Super League: 3rd (P27 W20 L7 F613 A366 PD+247 Pts40); Play-offs: Semi-finals; Challenge Cup: Semi-finals; World Club Challenge: Winners
Super League champions four seasons running, St Helens started the season as top dogs and hell-bent on world domination, followed by quashing their domestic rivals once more. Their squad was full of proven class – the only uncertainty was how rookie head coach Paul Wellens would fare.
Saints claimed the world crown, but were dethroned at home as rivals Wigan became number one.
Because it occurred at the very beginning of the season, the scale of their achievement in winning the World Club Challenge has perhaps not been fully appreciated.
Toppling not just the NRL champions, but back-to-back winners (who went on to claim a third successive crown in 2023) Penrith Panthers, and in doing so becoming only the second English team to win the title in Australia, is one of the great feats in British Rugby League history.
Lewis Dodd’s field-goal alone made this a season to remember for Saints, but it was quickly back to domestic duties.
On that front it was a story of near misses, losing at the semi-final stage in both the Challenge Cup (to Leigh) and Super League (to Catalans).
But beneath the surface, it was a strong season and one which showed Wellens to be a fine head coach in his own right.
They only missed out on the League Leaders’ Shield on points difference – considering their poor form in the aftermath of the World Club Challenge, it’s tempting to say they’d have topped the league if not for their participation in that competition.
Saints were on a ten-match winning run going to Perpignan, firing on all cylinders and back to their very best, and were minutes away from the Grand Final when Sam Tomkins popped up to deny their own retiring great, James Roby.
It wasn’t the fairytale ending for one of the club’s all-time legends, but he still bowed out a world champion as part of this special team.
Jack Welsby had another hugely memorable season, from starring on Saints’ Australia trip to playing the leading role in their stunning late-season form.
The fullback’s 30 try-assists, 130 tackle busts and 44 offloads earned him another Dream Team appearance and Man of Steel nomination – he is unquestionably one of the country’s best players, while still aged only 22.
Another homegrown player now making a name for himself is Matty Lees, three years older but just as important to the Saints pack as Welsby is at the back.
Lees made 790 tackles in Super League and finished the season as a first-choice starting England prop for the first time, looking comfortable at that level too.
The other standout in their forward ranks was James Bell, a player who often filled in for the stars but became a star in his own right.
Bell played every game bar two in 2023, the majority as a starter at either loose-forward or in the back row, and made an equally hard-hitting impact in both positions.
“When we’re done, when we’re retired, we can say we did something special tonight… There’s one thing about elite sport – you only get so many opportunities to succeed and do amazing things and we weren’t going to let that opportunity slip.” Alex Walmsley reflecting on St Helens’ World Club Challenge triumph.
“He’s hurling himself at players’ knees. It’s a tackle technique he’s been using for some time. This has been an accident waiting to happen and this is why, in my opinion, the RFL are culpable and the match review panel are culpable… Ultimately we have a duty of care to protect players at all times but, in my opinion, this weekend the governing body has failed in its duty to protect players.” Paul Wellens launched a furious attack on John Asiata’s tackle technique after the Leigh player’s tackles caused serious injury to Alex Walmsley and Agnatius Paasi in their Challenge Cup semi-final.
“It’s heartbreaking. It’s a horrible way to leave the game, but I’m so proud of everything we’ve done. I’m forever grateful for everyone who has played a part in my journey, however big or small, but now it’s on to pastures new.” James Roby after defeat in his final game before retirement, the Super League semi-final at Catalans.
551 St Helens appearances for James Roby after he brought the curtain down on an extraordinary 20-year career.
2 English winners of the World Club Challenge in Australia – Wigan in 1994, beating Brisbane Broncos, and St Helens in 2023.
28 points scored by Tommy Makinson in Saints’ Magic Weekend win over Huddersfield, a record for any player at the event.
What else? It’s not every day you become champions of the world.
Saints accomplished one of the toughest tasks in Rugby League by beating the NRL champions on their own patch – despite letting a 12-0 lead, established by Jack Welsby and Konrad Hurrell tries, slip from their grasp.
A Brian To’o score at the death took it to golden-point but Lewis Dodd, in his first competitive game since recovering from a ruptured Achilles and just turned 21, won it with a field-goal.
Hull wasn’t a happy hunting ground in 2023 – St Helens gave arguably their two worst displays of the season on their two Super League trips to the city.
They were blown off a windswept Craven Park by Jordan Abdull’s boot in April, part of a concerning early-season slump, but performed even worse two months later at the MKM Stadium.
Hull FC were 22-0 up at half-time, and went on to win 34-6, just five days after Saints won the same fixture in the Challenge Cup, as James Roby’s relegation to the bench backfired spectacularly.
PICTURE OF THE SEASON
James Roby on the shoulders of Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook and Tommy Makinson after becoming Saints’ all-time record appearance maker with his 532nd game, against Salford (above).