Having won Super League two years running, St Helens were unquestionably top dogs heading into the 2021 season, as reflected in our assessment of their potential.
“(Last season) St Helens won the Super League Grand Final in the most thrilling way possible, with a last-second try by Jack Welsby,” we wrote, “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.”
Well, two out of three ain’t bad. Saints missed out on a clean sweep by coming in second place behind Catalans Dragons where the league battle was concerned, but they claimed the two major honours to justify their place among the greatest sides of the modern era.
First, they stormed to a first Challenge Cup triumph in 13 years, defeating Castleford Tigers in the Wembley final, before securing a ‘three-peat’ by edging out Catalans at Old Trafford in the Super League Grand Final.
Five things we learned from Saints’ season
1 This is one of the best teams in the history of Super League, without question. Saints became just the second team to win the title three seasons running in summer rugby, following the Leeds side of 2007-09 (beating Saints in all three Grand Finals, of course), even if – like that Leeds team – they only topped the table in one of the three. Only Wigan’s dominance of the 1990s has produced a longer title streak in the history of the game, putting this recent spell among the very best ever seen.
2 St Helens were far from the flashiest team this season, finishing as only the fourth-highest points scorers in the table and the fifth-highest try scorers, but it’s often said defence wins titles and Saints showed precisely why. Over the regular season they conceded just 229 points in their 21 matches – for context, the next best defence saw 354 points against – and they took that form into the play-offs by limiting Leeds Rhinos to eight points and then Catalans to one try. Their ability to hold their try line at all costs and repel attacks is exceptional, while they also made the fewest errors over the season, another big contributor to those impressive figures.
3 Saints value homegrown products highly and the faith shown in them this season indicates why so many go on to have great careers in the Red Vee. Despite having an all-conquering side, they are willing to put young players in and, more often than not, they prove good enough for the step up. Jack Welsby had a tremendous season, despite playing all over the back line, and St Helens trust him to take over from Lachlan Coote. Likewise, Lewis Dodd, who has been judged ready to take over from Theo Fages at halfback.
4 Another player who was thrown in early a few years back was Morgan Knowles, and what a player he is now. Since making his debut in 2016 he has simply never looked back, making 135 appearances and seemingly getting even better with each passing year. For the third season running Knowles was picked in the Super League Dream Team at loose forward and, having made his England bow this year, he will surely be a key player at next year’s World Cup and for a long time to come.
5 Going even further back, a certain James Roby hasn’t done too badly over the years. The hooker has just turned 36 yet still puts in the kind of incredible shifts that would be a marvel for a player at his peak. Roby showed no signs of slowing down as he played the full 80 minutes to win his fifth Grand Final and, having announced his retirement from international Rugby League, he can now devote himself to further superhuman feats for the Saints.
Saints finished in second place in the table, recording 16 wins and five defeats in their 21 matches with a 76.19% winning record. They scored 548 points and conceded 229, for an average scoreline of 26-11.
It might not have been their biggest or most significant win of the season, but few could have been more pleasing for Saints fans than the derby victory over Wigan Warriors on Friday 20th August. They had already enjoyed one comfortable success against their dearest friends at home yet managed to go even better in outclassing them at the DW Stadium for a 26-2 win. Regan Grace, Lewis Dodd, Mark Percival and Alex Walmsley scored the St Helens tries as the Warriors were embarrassed in their own backyard.
Saints only lost five times in all competitions over the whole season, with two of those coming against league leaders Catalans and another coming with a weakened side against Salford Red Devils. Their 6-2 loss to Warrington Wolves carried little shame either, which leaves the 20-10 home reverse to Castleford Tigers on Thursday 12th August. Jack Welsby and Alex Walmsley had kept them in touch, but Greg Eden’s double, including a late intercept, saw Saints lose to Castleford at home in the league for the first time since 1990.
Alex Walmsley was a force of nature once again for Saints this season, cementing his spot as the most fearsome forward in Super League. The former Batley Bulldogs man made the most metres of any frontrower in the division and produced an instantly iconic display against Leeds in September.
Best young player
Despite not having a regular spot nailed down in Kristian Woolf’s line-up, Jack Welsby still managed to be one of St Helens’ most influential players. Only three players in Super League had more try involvements than Welsby, who recorded 13 tries and 13 assists on his way to being the division’s Young Player of the Year. He was also named in the Dream Team at centre, though is likely to be first-choice fullback next term when he will wear the iconic number one squad number in place of Lachlan Coote.
Best overseas player
Three seasons, three Grand Final rings. All told, it’s not been a bad spell at St Helens for Lachlan Coote, who has been a star of this side from the moment he joined in 2019. His final season at the Totally Wicked Stadium saw another seven tries and 16 assists, plus consistent goal-kicking, which he takes with him to a fresh challenge at Hull KR.
Try of the year
St Helens had to come from behind to win at Warrington in August, with the key try coming from Mark Percival. Joe Batchelor stole the ball from Jake Mamo and handed off to the centre to break away from deep inside his own half, but there looked to be no path with defenders closing in from every direction. However, Percival managed to find another gear and slip away from Stefan Ratchford, then angle back outside to complete a stunning solo effort.
Quote of the year
“It is something we thought about the more and more it was spoken about. I am very aware of the enormity of it. It is so hard to do and a special group has deserved everything they get.
“They deserve to be remembered with the best Saints teams and I could not be prouder in being involved in it.”
Head coach Kristian Woolf putting into context the achievement of winning three Super League titles in a row after beating Catalans at Old Trafford.
Image of the year
Sione Mata’utia was suspended for the Challenge Cup final, missing out on the chance to play against his brother Peter at Wembley. After St Helens’ victory, he was quick to console his beaten sibling at the final whistle, providing the most moving image of the day.
Like the past two seasons before it, this year will be defined by Grand Final victory. This time it was back at Old Trafford and didn’t have quite the final-second drama of 2020, but the victory over Catalans was still incredibly tense, tight and gripping right up to the ‘three-peat’-sealing final hooter.
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