St Helens: Early Frontrunners are the Team to Beat
‘We’re going to win the treble this year’, was the response I got off a very confident St Helens fan I spoke to in pre-season when I asked what he thought of his club’s chances this year. My response was to laugh, after all St Helens haven’t won a major trophy since their Challenge Cup success in 2008, and in recent seasons have been a team who have underperformed in recent seasons. However, after 6 wins from their opening 6 games, perhaps this could be the year of the Saints.
Despite trailing 16-4 at one point, St Helens fought their way back into the game against Wakefield on Sunday, to secure a 24-16 win and maintain their 100% start to the season. What will have impressed coach Nathan Brown the most was the way in which his team fought back and dominated when going behind, whilst missing a lot of key players and having to play some of his stars out of their usual position.
With the absence of new signing Luke Walsh, as well as Lance Hohaia also missing at stand-off, Paul Wellens and Jon Wilkin put in an incredible performance and a surprisingly effective kicking game in the halves to oversee the Wildcats. It is this strength in depth and ability to utilise the squad to cover for absentees which is a key attribute to winning the league, and is a big advantage to have once the back end of the season comes around, with fatigue and more injuries inevitably setting in.
Luke Walsh will be one player in particular Saints hope can make a speedy recovery from his calf injury, as his early season form has demonstrated just how instrumental he could be to a successful St Helens side. Whilst some oversees players often take some time to adjust to Super League, Walsh has made an immediate impact, adding pace and creativity to St Helens’ play, and pulling the strings in the middle of their line. His kicking success rate is also beneficial to the team, having already slotted over 28 goals. His signing has brought a lot of excitement amongst the Saints supporters, and having him fit and in form will no doubt be pivotal to any success this year.
Other new signings, Kyle Amor and Mose Masoe, have also added a lot of strength and muscle to the St Helens forward pack. Along with Louis McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Sia Soliola and Willie Manu, St Helens boast the biggest and most threatening forward pack in the competition, vital to making ground up the field with the ball but also to tire and wear down the opposition. This was highlighted in the wins over Warrington and Salford, as the Saints forwards completely overpowered those teams allowing the backs good field position allowing more scoring opportunities, as well as keeping the opposition’s attacking flair to a minimum. This was one area which Nathan Brown looks to have sought to improve on in pre-season, and the early season form suggests it’s working out very effectively for the team.
The impact that young players coming into the team are having also shouldn’t be undermined. A lot of new introductions so far are showing great promise, but what’s more satisfying for the Saints fans is to see players such as Tommy Makinson, Adam Swift and most notably Jonny Lomax all fulfilling the potential they showed when they first came onto the scene. Whilst Saints as a club have always been renowned for having an impressive youth system, players such as Jamie Foster and Lee Gaskell have come through and initially excited fans and coaches but didn’t go on to make the grade in the first team. Lomax has impressed from his introduction to the side in 2009, and has now cemented his place at full back replacing Paul Wellens, just as James Roby had the ability to calm fears of Kieron Cunningham’s retirement in 2010, by having shown he could make the cut and be a big asset to a successful St Helens side. Keeping this cycle of blooding youngsters into the first team is key, particularly when needing strength in depth and having a squad big enough and talented enough to compete for honours.
St Helens face their toughest game thus far on Friday night when they meet fellow unbeaten side Leeds Rhinos at Langtree Park. Having just dropped 1 point themselves this campaign, the in form Rhinos are also one of the early frontrunners for Super League success this year. With Kyle Amor and Jon Wilkin suspended, this has to be Saints’ biggest test so far. But overcome the test, and no-one could write them off as potential champions.