History comes in all shapes and sizes and, in a way, every side that lifts the Super League trophy each year writes their own slice. But on Saturday evening at Old Trafford, there is something slightly more significant on the line.
The world at large has changed immeasurably since the 2019 Super League season began. Britain has been through three prime ministers and the entire planet has lived through a pandemic. St Helens, though, have remained constant. For over 1,000 days, the Super League title has belonged to one club and one club alone and this weekend, they bid to go where no club has in the modern era – and where only one club has since rugby league was formed in 1895.
Only the great, all-conquering Wigan side of the 1980s and 1990s won four consecutive league titles. Since Super League was founded in 1996 and the sport switched to summer, nobody has achieved that feat. If St Helens beat Leeds Rhinos in the Grand Final on Saturday, they will become the second club to do it and, in the eyes of many, remove any doubt about whether they are the greatest team to play the game.
“I think they already can be placed in that bracket with the success they’ve had across the whole game,” their coach, Kristian Woolf – who has led them to the title in 2020 and 2021 – admits. “But winning this weekend puts a bit of an exclamation mark on it for me and always takes away any doubt or any debate.” In this unprecedented four-year era of dominance, St Helens have won every domestic trophy on offer at least once.
They have played 101 league and play-off games since the start of 2019 and have won 82 of them. Long-serving stars such as Lachlan Coote and Theo Fages have been and gone. Young players such as Jack Welsby, Lewis Dodd and Jon Bennison have taken their place. And St Helens’ dominance has been unmoved. This is not so much a rugby league team as it as a ruthless juggernaut that shows no sign of slowing down.
One fixture at the club has been their captain, James Roby. Arguably the greatest player Super League has seen – and potentially the best player in St Helens history – Roby will become the first captain to lift the Super League title four years in a row if he can steer his side to success against the Rhinos, who finished fifth but have defied the odds to reach Old Trafford this season under their coach, Rohan Smith.
Is this side which Roby leads with pride the greatest? “It’s a hard question to answer,” the 37-year-old says. “Even I agree it’s hard to compare eras and compare to that Wigan side. But the game’s changed so much these days, and it’s hard enough to win two in a row. It’s not just the four years now either, it’s the four years before to lay the foundations. But for all the arguments, it’s a fact that nobody has ever done it in Super League before. I certainly dare to dream we can do it.”
Welsby, who scored the winning try in the 2020 Grand Final, is slightly more forthright about his belief on the matter. “It’s the biggest game of the year and the biggest game for Saints in its history,” he said. “If we win this game it cements us as the best team in history in my opinion. There’s a lot of different factors but for us in the group, four in a row, Challenge Cup in there, a couple of League Leaders’ Shields, it’s just my personal opinion, but it would be enough to say that.”
There is added motivation for Woolf too, who will leave the Saints after the final. He will return to Australia in 2023 to become an assistant at new NRL franchise the Dolphins, before taking over from Wayne Bennett at the club in 2025.
“It’s going to be hard to say goodbye,” he admits. “The players are outstanding to work with because of their consistency and the hard work they put in. But as a group of men, the character they possess, you can almost see why they’ve been so successful. I’ve been so proud to be a part of this journey.”
“We’re aware it’s there, the history, everyone knows it,” Roby says. “It’s a carrot dangling there but we’ve got to put it in the box and forget about it for 80 minutes and finish the job. To be part of such an amazing piece of history, I couldn’t think of anything better. We’ve found a rhythm that works for us and there’s the right people there to carry this on for years, long after I’m gone. Hopefully we can deliver one more time this year.”