Early April saw St Helens part with club legend Keiron Cunningham after a disappointing start to the season saw them in 7th place having lost half of their games. A 14-14 draw against Huddersfield Giants was the final straw for the owners and a man who has said himself that it was always going to be a hard job after being a legend of the club was handed his P45 and, after 24 years at the club, he was shown the door.
Still harbouring hopes of making an impact at the business end of the season, Eamonn McManus set his sights on bringing in an exciting coach with new ways of thinking and that saw, in early May, little known Justin Holbrook take over at the helm of the terribly named Totally Wicked Stadium. After having to wait for his visa to come through to arrive in Lancashire, his first game with St Helens couldn’t have gone any better – a 45-0 win against Hull FC at Magic Weekend following only one training session with his new charges. Better was yet to come for their loyal fans after Holbrook followed up a debut win with a 22-19 victory against bitter rivals and reigning Super League champions Wigan. An exceptional start for a man in a new league in what was something of a baptism of fire – Hull FC’s charges aren’t reknowned for being backwards in coming forwards and their physicality will have been a test for Saints as were the Warriors from Wigan in a huge derby clash. Holbrook showed that he and his team could do it and, for the rest of the season, his team showed that they had some serious class along with superb defensive structures.
Finishing the 2017 campaign with the best defence in Super League, St Helens were also the first team to beat Castleford at home in the opening fixture of the Super 8s and, despite giving the best performance of any Super League semi finalists, fell agonisingly short at Wheldon Road when the Grand Final beckoned. However, remembering that Saints’ last game before Holbrook took over was a 53-10 loss to the Tigers in the Challenge Cup, you can’t doubt that the Australian has had a huge impact – and he was also going to bring in a huge signing.
Banned NRL star Ben Barba signed on for the Saints after leaving rugby union’s Toulon following his departure from Cronulla following his being issued with a drugs ban and eyebrows immediately went north. A player in his prime who had a standout season for the Sharks in 2016 was not the sort of player who Super League clubs usually attracted and, were it not for his failed drugs test, he would definitely still be playing in Australia such is his talent. However, in late May he signed a two and a half year deal with St Helens and, while he had to wait until the start of September for his debut as it was ruled he must serve his ban issued by the NRL in England, towards the end of the Super 8s campaign he was starting to be a huge influence for St Helens. His ability coupled with a full pre season with his teammates will have a massive impact on his team next season and, while Jonny Lomax is likely to have to find form in a new position, the Saints may well have an early Man of Steel contender in their midst if he plays to his potential.
In addition to this, some young St Helens stars really started coming to the fore in 2017, none moreso than Regan Grace. The 20 year old winger burst onto the scene when he made a try scoring debut in the Good Friday defeat at Wigan and, since then, proved to be one of the more elusive wingers in Super League, his searing pace seeing him score at just under a try every other game which is a perfectly respectable record for such a young player in his first season at the top level. The experience he has gained this season will be huge for him, as it will be for young forward Morgan Knowles. Grace’s compatriot in the Wales squad for the upcoming World Cup, Knowles would surely have been in a Young XIII if the Super League announced such a thing. As the season went on, he was fast becoming a key player in a Saints team full of promise with his hard running helping his team around the field. Indeed, his try in the semi final defeat at Wheldon Road showed just that – his hard running and, after receiving James Roby’s pass, I’m not sure anybody would have stopped him scoring that try.
Saints have one of the most ferocious packs in Super League and had the top metre maker in their midst in the shape of Alex Walmsley. A player who is set to win his first full international cap for England in the World Cup, a battering ram of a forward is exactly what every team needs and the former Batley player is just that. At the age of 27, Walmsley is entering the years a prop forward would feel is his prime and, should the Dewsbury born number 8 build on his 2017 form in 2018, another Team of the Year performance is there for the taking. Alongside him, Kyle Amor plays a brutal game of rugby league which, on occasion has seen him disciplined by officials but he is another forward who makes a real difference for his team. Along with pantomime villain Louis McCarthy Scarsbrook, he is in his early 30s so a bit older than Walmsley but all three of them are definitely at the top of their game and have been shown to lay a platform for their backs to take the game to their opposition on a pretty consistent bases. There’s also the small matter of James Roby, recently recalled to the England squad, who’s performance never seems to drop. Getting towards the end of his career, he isn’t the same running threat he used to be but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t capable of making a line break – he did so for Saints against Leeds in the last game in front of the South Stand as well as in the semi final against Castleford which led to the try for Ryan Morgan. It could be seen that the fact he isn’t as nippy as he used to be now sees him using it more effectively. One thing that has got better as his career has lengthened is his tactical nous and ability to guide his team around the pitch with both his organisation and unerringly accurate passing – a huge bonus for St Helens’ chances of success next season.
With a full pre season to work in the way Holbrook wants them to and to learn systems, only a fool would back against St Helens having a very successful season next year and the Challenge Cup and League Leaders’ Shield should definitely be very real opportunities for the team with the red vee in 2018 – maybe even the Grand Final.