Imperious Saints

18th August 2019

When I purchased my ticket (in February) for last Thursday’s Leeds versus St Helens Super League encounter at Headingley, I had expected a close contest between two of rugby league’s traditional heavyweights.

As it happens, the sides have had differing fortunes this season. Leeds have been in a struggle to avoid finishing in last place in the 12-team league table – with automatic relegation to the Championship – though a couple of recent victories have greatly aided their cause.

By contrast, St Helens have been the dominant side in 2019, having won the League Leaders Shield several weeks in advance of the Top 5 play-offs for the Super League title, which will begin next month. Indeed – remarkably – as things stood at the kick-off, the 14 point difference in the league table between St Helens and the teams in joint-second place (Warrington Wolves and Hull FC) was the same as that between Warrington/Hull and the bottom-place team (London Broncos). In addition, St Helens have secured a place in next Saturday’s Challenge Cup final (against Warrington) at Wembley.

In the build-up to the game, I had wondered if there might be an unfortunate echo of the Scotland-All Blacks match at Murrayfield in the group stage of the 2007 Rugby World Cup. (The £85 I invested for a seat at the end of the West Stand in the corner of the ground was, at that time, the most I had ever paid to see a sporting event). On that occasion, the Scottish team management took the game so seriously that they decided to field a near-second XV, so that the first-choice players could avoid injury and be ready for the crucial group encounter with Italy the following weekend. As I reported in An Ordinary Spectator, I thought that this was an absolutely appalling decision. Not only was it an insult to the spectators that had paid considerable sums to watch the match – and mine was by no means the most expensive ticket – it was hugely disrespectful to the opposition and to the tournament itself. (New Zealand won the match 40-0, scoring six tries in the process). Whether coincidence or not, I have not paid to watch the Scotland rugby team since.

The question was, therefore: given that St Helens might wish to protect their key players from injury in advance of the significant matches to come, would they follow Scotland’s lead and field a reserve team?

To their great credit, the answer was: no. Of the 17 players who represented St Helens in the Challenge Cup semi-final – and whom one might therefore suppose constituted the first-choice side – 11 played against Leeds. On the basis that some of the absentees had been unavailable through injury for the last couple of weeks, my assessment was that perhaps only two – the winger Tommy Makinson and the scrum-half Danny Richardson – were genuinely being shielded.

The risk of a mistimed injury was illustrated mid-way through the first half when St Helens’s French half-back Theo Fages was hurt in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Ash Handley from scoring the first Leeds try and had to receive treatment on the pitch for several minutes. Thankfully, however, he recovered to play a full – and influential – part in the remainder of the match.

The first half was evenly contested with Leeds holding a 10-6 lead until a few minutes before half-time. At that point, St Helens pressed firmly down on the accelerator and the first of three tries by the impressive centre Kevin Naiqama signalling the start of a period of dominance through to the hour mark in which they registered 30 unanswered points. A couple of late Leeds tries gave the score-line an element of respectability for the home side – including a second for Handley to make him the league’s joint-highest try-scorer this season, no mean feat in a side that has been generally struggling – but the final tally of 36-20 was an accurate reflection of St Helens’s superiority. The headline to Peter Smith’s report in the following day’s Yorkshire Evening Post – “Imperious Saints canter to victory” – summed it up pretty well.

This was my first visit to the Headingley ground since the completion of its major overhaul. The two fine new stands running along the full lengths of the touchlines complement the Extentia Stand at the St Michael’s Lane end of the ground, from which I had a full view of the proceedings. Only the triangular-shaped terrace for visiting supporters at the far end of the ground remains from the venue as it used to be. It is an attractive stadium and a worthy location for the Leeds club.

“All we need now is a team to match the surroundings”, said the elderly man to my left as the sun was setting behind the St Helens support and the kick-off time approached. The subsequent events on the pitch confirmed his analysis of the current status of the Leeds team.

My view from a raised perspective behind the posts enabled me to appreciate fully the speed with which St Helens transferred the ball across the pitch and the options provided in the different running lines taken by the support players. At the heart of the action was the excellent Jonny Lomax – Fages’s half-back partner – who invariably took the ball as second or third receiver from the play-the-ball and went through the repertoire of skills with his variations in passing and kicking and, occasionally, dummying the pass to run with the ball. His performance was a pleasure to watch as were, in their different ways, those of the aggressive prop forward Luke Thompson and the elusive Regan Grace on the left wing. “He’s a good player, is that” said my neighbour in admiration, after Grace had skilfully side-stepped the covering defence and registered St Helens’s opening try.

It’s a theme I have explored before. The pleasure of watching top sportsmen at the top of their game.

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