The Self-Isolation Chronicles: St Helens

1. Kristian Woolf used to be a teacher.

Current St Helens coach Woolf started his coaching career in 2002, as assistant coach of Townsville Brothers in the Townsville & District Rugby League competition. That came after just two years as a professional player with Souths Magpies in 1996 and 1997. At the same time, he was working as a teacher at Ignatius Park College, guiding their Rugby League side to the Queensland State Schoolboys Championship in 2004. That caught the attention of North Queensland Cowboys, no less, as he became their junior development manager a year later. Four years later, he would become the coach of their U-20s side, leading them to their first Grand Final in 2011, a golden point defeat to New Zealand Warriors. That promoted Anthony Griffin to bring the 44-year-old to Brisbane Broncos as assistant the following year, as well as taking on the Tonga head-coaching role in 2014, but Woolf returned to coach North Queensland’s inaugural Intrust Super Cup side, the Townsville Blackhawks, in 2015. Woolf would coach them to a Grand Final defeat to Ipswich Jets, in only their first season. His position there lasted until 2018, when he was named Nathan Brown’s assistant at Newcastle Knights. Brown then left the club in August 2019, as Woolf steadied the ship as interim coach until the end of the year, carving the way to become St Helens coach ahead of the current season.

2. One of the players’ lodgers used to pitch invaded.

St Helens were the swinging team in 1966, winning the League Championship and Challenge Cup double. They added the Lancashire League to that trophy haul, although they were unable to continue a run of 5 consecutive Lancashire Cups, in a year when England’s football side stole the sporting limelight. Saints had heroes of their own that year, Tom van Vollenhoven, Alex Murphy, Cliff Watson and Ray French, to name but a few. But one person’s performance in the Challenge Cup semi-final was simply unforgettable. During Saints’ 12-5 victory over Dewsbury, Mrs Minnie Cotton stormed the pitch in a frenzy. She was escorted off the field by police and even did the same during the Championship final against Halifax. She had rushed on to defend her lodger, Saints’ John Warlow, during fights in both games. Because a professional Rugby League player needs defending by an old woman with a handbag. Sure. Actually, maybe she’s the reason we call it handbags.

3. Their rivalry with Wigan may not have coined the term ‘derby’

There is a popular misconception in Rugby League when 12th Earl of Derby gave the name ‘derby’ to the Epsom Derby, in horse racing, and the Wigan vs St Helens Rugby League clash, it was the first time the term had ever been used in the sport. The Wigan and St Helens link came from the fact the two towns were at the opposite sides of the Earl’s family’s Knowsley estate. That might, however, be incorrect. There is an alternative theory, that an early association football game between the parishes of St Peter’s and St Michael’s, in Medieval Britain, saw the birth of the term sporting ‘derby.’ The Shrovetide version of the game, in which teams had to kick the ball to a pre-determined destination, was known to cause serious damage to the towns. The start of the game took place in the Market Place in, of all places, Derby. The damage was so bad that a French prisoner of war had reportedly said: “My god, if this is what the English call sport – what the Hell do they call war?” Because of the damage to the town, caused by the game, the mayor had tried persistently to have the game banned. He eventually succeeded in the latter half of the 19th Century, but did allow a smaller version of the game to take place. This was allegedly called the ‘local Derby,’ with the Earl of Derby’s story potentially being a borrowing of this name.

4. In 1976, they played in an unofficial World Club Challenge.

The World Club Challenge (or is it Series?) has taken numerous guises including a 1997 World Club Championship that saw such classics as Adelaide Rams vs Oldham Bears and Paris Saint-Germain vs Hunter Mariners. But did you know the competition first took place, unofficially, way back in 1976? An Arthur Beetson-skippered Eastern Suburbs Roosters inflicted a 25-2 defeat over St Helens, who had just won back-to-back Championship titles, coached by Eric Ashton. The Roosters had also won the NSWRFL Grand Finals two years on a trot, prompting a challenge for world dominance. The Australian side ultimately won the contest, but the competition didn’t stick. The next game of its kind would be played until 1987, with the World Club Challenge having a chequered existence in the 1990s, and the game marked the first and last edition hosted in Australia (cue can of worms).

5. The Latvia coach works for their Community Foundation.

Not a bustling Latvian but Director of Saints’ Community Development Foundation, Steve Leonard. Leonard was a former amateur player, playing until he was 41 and only retired through injury, and later coached Saints’ U19s. He toured Australia six times with the Academy side, while also leading the Latvia campaign in the 2017 World Cup Qualification stage, where they lost to Spain in a play-off match way back in 2015. His connections to the Eastern European minnows saw the club hand a trial to Latvian dual-code international Mikus Ozols in 2016, a member of the team who had lost to Spain. The loose-forward was player-coach of his local side, Sigulda, on the outskirts of the capital city Riga.