St Helens: Super League's 'three-peat' team out to make history in chase for fourth title

Venue: Totally Wicked Stadium Date: Thursday, 10 February Kick-off: 20:00 GMT Coverage: Live radio and text commentary on BBC Sport website and app

Michael Jordan’s all-conquering Chicago Bulls did not manage it, when they swaggered through the NBA in the early 1990s.

Throughout time across the decades in association football, Huddersfield, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United could not achieve it either.

And, although Wigan did rack up multiple titles in a very different era for rugby league in the late 1980s and early 1990s, no one has done it in Super League.

That is, making three titles in a row become four.

Therefore, what potentially awaits St Helens in 2022 is something very special.

Four consecutive Super League championships would be history written, the slaying of all rivals in a salary cap-driven sport intended to avoid such dynasties.

“The players know how hard it is to win one or two games, let alone a competition, and how hard it is to back that up three years in a row,” Saints head coach Kristian Woolf told BBC Sport.

“That’s not lost, and our players certainly understand what hard work has given them in terms of success. There is still the same hunger, drive and discipline.”

Saints put faith in young stars

Super League’s format, a regular season table followed by play-offs, means teams that win the competition are required to master both league and knock-out rugby in order to clinch the prize.

How have Saints been so dominant to be in this position?

Their first title in 2019 was underpinned by glorious attacking abandon under Justin Holbrook, with 916 regular season points and 28 wins from 31 league and play-off games.

Holbrook’s move to the National Rugby League with Gold Coast ushered in the Woolf era, and the Tonga boss has honed Saints’ past two triumphs around relentless defensive effort – averaging just 11 points conceded per game.

In Alex Walmsley they have a wrecking ball prop who scatters defences, James Roby remains the metronome at hooker and fliers Regan Grace and Tommy Makinson make light work of finishing on the edges.

Such consistency and continuity is under threat now, as some key components have left – full-back Lachlan Coote and half-back Theo Fages among the departures to accommodate Saints’ burgeoning young talents, 20-year-olds Jack Welsby and Lewis Dodd.

Will Hopoate, Curtis Sironen, James Bell and Konrad Hurrell
Will Hopoate, Curtis Sironen, James Bell and Konrad Hurrell are among the new faces at champions St Helens

Other gaps opened up by James Bentley’s move to Leeds, the retirement of Joel Thompson and Australia-bound Kevin Naiqama, have been filled by the impressive acquisitions of Manly’s Curtis Sironen, Leigh’s James Bell and ex-Canterbury Bulldogs utility Will Hopoate.

“We made a decision really early that Lewis and Jack were going to hold those key positions,” Woolf said. “Once we made that decision we gave them that opportunity and they were able to go out and really perform in those positions.

“That cemented in our minds that we’d made the right decision, and our next task was to go out and fill some of the holes and try to bring the best players that we could with what we had on the salary cap.

“That was challenging, as we had less salary cap space than what was going out for different reasons and I’m really happy with the way we’ve been able to strengthen our squad and give our squad more ability in certain ways.”

How will those changes affect Saints going forward? Former Leeds and Bradford playmaker Iestyn Harris wonders what impact such pivot position changes could have on the team’s rhythm.

“The big positions in rugby league are six and seven – your half-backs – your hooker, where James Roby has been in that role for a long time, and the full-back,” Harris told BBC Radio 5 Live. “They’ve had that stable for the past three years and they’ve always started seasons well because they’re well versed in playing together.

“That’s totally been changed this time. Lewis Dodd is a great talent, but it’s his second season and there’s a lot of pressure on him; and Jack Welsby has been given the number one shirt, so another young man in there.

“Joey Lussick will play more of a senior role [at hooker], with Roby more of a supporting act, so they’ve only really got Jonny Lomax in those four spots who has stability. The challenge will be whether they can get their flow in attack. But they are still favourites.”

Jonny Lomax
Jonny Lomax has been a talisman for Saints

‘Competition has the potential to be stronger’

Woolf and Saints are more than aware of the threats to their crown this year.

Perhaps leading the way are Warrington, who have recruited extensively and have a new head coach in Daryl Powell; while Leeds have signed Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer to provide the spark for their title bid.

Hull KR were a breath of fresh air in their surge to the play-offs last term, while Saints’ great derby rivals down the East Lancs Road in Wigan will see themselves in the mix, and so will last year’s vanquished Grand Final opponents Catalans, who provide Saints’ opening round opposition.

In short, all 12 teams have players the others would covet, which hopefully will drive up standards in a hugely important year for the sport.

“I think we’ve got a really exciting year ahead,” Woolf continued. “I look at all teams across the board and I think the level of competition has the potential to be a little bit stronger, a little bit more competitive.

“That’s what fans want to see, they want to see tough, competitive games every single week.

“Games that hang on a knife’s edge every week, they’re not great for us coaches, but they’re what fans want to see and players want to be involved with as well.

“Obviously we’ve got the World Cup at the end of the year, and if you’re a rugby league fan we’ve got new outlets showing our game so we’ve got the opportunity to have more eyes on the game.

“It’s a competition that is improving and some new players in that that are really exciting.”


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