The St Helens team of 2019-21 will never be forgotten. They joined Wigan’s ultra-dominant team of the late 20th Century and Leeds’ Golden Generation in becoming one of the few magical sides to win three titles in a row.
Despite their unrivalled dominance over the league in the last three seasons, it’s still been a journey with it’s ups and downs with key moments littered throughout the last 36 months all of which cultivated the Championship winning qualities in this great Saints side. It’s not always been easy and lessons have been learnt throughout the years leading them to this brilliant achievement.
Today, St Helens celebrate 1000 consecutive days as Super League Champions so we’re looking at the 10 key moments which led to the three-peat.
10. Semi-final heartache
It’s hard to say Wigan weren’t deserving Champions in 2018. Their tally of 46 league points is often more than enough to win the League Leaders’ Shield and their form in the Super 8s was impeccable. But it’s even harder to claim that they were better than St Helens that year. Justin Holbrook’s side won a record breaking 26 league games in 2018 as they wrapped up top spot in style as Ben Barba won the Man of Steel. Their rampant form led most to believe that they were odds on for the treble but they failed to make it to a major final in 2018. They were battered and bruised by Catalans in a truly remarkable and shocking Challenge Cup semi-final before being edged by fourth-placed Warrington in the Super League semi. This Saints side had lost three semi-finals in a row including their 2017 defeat to Castleford and it’s clear they needed to learn some lessons about knockout rugby after 2018 and they certainly did.
9. A new season, a new Saints
In a huge game to begin the season, the Saints showed the exact steel they’d lacked in 2018 to win the biggest games. A debut try for Kevin Naiqama along with scores from Regan Grace, Jonny Lomax and skipper James Roby saw the Saints claim an opening night win against the side who’d show in the previous four years that they knew how to win the biggest games. The Saints would only double down on this new attitude in big games blowing Wigan away in the Grand Final qualifier at the end of the season.
8. The Bentley winner
What is it that they say? Never write off the Saints? I think that’s it. That statement was again true in their brilliant comeback win over Salford in 2019. After storming 16-0 ahead, the Saints remarkably slipped 30-16 behind with 18 minutes to go. But tries for the brilliant Lachlan Coote – who was having no troubles filling the void left by Barba – and Tommy Makinson took them within touching distance of a comeback win. James Bentley, intriguingly playing at hooker, wrapped up the comeback win when he powered over for a try enabling Coote to win it with the easy conversion attempt. This game took on greater significance as Salford’s story began to unfurl throughout the year. It reminded Saints that they didn’t have to succumb to the fairytale hopes of the Red Devils and instead could pen their own triumphant ending when they met at Old Trafford later that season.
7. Cup final failure
But before a first Grand Final appearance in five years, there was a first Wembley appearance since 2008 when they took on Warrington as the Saints again went in search of the treble. Against a Wolves side with neither of their first-choice halves, St Helens were expected to find it easy in the capital but it was anything but as Warrington executed a magnificent game plan and showed amazing guts in defence to deny the Saints. Again, it was time to reassess Saints’ philosophies on the biggest stage. They had to learn more lessons if they wanted to end their wait for final glory.
6. That Percival try
They were given the chance to end a five year wait for a major final win later that season when they butted heads with Salford in their first Grand Final since 2014. A near flawless first 25 minutes saw the Saints take a 12-0 lead but they were soon on rocky ground when the Red Devils hit them with a whirlwind. Jake Bibby got Salford on the scoreboard and Tui Lolohea had a try chalked off as halftime neared. The fairytale many were hoping to see was beginning to unfold that was until Mark Percival poached a superb solo try to put the final nail in Salford’s coffin and send Saints on their way to a sixth Grand Final win.
5. Tries galore at Headingley
That was Justin Holbrook’s last game in charge as he headed down under to take over at Gold Coast. In came Tonga coach Kristian Woolf but the start of his tenure was anything but ideal. The Champions were nilled by Warrington and lost back-to-back games to Huddersfield and Castleford before lockdown. But when the league restarted in August, they put the rest of the competition on notice with two stunning performances at Headingley. They battered Catalans in the first game back before defeating Leeds 48-0 the week after to get their season up and running.
That form led them back to the Grand Final where they met rivals Wigan who had finish top of the pile thanks to an impressive win away at Saints. In one of the best Grand Finals we’ve ever seen, the two teams endured a battle royale and in the first 79 minutes we saw just one try leaving the score tied at 4-4. We all know what happened next. Makinson looked to win the game with the drop goal, hit the post before Jack Welsby nicked the ball and stole a try to win the game with the very last play of the season to secure back-to-back titles.
3. Golden point grief
Like in 2020, 2021 saw Saints battling for top spot this time with Catalans. The top two then met at the Magic Weekend with just a handful of fixtures remaining. A win would have kept Saints’ hopes of the League Leaders’ Shield alive and they subsequently dominated the Dragons for 75 minutes taking a 30-12 advantage. But a five-minute collapse allowed Catalans to complete an impossible comeback before James Maloney won the game with a drop goal in golden point to secure the French club’s first League Leaders’ Shield.
2. Rampant Walmsley
It was as though Alex Walmsley took that defeat personally because a week later against Leeds he was truly rampant. He devastated a young Rhinos side all night with barnstorming runs down the middle and bone crushing defence. A few weeks later against the same opposition in the semi-finals, Walmsley was just as good against a much more experienced Leeds line-up. His exceptional performance guided the Saints back to Old Trafford and into a 13th Grand Final.
1. Naiqama’s night
In his final appearance for St Helens, the humble hero Kevin Naiqama was the star man at Old Trafford and proved the difference in a magnificent Grand Final as the Saints avenged their 31-30 defeat to the table topping Dragons. After impressing in the 2020 decider, Naiqama was on another level in the 2021 Grand Final scoring St Helens’ two tries showing a range of skills and guts to win the game for the Saints. His brace secured a record ninth Super League title and the historic three-peat.