When Keiron Cunningham was sacked in April 2017, St Helens were a team in crisis. Having lost half of their Super League matches at the time of his sacking, Saints sat a lowly seventh in the competition’s table.
However, when Australian Justin Holbrook was appointed early in the next month, St Helens turned their form around. Over the course of the next few months, the former Sydney Roosters assistant guided the Red Vee to a lofty fourth in the Super League table and only a golden point Luke Gale drop goal stopped them reaching a remarkable Grand Final, something that was unfathomable when Holbrook took the helm.
Despite their defeat, St Helens were almost instantly installed as the favourites to win the League Leaders’ Shield as well as the Super League title in 2018 – all of this with 42 year old Holbrook having pretty much the same players as Cunningham at his disposal.
Barring the mercurial Australian Ben Barba, the starting seventeen for St Helens is exclusively made up of players at Cunningham’s disposal. Players such as Dominique Peyroux, who was viewed as not good enough, and Louis McCarthy-Scarsbrook, often accused by the Saints faithful of not caring, are now two of Holbrook’s leading men. Peyroux offers a serious threat on the right edge, offering line breaks in each game whilst also possessing serious strike threat on his own while McCarthy-Scarsbrook’s celebrations when his team draw an error from their opponents show you all you need to know about his attitude. What Holbrook seems to have done is mould a group of good rugby league players into a frankly remarkable team.
James Roby is arguably playing some of the best rugby of his career and it shouldn’t be ignored that his return to the England fold came after playing the second half of 2017 under Holbrook’s tutelage. The likes of Luke Thompson and Danny Richardson have come through during the Australian’s tenure and, while the former perhaps wouldn’t have had a starting role had Alex Walmsley not being injured, the latter is certainly proving to be one of the most exciting talents in Super League.
Widely regarded as being Super League’s great entertainers of 2018, Holbrook has moulded St Helens into a title-winning-team-in-waiting with his backline proving especially exciting. While Barba draws the headlines, the progress made by Regan Grace and Tommy Makinson has been remarkable while Mark Percival – a man who could consider himself unlucky to have not been involved more in last winter’s World Cup – has quite possibly played his way into the England setup for next month’s test against New Zealand in Denver.
Over the last year, since Holbrook stepped into the Langtree Park vacancy, the progress made by St Helens has been truly remarkable. From a team that was struggling under the stewardship of club legend Cunningham to shoe-ins for the League Leaders’ shield and, in all probability, to Grand Final victory, Holbrook’s turnaround of the Red Vee is remarkable. While people suggest that Barba is NRL-bound in the not too distant future, if the Australian helmsman’s success continues he is also sure to return to his homeland for a crack at the NRL.