them when Ackers had to leave the field.

One of the reasons Salford have done so well this season, particularly in the latter half of it, is because their coach Paul Rowley has been able to select a consistent spine of Ryan Brierley, Brodie Croft, Marc Sneyd and Andy Ackers.

Suddenly two of those players were no longer there and it was easy to imagine St Helens running away with the game.

But Salford demonstrated that they are much more than a team of only four players.

After Morgan Knowles was sinbinned for a chicken-wing tackle on Croft’s replacement Chris Atkin, Kallum Watkins ran in Salford’s first try from a pass by Atkin and suddenly the game was alive.

Watkins must surely have played himself into Shaun Wane’s England squad for the World Cup.

Knowles will surely be in the squad alongside him, but he has now been suspended for two matches for that foolish action on Atkin. Kristian Woolf downplayed the seriousness of the incident after the game, but the Match Review Panel decided that it was worthy of a two-match suspension and it is very difficult to argue with that verdict, despite St Helens suggesting they will appeal against it.

Knowles’ action was clearly deliberate and potentially dangerous, so I’m not sure whether I would share Woolf’s view of it. If I were the Saints player I would certainly have been feeling a little anxious about playing in the Grand Final when I went to bed on Sunday night and his worst fears were realised by the Match Review Panel decision on Monday. I can’t see that Saints can bring any more evidence to an appeal, which will be heard this evening (Tuesday) and they will surely want to avoid being punished further for being adjudged to have made a frivolous appeal.

As for Atkin, he came in for some tough treatment all afternoon.

The tackle on him a few minutes later by Jack Welsby certainly looked like a bellringer and, on the face of it, the tackle looked a fair one. But it happened very quickly and it was notable that blood was dripping from Atkin’s mouth after he got up from it (which he did very quickly, with absolutely no gamesmanship in trying to win a penalty). Fortunately for St Helens, Jack Welsby has escaped suspension for that tackle.

Atkin also received treatment in the second half after a Sione Mata’utia tackle, when he had to leave the field for two minutes after being shown a green card by referee Chris Kendall.

Of course the most controversial incident came on 74 minutes when Sneyd grubbered into the Saints in-goal, Tim Lafai got ahead of Tommy Makinson in pursuit of the ball, but Makinson pulled him back and stopped him from getting to the ball, which rolled dead.

The referee awarded Salford a penalty, but not a penalty try, without even consulting the video-referee.

I was very surprised about that and, quite frankly, we need to move away from giving the referee discretion in this instance.

If a player is pulled back chasing a ball in the in-goal, in my view it should be an automatic penalty try, even if there is an argument that, in this case, Lafai wouldn’t have reached the ball in time.

If that had been the rule, what an interesting final five minutes it would have been.

But congratulations to St Helens, and Kristian Woolf, for an amazing achievement in reaching their fourth successive Grand Final.

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