Kristian Woolf saluted the leadership of his St Helens squad, old and young, as they engineered a second-half fightback to secure a first Challenge Cup title for over a decade in a Wembley Stadium sweat-box against Castleford Tigers to become thirteen-time winners of the famous trophy.
Scores from James Roby and Kyle Amor after the break helped ensure a red-and-white ticker-tape explosion come the presentation ceremony, handing the Tongan national coach his second major triumph in as many seasons at the Totally Wicked Stadium.
Having inherited a title-winning squad from his predecessor Justin Holbrook, Woolf has firmly put his own stamp on Saints to ensure a continued transition towards further success – but the 46-year-old was quick to hail the impact of both his veteran hands and future superstars in turning the disappointments of a nervy first half around.
Particular praise was reserved for Roby, the sole survivor of Saints’ last success beneath the Wembley arch, as a fresh-faced interchange emerging from the shadow of Keiron Cunningham in 2008 and who proved as dependably reliable as always when the moment called for it.
“We needed a lot of leadership today,” Woolf admitted.
“That’s when your kind of guys like James Roby step up to the plate. You don’t achieve what this group has done and you don’t fight your way to wins like that without having really strong leadership and James is part of that. He’s exceptional, he leads from the front. If you want someone to follow, it’s him.”
Asked just how long he can keep the hooker at the centre of his plans, as he fast approaches his thirty-sixth birthday, Woolf stressed that the call will firmly rest with Roby – but that the time in question may be further off than thought for the veteran number nine.
“I think he’s shown this year that he can still step up to the plate, that he’s one of the best in the competition,” he added.
“At the end of the day, that comes back to James and how much he wants to keep going through it. If he starts to really struggle at some stage, then that’s a talk we can have, but from what I see, that conversation is a long way away.”
Woolf also reserved praise for fellow old stagers such as Jonny Lomax, another who has helped Saints grow through the frustrations of a run of Super League near-misses a decade ago into silverware regulars, but also gave due to Morgan Knowles and Jack Welsby, two youngsters who further underlined their World Cup credentials on a blisteringly hot Saturday afternoon.
“Jonny is right behind James, and another guy is Morgan,” he added.
“He starts at thirteen, and then played everywhere because we had blokes going down. He needed to fill spots and he does it exceptionally. Jack was outstanding too, as he always is. He’s got the composure, he’s got the skill; he’s as good as any kid I’ve ever dealt with. The club should be proud to have him.”
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