Written by Callum Walker
Photo by St Helens RLFC
Going into Saturday’s Challenge Cup Final and nearly every man and his dog believed St Helens would beat Warrington – and handsomely. But, as Saints have found out in the past few seasons, the “favourites” tag often gets lost in translation in the heat of battle.
Despite being the best side in Super League for the past two years, Saints have failed to win a major trophy in that time – though the Lancashire club have added two League Leaders’ Shields to the cabinet. They blew away the competition in 2018 and have done exactly the same in 2019, but came unstuck against a hardy Warrington side quite clearly playing above their potential.
When the news broke that Warrington’s star halfback Blake Austin was unfit and would not play a part at Wembley, Saints fans got a little bit more confident than they had already been. Ben Currie operating at halfback alongside Dec Patton should not have troubled a Saints side that boasted the tricky triumvirate of Lachlan Coote, Theo Fages and Jonny Lomax.
But, a never-say-die attitude and a determination to write their own script as heavy underdogs, Warrington took the game to Saints and proved that what’s written on paper doesn’t matter – it’s what you do on the field that matters.
An 18-4 victory was just desserts for a side that has struggled in the league – five losses in a row had seen boss Steve Price come in for some criticism as both Hull FC and Wigan chased Warrington down in what had appeared an assured second place.
Saints, on the other hand, have lost just three times in Super League all year, but have again missed out on one of the two major trophies on offer. With just three games of the ordinary season remaining, St Helens need to shake off the Wembley defeat and use it as a catalyst to win this year’s Grand Final.
After all, teams are remembered for winning silverware: the 2003 Bradford Bulls, the 2006 Saints and the 2015 Leeds Rhinos all stand out for winning the treble on offer. Yet, the Saints of 2018 – despite being the best side throughout the whole year – have already faded into a long and distant memory.
In theory, Saints should have won the treble in 2019 too; the Lancashire side have been head and shoulders above the rest of the competition, but head coach Justin Holbrook and his players have, for some unknown reason, been unable to rise to the occasion in decisive fixtures.
By finishing top, St Helens already have a semi-final fixture to look forward to, meaning that they are just one win from Old Trafford even without playing their last three games of the season.
It’s all well and good being the best side over the season, but because Rugby League is stupidly unique in the fact that the end of season play-offs mean more than the regular rounds, Saints must win the Grand Final if they are to be remembered as they should be – the side that completely dominated Super League XXIV.