Written by Callum Walker
This time last year, St Helens were making waves in the Super League. Casting aside the rest of their Super League competitors, the Saints finished the season as league leaders and champions. 16 points separated the Lancashire club from Wigan in second and they took this form right to the end, beating surprise challengers Salford in the showpiece Grand Final at Old Trafford.
That year, Saints lost just four games – three in the league and the Challenge Cup Final – yet they have already lost three of their opening six Super League games in 2020. A fifty percent record is hardly going to be appreciated by supporters of a club that just could not stop winning barely months before.
It’s not as if a change in player quality can be blamed either; not one new recruit made their way through the St Helens door in pre-season. Luke Douglas and Ryan Morgan were both released as Danny Richardson and Adam Swift exited to Castleford and Hull FC respectively. But, between them, the quartet made just 20 appearances for the Saints in 2019 with Douglas and Morgan both spending the year on-loan at other clubs.
The only thing that has changed at the Totally Wicked Stadium is the head coach. Justin Holbrook had enamoured himself with the Saints fans for the way in which he had transformed the Lancashire club from nearly men to silverware hunters in a blisteringly short space of time.
Leaving on a high by winning the Grand Final was, of course, the perfect way to end Holbrook’s two-and-a-half-year tenure, but it also made sure that the incoming boss had a whole heap of pressure placed upon him before he even took the reins.
That incoming boss proved to be Tonga boss Kristian Woolf, who had inspired the tiny Pacific island nation to a World Cup semi-final in 2017. Following spells as Brisbane Broncos assistant coach and Townsville Blackhawks in the Intrust Super Cup, Woolf took over the Tongan national side in 2014.
📽️ We may not have any rugby league to enjoy in person, but that won't stop us re-living some memorable classics from years gone by on Saints TV! 😁
Let's start with @leedsrhinos 🆚 Saints at Headingley back in 1999? 📼
FULL game on Saints TV! 👇
— St.Helens R.F.C. (@Saints1890) March 18, 2020
Tonga’s exploits in the 2017 World Cup rocketed Woolf to international fame and an assistant coaching position shot up at the Newcastle Knights barely a year later. And, with Nathan Brown’s exit in August 2019, Woolf became interim manager. But, it was St Helens that gave him his first permanent top-flight coaching job on a two-year deal ahead of the 2020 season.
In just six games, however, Woolf has done little to inspire St Helens fans that he was the man to replace Holbrook. A quite obvious change has taken place – and not in a good way. Previously attacking with panache and extravagance, Saints have looked flat and disjointed. Previously defending with vim and vigour, Saints have been relatively easy to breach, which is ironic considering Woolf is clearly a defensively-minded head coach.
But, it’s six games into a new season; getting used to a new style of play and one which differs greatly from the predecessor will always take time. A knee-jerk reaction is not necessary yet, considering the fact that Saints are just four points off the top. In 2014, Saints finished top, but lost eight games and still won the Grand Final. Yes, you are disappointed with how results and performances have gone so far in 2020, but there is still a long way to go Saints fans. Patience is often rewarded.