After falling at the final hurdle three years on the run, there is a sense of optimism around St. Helens ahead of the new Super League campaign. It felt like it was third time lucky after narrow semi-final defeats to Warrington and Leeds over the last two years, but they were cruelly denied by a late Luke Gale drop goal after the Castleford scrum half kicked a penalty goal to send it to golden point. Castleford led 20-10 with just ten minutes remaining but the old phrase ‘never write off the Saints’ haunted the Tigers after three quick fire tries made it 22-20 with just two minutes remaining. Castleford then regained the ball from the kick off and Gale kicked the penalty goal, after Ryan Morgan gave away a needless penalty for obstructing. The Cas number seven then kicked the drop goal to send his side to the grand final, after Matty Smith fluffed his lines with a scuffed drop goal attempt.
It was a game of ifs and buts for Justin Holbrook’s side. Such as, what if Mark Percival would’ve converted one of the sides four unconverted tries? What if Ryan Morgan didn’t obstruct Michael Shenton? What if Matty Smith kicked his drop goal? It could’ve turned out very different.
Saints fans have become increasingly frustrated over the past few seasons, having not made a grand final since 2014, when they beat Wigan 14-6.
But despite this there is a sense of confidence around the Totally Wicked Stadium ahead of the new season. Five months previous to their most recent semi-final defeat, Saints were eliminated from the Challenge Cup, coincidentally at the same place that they lost their semi final. There was a clear sign of improvement since they were downed 53-10 in May but with new coach Justin Holbrook at the helm they came within a point of reaching Old Trafford.
Saints’ non-international players and staff returned to pre-season in November, including Australian sensation Ben Barba, who rectified his shaky start to life in England with some dazzling displays to finish the year, to show him and his team mean business for the following year. Despite only making one signing ahead of the new year, Bradford youngster James Bentley, Holbrook has a settled squad to choose from that is mixed with youth and experience. James Roby had one of his best years in 2017, culminating in playing in the World Cup final, while youngsters Regan Grace and Danny Richardson are expected to light up the new campaign. Saints are littered with quality and strength in depth with players such as former England scrum-half Matty Smith and Ireland international Kyle Amor not making the gameday seventeen.
The race to be the half-backs for the season opener against Castleford is firmly on, this is an area Saints have particular depth. Jonny Lomax, despite wearing the number one shirt, finished the year at stand-off with Matty Smith alongside him. But they also have French captain Theo Fages in their ranks, who was one of the sides outstanding players in 2017, as well as the emerging talent Danny Richardson who shone in his thirteen appearances for the club.
St. Helens have everything it takes to be a real force in Super League this year, but whether it clicks under Justin Holbrook will determine if 2018 will be a success.