Since the start of the Super League era St Helens have perpetually started each campaign as one of the favourites, and this year is certainly no exception. With the names of Cunningham, Long, Pryce, Roby and Graham amongst the superstars of the British game, there is certainly no lack of quality amongst their squad. This year the Saints start the season with a new coach who did very well with limited resources before, and no doubt Mick Potter will enjoy having more toys to play with at Saints. So Saints are definitely a team to be reckoned with, but with two Grand Final defeats in a row there is also a sense of unease at Knowsley Road.
I’ve wondered about Saints ever since the 2007 Grand Final. For that match, Saints picked Sean Long (who had played one match in the prior month) over Matty Smith (who had been a more than adequate replacement for Long in his absence, especially in their narrow victory over Leeds in the Final Qualifier). I understood the logic behind the pick (after all, up until that point Long had never lost a Grand Final) but something about the move didn’t sit right with me. Long missed an easy early kick and Saints got steamrolled by the Rhinos, and to me it showed an unwillingness to give the kids a chance to shine at Saints.
Well, the day is rapidly approaching when they won’t have a choice in the matter. Long and Cunningham are both 32, and it’s hard to see either of them being around in three years time and still playing at this level. Saints have already dabbled with finding their successors and there are two heirs apparent. James Roby is of course the long term future of the club at Hooker, but he needs to show he’s just as effective when he starts as when he comes off the bench. Kyle Eastmond showed flashes of brilliance last year, but now he needs a sustained period of playing at a higher level, if for no other reason than to remind Long that he has competition. Saints have actually done very well integrating youngsters into the forwards in the last few years, but it could be to no avail if they don’t sort out the future of their pivots.
I’ll admit, for all my my scaremongering here there’s little doubt that Saints are the most likely side to ruin Leeds’ quest for a third title, and they are developing their own mastery of the Challenge Cup as well (they’ve won the last four finals played in London). There’s no reason to think that Long and Cunningham won’t be still playing at a high level, which in turn means they can seriously aim to win every trophy on offer to them this season. I just think that this great side is coming to its natural end very soon, and this season is the time they really need to start considering the possibility.
Pros: On their day, the most destructive force in British Rugby League. They are a side brimming with talent whoever they start with, backed up by a pretty underrated Academy programme. They can score from anywhere on the pitch and have an attacking mentality and killer instinct unlike any other side in Britain. Since the switch to summer Rugby there has been no more successful side.
Cons: There’s a sense with this side that its run at greatness is coming to an end. Losing the previous two Grand Finals must be a real kicker. It’s also hard not to notice that the core of this great Saints side is ageing. Sculthorpe has gone already, and Long and Cunningham can’t have much longer left either. Saints haven’t made any convincing moves to plan for a future beyond their superstars, and it’s imperative that Kyle Eastmond has a breakthrough year. Last year’s Grand Final also showed that they seem to struggle when they have to tough it out.
Coach: A new coach for Saints as Mick Potter steps in to replace the homeward-bound Daniel Anderson. Potter worked wonders with the Catalan Dragons, leading them to both a Challenge Cup final and to the playoffs last year. Now he gets a new set of toys to play with at Saints and he should be very successful. He might just bring the fresh approach that Saints need.
Captain: Keiron Cunningham once again skippers the side, although whether he starts every game with James Roby breathing down his neck is a different matter entirely.
Key Man: For a team of such outstanding all-round talent, it’s surprisingly simple to point out a key man, but as the last two Grand Finals have shown, if you can shut Leon Pryce out of the game then you’ve really hampered Saints’ attacking threat. For the first time since his move to Saints, Pryce now starts the season as the second-best English stand-off, with Danny McGuire outperforming him both in the Grand Final and at the World Cup. If he manages to move back into 1st place during the season, look for Saints to be well on their way to another trophy.
Young ‘un: We saw flashes of Kyle Eastmond last season, most notably his spectacular try from halfway against Wigan on Good Friday. Now he’s had a taste of Super League from the bench, it would be very nice for Saints if Eastmond to force his way into starting condition. Eastmond has been compared to Jason Robinson. Robinson was a scrum-half who was moved to the wing because he wasn’t going to get an opportunity at halfback. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Saints have in mind for him.
Wild Card: Considering how much Saints fans love their side it’s hard to find a player they want to speak a bad word about. Nonetheless, Francis Meli manages to find a way. He’s no longer the strike winger at Saints (that would be Ade Gardner) and he’s seen a few defensive frailties exposed (in the Grand Final he both allowed Lee Smith’s 40-20 to roll over the sideline and then dropped Kevin Sinfield’s bomb which Danny McGuire scored from) and Saints fans will be hoping that a winger once considered the world’s best managed to shore up his game.
Gains: Tony Puletua
Only the one incoming player, but not a bad one to have at all. Puletua should solidify an already dagerous pack and is the kind of play who will help should Saints need to grit it out.
Losses: Paul Sculthorpe, Mike Bennett, Willie Talau, Dean McGilvray, Nick Fozzard
Whilst Sculthorpe will be missed, there was little doubt that injuries had really taken their toll on him. Saints have got lost a few of their grafters who stayed under the radar for the most part, which could prove interesting as their graft allowed some of the showier players to do their thing.