There might be a new man in charge at St Helens, but they are still the benchmark in Super League for 2020. Will Kristian Woolf be able to continue the good work started by Justin Holbrook by successfully defending their Super League title?
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St Helens were the best team in Super League by a country mile in 2019. They won two of the three trophies on offer. They easily won the League Leaders Shield by finishing top of the ladder by a staggering 16 points.
After that, they didn’t need any second chances as they made it through to the Super League Grand Final with a semi-final win over Wigan Warriors before defeating Salford Red Devils 23-6 in the Grand Final at Old Trafford.
St Helens, who have won the Super League seven times since the league was formed in 1996, will always have a target on their back and 2020 will be no different. Saints always pride themselves on playing entertaining and attractive rugby league, something they went away from for a few years. But now they are back playing expansive rugby and they have been a joy to watch over the past two years.
It will be interesting to see if new coach Woolf changes that, or if he continues to entertain the masses. Having spoken to the man in charge last week, he insists he is not ready to make wholesale changes as of yet, he is keen to see what he has at his disposal and improve them as players.
Out of the 12 teams in Super League, St Helens are the only team not to have made any new signings for the upcoming season. They have also not lost any players as well, which is just as important. They have a settled squad who all know each other very well, sometimes the need to sign players is pressure from the fans. The powers that be at St Helens are well aware they have a great squad and they will only bring in new players if it is 100% necessary.
Woolf arrives in Super League with not a great deal of club coaching experience under his belt. He has been an assistant coach at Brisbane Broncos and Newcastle Knights, while he took over for the last two games of the 2019 NRL season after Nathan Brown left the club. Woolf’s experience comes in the international game. He has been in charge of the Tonga national side since 2014 and was in charge when they recorded wins over Great Britain and Australia respectively last autumn. It will be interesting to see how he handles the everyday pressures of coaching a Super League side, but he comes here with a good reputation and at times last season, it looked like anyone could coach this Saints side as they were that good.
We’ve already mentioned that Saints have not made any new signings, but that could put them at an advantage. There is no settling in period or players getting used to the cold weather of England. These players have been together for at least 12 months, they know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It could be a blessing in disguise for them, by the time all the big-name signings have settled in at their new clubs, Saints could be six games unbeaten and looking unstoppable again.
If we went through all of St Helens’ star players we could be here a while, so we are just going to focus on a few of their top performers and what makes them the ones to watch again. St Helens love to throw the ball around, it’s in their DNA. The two people to benefit the most from this is the wingers. Tommy Makinson and Regan Grace are two of the best finishers in the world, if they get an inch of space they will be gone and Makinson is one of the best acrobatic finishers in the game. He was announced as the Golden Boot winner in 2018 and he will be hoping to reach those standards once again.
Last season, Makinson crossed over for 23 tries and was the competition’s leading try scorer, while Grace was not far behind him with 20. If both players get the ball in their hand this season, then they could once again break the 20 try barrier. It’s not just the wingers who know the way to the try line, Jonny Lomax had one of his best seasons ever in 2019, he was influential in the halves and crossed for 17 tries as well as having a hand in 21 other tries.
It’s very hard to separate the two, but we are going with Makinson to once again be Super League’s top scorer. As long as he can keep clear of injury, he will be on hand to keep the scoreboard ticking over with plenty of four pointers.
St Helens are a very dangerous side, it’s not a case of stopping one man and then you stop St Helens. They have match winners all over the paddock. Lachlan Coote was sensational at full-back last season, he is only going to get better. He handled the weather conditions superbly, he helped create 22 tries for the Saints – and was the joint highest in the team alongside Theo Fages.
Coote, who has represented Great Britain and Scotland despite being born in Australia, not only scores and creates tries. He can also kick goals, he ended up with 101 goals last season and finished top of the points scoring list with 259 points. If he continues to link up with the likes of Lomax and Fages, and carries on with his impeccable kicking, then he will once again have a stellar season. We are backing him to once again top the leaderboard.
We’ve focused on how well St Helens can attack, but they have plenty of talent in the pack that can do all the hard that allows the flair players to take all the plaudits. Luke Thompson and Alex Walmsley led the way at prop last season, both of them were rewarded with a call-up to the Great Britain set-up. Thompson has been attracting a lot of interest from some NRL clubs, if he continues to improve then it won’t be long until he is joining fellow Lions team-mates James Graham, John Bateman, Elliott Whitehead and Josh Hodgson over in Australia.
Thompson is not scared about taking the ball in and he gets through a lot of tackles every game. If he continues to be a dominant force up front, then he has to be a big contender for the Steve Prescott Man of Steel. The likes of Zak Hardaker, Coote, Gareth Widdop and Blake Austin will all be there and there about because they are flair players, but for brute force and effort Thompson could be in with a shot.
Warrington Wolves, Wigan Warriors, Hull FC, Castleford Tigers, Leeds Rhinos and Toronto Wolfpack are just six of the teams vying to knock St Helens off their perch. Whether that can be done remains to be seen, remember Saint finished 16 points ahead of second placed Wigan last season. The main aim for the rest of Super League is to close that gap before they even think of challenging them for their title in the Grand Final.
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