Chokers to Champions Phil Jones 15th October 2019 2019 Season As the final hooter sounded at Old Trafford on Saturday evening after an incredible season for the Saints, the feelings were of joy, ecstasy and relief. Since our 2014 Grand Final victory, it has been nothing but disappointment, frustration and dejection in Semi Finals and Finals for five years as the Saints fell short time and time again when it mattered. When Nathan Brown left Saints at the end of 2014, it was Saints legend Keiron Cunningham that took the reins as the new Saints coach, and after a decent start in the league, we were brought back down to earth with a bang as South Sydney Rabbitohs thumped Saints 39-0 at Langtree Park in the 1st of several disappointments in big games. At the time, Saints fans held their hands up and admitted we were beaten by the best team on the planet as South Sydney ruthlessly tore through our defence and defended resolutely. There was no ‘choking’ in this one, we just weren’t good enough. This was the story for several years, Saints weren’t good enough. Our standards had started to slip, good players were leaving the club and being replaced by average to poor players. The likes of Jack Owens, Adam Walker, Tommy Lee and many more came through the door and from being top of the table in 2014, we finished 4th in 2015 after an up and down league campaign. We reached two Semi Finals in 2015 and lost to Leeds in both of them. The Challenge Cup Semi, even though we lost by just 10 points, we were comprehensively beaten. In the Play Off Semi Final, we lost by 7 at Headingley in a dramatic match. The key talking point was the Ryan Hall try, which had been deemed to be grounded, but it was a very poor decision and had a big sway on the game. Saints ended up with nothing and Leeds won the treble. Sometimes you need luck in big games, and we didn’t get it in this one! In 2016, the Saints slide continued as we were knocked out of the Challenge Cup by eventual winners Hull FC in embarrassing fashion by 47-18 at home in the opening round and there was discontent among the supporters after this. We finished 4th in the table in 2016 and faced Warrington in the Play Off Semi Final. There was again controversy over the ruling of Tom Lineham’s try but we were on the back foot from the start and did well to stay in the game if we’re completely honest. We were nowhere near good enough in 2016 and Cunningham’s reign was coming to an end, which it eventually did in the early part of 2017. Post Cunningham, we were hammered by Castleford Tigers in the 1st round of the Challenge Cup and it was clear the new coach would have a big task on his hands to not only turn the fortunes of the side around but to get the disillusioned Saints fans back onside. Enter Justin Holbrook, who took over the Saints in 7th place, with a big task on his hands to salvage the season. We had an up and down 2017 but following the signing of Ben Barba and some subtle changes to the 17, we ended the season well and were one of the form teams going into the final stages of the season. We faced Castleford Tigers again in a knock out game as we travelled to the Jungle for the Play Off Semi Final. It was a pulsating match that went back and forth throughout, and it appeared Saints had beaten the league leaders when Ryan Morgan crossed with a few minutes to go to give us a 22-20 lead. But it was Morgan’s brain explosion in the last minute that gifted Cas a kickable penalty, which allowed them to level it up and take the game to extra time. Luke Gale settled the game for Castleford following a golden point drop goal, and it was devastation for Saints in the one that got away. The Saints went into 2018 as one of the favourites following a fine end to 2017 and the mid-season signing of Ben Barba, who had now had a pre-season under his belt. Barba was untouchable for four or five months of 2018 and it looked odds on that Saints would win the treble as we streaked away in the league and won our Cup games, as our rivals faltered. The rugby we were playing was outstanding and our defence was excellent as we swatted everyone aside. The Saints were back, and Holbrook had revitalised Saints in less than 12 months following a couple of seasons of apathy under Cunningham. Despite being dominant throughout the 2018 season, we failed our 1st major test when we faced an in-form Catalans Dragons at the University of Bolton Stadium in the Challenge Cup Semi Final. We didn’t just lose the game, it was the manner of the performance that frustrated most as we simply underperformed in every aspect on the day. Catalans blew us away in a sensational first half as they led 27-0 at the interval, and despite a comeback in the 2nd half, the game was lost before we had started to play, as we eventually lost out 35-16. The Saints had hit a sticky patch after the Challenge Cup Semi and went into the Play Offs with an up and down win-loss record, and we were to face Warrington Wolves in the Semi Final, who had knocked us out two years earlier. We had beaten Warrington four times in the league that season and many predicted that Saints would get to Old Trafford and face the Wigan Warriors in a 1st v 2nd clash. Sadly, it was not to be, as Saints went out narrowly in an 18-13 defeat following a late Tom Lineham try. The Catalans Challenge Cup Semi Final performance had had a bearing on our performance, as Saints played a negative style of rugby as we tried to kick our way to victory, with several penalty goals. We scored just one try (from a kick) and deserved to go out. Despite our dominance in the season, Saints failed to reach a final in 2018 and people were starting to question whether Holbrook had the winning mentality to win a major trophy, despite our dominance in the league. On to 2019, Holbrook’s final season at Saints (although we didn’t know this until August) and we were again favourites to win the title, with Warrington coming in as 2nd favourites. Holbrook’s policy was to learn lessons from 2018 and to rotate his squad and use some of the talented young players more often to ensure the squad was fresh for the big games. The likes of James Bentley, Aaron Smith, Jack Welsby, Jack Ashworth and many others got more game time and impressed, whilst the likes of James Roby were used more sparingly. Despite the rotation, we still dominated the league and finished an impressive 16 points clear. The big tests for Saints were going to come in the Semi Finals and Finals should we get to them. The 1st Semi Final, it’s fair to say we got some fortune with the draw as we faced part time outfit Halifax in the Challenge Cup Semi Final. The weather was very poor on the day and didn’t help matters, but Saints ambled their way to an unimpressive 26-2 win. At the time we weren’t too bothered, as we were heading to Wembley for the 1st time in 11 years. We faced the Warrington Wolves again in another big game and many pundits had Saints to win the game comfortably. We were also heavy favourites with the bookies, especially once the news of Blake Austin’s injury had been confirmed. The Saints were welcoming back several key players who had not played for weeks in the Challenge Cup Final as Holbrook rolled the dice with his selection. On the hottest day of the Rugby League season, Saints started brightly and had a very controversial try not given when Morgan Knowles grounded the ball, but the referee was confident he had not grounded the ball and gave a 20-metre restart. Footage later showed this was a poor decision. Despite a good start, Saints started to make errors and Warrington found their way into the game and started to gain territory. The Saints eventually lost 18-4 and it was arguably our poorest performance of the season. 17 errors registered on the day and Holbrook bemoaned poor refereeing and our performance afterwards. The pressure really was on the Saints now and the chokers tag had intensified. Wigan’s form was improving, like it was in 2018 when they won the title from 2nd, and Salford were also on a good run of form and fancying their chances of making a Grand Final. Saints were still favourites, but everyone had started to doubt us including our own supporters. We were a good side, but just couldn’t turn it into major trophy success. Following the final, the Saints beat Castleford 4-0 turning in a gutsy performance at the TWS. Whilst this win won’t go down as a classic, it was arguably the game that Saints will pinpoint gave them the confidence in their defence to win the major prize. After this, we conceded six points against Huddersfield and six points against Hull as our defence started to get into Play Off mode. The new Play Off format gave Saints the luxury of a week off, and this week off allowed the players to freshen up physically and mentally before a Semi Final clash against the Wigan Warriors, following their win over the Salford Red Devils. Wigan fans were buoyant and confident going into the game and people were starting to wonder if Saints would ‘choke’ again in another Semi Final. These thoughts were put to bed in emphatic style, as Saints put their foot on the peddle and blew Wigan away in a fantastic opening half, as we led 26-6. The 2nd half followed a similar pattern and we booked our place into the Grand Final following a 40-10 victory. This performance signalled a change in attitude and rather than fearing the big games, the Saints used the pain of defeat to motivate them. We had another week off before discovering we would take on the Salford Red Devils at Old Trafford, following their impressive 28-4 win at the DW Stadium over the Wigan Warriors. All the talk before the Grand Final was about Salford, being their 1st ever Grand Final. This suited Saints, as we flew under the radar and were able to focus on what we needed to do in those 80 minutes at Old Trafford. The Saints delivered a fantastic performance at Old Trafford, and whilst our attack wasn’t as ruthless as it was against Wigan, our aggression in carrying the ball, our defence and our efficiency to do the basics well worked perfectly. Salford were never really in the game and for the 1st time in a big game in many years, I always felt we were going to win, and it was never really in doubt. Salford had a good spell just before half time, but Saints always kept Salford at arm’s length. The Saints eventually won the game 23-6, with the defence again being the cornerstone of this teams end of season run. In the five games after Wembley, we have conceded double figures just once and averaged just 5.6 points against. That is a Championship winning defence and is ultimately the key reason we are sitting here as Champions today. The chokers tag has now gone, nobody will be throwing this at us any time soon, like they did after we lost five Grand Finals and then more recently after our records in big games. I’m sure there will be many years of heartache and pain in future watching Saints. It is very much a rollercoaster and it is why the experience of Saturday’s win is even more satisfying. To experience true joy, you’ve got to experience some pain and it’s fair to say every Saints fan, whatever age you are, has experienced extreme lows in their time watching Saints. Whilst the disappointment and pain will always be remembered, it has all gone away following Saturdays win. The win tastes sweet and this time nobody can claim we didn’t deserve it. We’ve been the best side for two years running and it has culminated in a Grand Final win. Holbrook deserves to go home with a Grand Final winners’ ring and every single Saints fan and player deserves this success as we have had plenty of heartache and suffering in big games in recent years. I couldn’t imagine supporting another club like this one, there are so many highs and lows to experience and that’s what makes the ride exciting. It will be a very enjoyable off season as we can finally say after 5 years of pain… WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS!!!