Written in advance of the return of rugby league this week, I have been writing this in pieces since the Grand Final, but every time I tried to write it I ended up falling down gleeful Twitter rabbit holes.
The 2020 rugby league season started with uncertainty because Saints’s old coach, Justin Holbrook, had departed (to Gold Coast Titans. Separately to my-team-has-lost-its-coach sadness, it’s starting to feel like Super League is being used as a proving ground before you can have an NRL job). Saints won the title in 2019, and they were defending the title with a new coach, Kristian Woolf. Now Woolf is good, and responsible for part of Tonga’s glorious resurgence* but relatively untested club-coach wise.
So, there is some fear.
The start of the season was a bit up and down.
And then plague.
Luke Thompson was going to move to Australia at the end of the season, but Canterbury Bulldogs wanted him over there earlier, because of COVID. And no-one really objected, because you could see it from their point of view. They’d invested in the deal, and wanted to make sure they got value for money. And you could see Luke Thompson’s point of view, and, lets be honest, if he wanted to go, why keep him over here and unhappy. The only problem was that that left Saints a little light in the forwards. A couple of up and coming youngsters, the lovable walking disaster area that is Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook (the only man ever carded for not talking to a ref) [he shall be referred to as LMS throughout the rest of this because his name is too long**], Alex Walmsley, light of my life though he is, has reached the injury-prone stage of his career, and Kyle Amor has lost more than half a step of speed. There would be a Thompson-shaped gap, all 6 foot and 16 stone 1 lb of him.
At the same time, James Graham, damn good forward, golden lion, England and Great Britain captain, honoured ex-Saint is coming to the end of his career, and the end of his contract with St. George Illawarra.
So he comes home. He comes home to finish his career with us!!!
The entire town is verklempt. I mean, he is beloved, actually beloved, and he wanted to make sure he finished his career with us.***
Meanwhile, because various Super League clubs have COVID outbreaks, one club is in a different country (Catalan Dragons), and one team is allegedly in a different country and has gone bust and unable to fulfill their fixtures (Toronto Wolfpack, who play most of their matches in … Yorkshire), the league switches to win percentage to calculate who the league leaders are.
We were hopeful that fans would be allowed in at some point, but it was not to be, and the end of the season comes without Saints fan being able to say goodbye to Graham, or Zeb Taia (retiring)**** or Dominique Peyroux (moving to Toulouse. Toulouse, you are getting a superstar. He makes Saints a better team when he is on the pitch.).
Saints do not win the League Leader’s Shield, that goes to our nearest and dearest rivals, Wigan, who beat Saints on our own home ground in the penultimate match of the regular season. Really good match, unfortunate result.
Saints and Wigan finish second and first in the league, meaning they got byes to the semi-finals of the play-offs. There was a certain level of paranoia in parts of Yorkshire about the expansion of the play-offs to a top 6 rather than a top 4, mostly to do with it meaning Leeds qualified for the play-offs and the fear that somehow they’d sneak a title from there. In the end, it is Warrington who suffer, being the only top 4 team not to reach the play-off semifinals. Warrington – once again, it is not their year. The Leeds vs Catalan Dragons quarterfinal match was somewhat ill-tempered, and Leeds fans insist that Catalans are a dirty, dirty team who tried to injure their players, but they would say that, they lost.
The semi-final matches were Wigan vs Hull FC and St Helens vs Catalan Dragons.
Wigan beat Hull FC 29-2. The day after, Saints play Catalan. It does not pass Saints fans by that this means Wigan get an extra days rest. And an extra day of recovery for injured players. Catalan decide to live down to the reports of Leeds fans and it looks like both LMS and James Graham will have to go off for head injuries. Graham does, and LMS … well I remain worried that he stuck the team doctor to the ceiling with gaffer tape and that’s how he was allowed back on the pitch. Suddenly the entire town of St Helens and surrounding environs become experts in the RL head injury protocols. (Gareth Walker is a rugby league journalist, the people replying are not). Saints beat Catalan 48-2. Breaths are held until the team is announced for the final because if Graham is not cleared, his last ever game of rugby league would have ended with a head injury substitution, and that’s just not right.
The team is announced. Graham is in it. The town is excitable.
As well as being our nearest and dearest rivals, Wigan also play in red and white, as Saints do (we are red and white Vs, they are hoops, the distinction is vital), but because they finished higher in the league, Wigan get to be the “home” team and wear the proper colours. Saints will be in blue for the final. It will be James Graham’s last game, but it will also be the last game for Sean O’Loughlin (Wigan’s captain) (BBC version of the story / Guardian version), so the whole thing is building nicely. By which I mean, everyone is biting their fingernails because big names, big stakes, big rivalry, big match.
The game itself rolls round.
(Look at this photo from the start of the game. Which side look like they could be Sith? Which side look noble and Jedi-like?)
The game is what is described in the parlance “a right arm-wrestle”. It is tight, it is close, both defences are excellent. The BBC live text commentary can be relived here, the Guardian version here (choose your poison, I listened via BBC radio because John Kear was on and I prefer the BBC live text).
Anyone who watched/listened to it probably doesn’t need the reminder. Because it was tight and it was close and it was nerve-wracking.
Twenty nine minutes in, Zak Hardaker for Wigan almost scores but 5 Saints players get themselves between the ball and the ground so he can’t score. That effort is vital.
The first points were scored just before the half-time hooter, a penalty for Saints. 2-0. L texts me to see how I am feeling and gets the reply “I am nauseous from sport.”
The second half starts, 10 minutes later, a try from Zeb Taia is disallowed for offside. It remains 0-2. I remain nauseous.
Wigan almost score through Bibby who fails to catch the pass. I become more nauseous.
Wigan do score (that man Bibby again), but Hardaker misses the conversion. 4-2. I reach new heights of nausea. (This is an excellent photo from just after the try)
The vile Wigan attack tiny Theo Fages around the head. Penalty for Saints. The beauteous Coote scores 4-4. There are eight minutes left and no sick bucket close enough. Pretty much everyone assumes this is going to golden point extra time.
Fages misses a drop goal. Gets caught offside. Wigan are given a penalty with 2 minutes to go. It is 55 metres out but Hardaker is giving it a go. “No, not this way,” says every red-and-white-V heart. HE MISSES!!!
What follows is the stupidest passage of play I have ever seen on a rugby pitch.
As the full time hooter goes, Tommy Makinson attempts a desperation drop goal, anything to level the scores and force extra time. The kicks hits the cross bar. The only player to react for either side is the marvellous, glorious, wonderful Jack Welsby, youngest player on the pitch, St. Helens born-and-bred.
He scores. We go to the vid ref. The vid ref gives it.
Saints victory 4-8 in the final moments of the game!
Please watch the stupidest try to ever win a major match –
I am almost sick with joy.
James Roby, Saints Captain, who made 60 (sixty) tackles (in an 80 minute game, that’s a tackle every 1 minute 20 seconds) is awarded the Harry Sunderland Trophy for man of the match. Because he was marvellous. Roby’s speech is all about how fantastic Jack Welsby is. Jack Welsby’s interview is all how James Roby taught him never to give up. My level of love for both can be seen from space.
The Guardian summarised the game thusly, the BBC equivalent is here.
Game summary from Tony Bellew – World Champion boxer comes via Twitter
The beautiful boys with the trophy –
Several of the lovely, if foul mouthed, boys after the match (someone I can probably identify but will remain nameless really does explete every second words so the language warning is required)
Zeb Taia and James Graham got to retire with a title, while Dominique Peyroux goes to Toulouse with one (pictured alongside Tommy Makinson and Theo Fages)
James Graham spent some time after the match soaking it all in. (And while I have cursed his name roundly, soundly, and repeatedly, Sean O’Loughlin earned this honour guard).
Meet the newly crowned King of St Helens, Jack Welsby
I was mostly holding it together, and then Gold Coast Titans posted this. Our old coach still loves us. We love you Mr. Holbrook.
It was the glory of sport, the emotion, the spectacle, the sheer “WTF and how?!!” of sport.
*This is why Tonga are being based in St. Helens for the 2021 World Cup. Depending who gets picked for England, there is a distinct possibility that there will be more Tonga fans than England fans in the stadium. This is actually a good thing, and shows the RFL are thinking. See also, the 2021 World Cup is the first of any team sport to have men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments competing at the same time.
** His “song” from the fans is “your name is too long, your name is too long, Louie McCarthy Scarsbrook, your name is too long”. He is beloved. Also, the club has given up, he is LMS on the official squad page too – https://www.saintsrlfc.com/teams/first-team/
*** Here is where I praise St George Illawara for being gentlemen about this.
**** Zeb Taia liked my reply to his retirement announcement. I remain asqueak.