On February 8 2007 a Saints side which had won everything bar the varsity boat race in 2006, even carrying off the Team Of The Year award at the notoriously anti-league BBC’s Sports Review Of The Year, lost 14-6 at home to Harlequins. They followed that by visiting Wakefield 10 days later and contriving to lose 29-22. As they trudged off the Belle Vue turf they did not look like a side five days away from being crowned world champions for a second time.
Current England coach and media schmoozer Wayne Bennett brought his Brisbane Broncos side to Bolton to face Saints in the World Club Challenge on February 23. They had earned the right by beating Melbourne Storm 15-8 in the 2006 NRL Grand Final. Their team featured Australian Test superstars Darren Lockyer, Petero Civoniceva and Sam Thaiday. Brad Thorn was a dual code, dual nationality test player, Australian when he played rugby league and a New Zealander when he played rugby union. Shane Webcke had retired after the victory over Melbourne but in Dane Carlaw they had a replacement who had played six times for Australia. There was quality right through this Broncos side. There was also Steve Michaels, latterly of Hull FC but at that time a fresh-faced 20-year-old who had not featured in the NRL Grand Final win a few months previously.
So losing to two sides who would finish eighth and ninth in Super League by the end of the year was not the ideal preparation for facing the best side in the NRL. Yet Saints had previous where Brisbane were concerned. Six years earlier, Ian Millward’s side found themselves two scores down at the same venue, Bolton’s Reebok Stadium as it was known then, before a combination of a snow-storm and a quite possessed David Fairleigh helped haul Saints back into the game to cap a 20-18 victory with drop-goals from Paul Sculthorpe and Sean Long. Fairleigh was not in the Saints side of 2007, but they did have Jason Cayless and a 21-year-old James Graham among their pack options. And crucially they still had both Sculthorpe and Long, the latter by now skippering the side.
Had this been your average league game you might describe Ade Gardner’s performance as mixed. Yet this was no ordinary game and so it is Gardner’s last, game-winning contribution for which his night is remembered. Gardner scored 167 tries in 281 appearances for Saints between 2002-2014 but none were as vital as this late effort which sealed the world crown. It was his second try of the match, having earlier taken Matt Gidley’s pass and stepped inside Darius Boyd to get Saints on the board. Yet his night had started terribly as he flapped at Lockyer’s early searching bomb. Making Nathan Graham look like Steve Hampson, Gardner spilled the ball as it dropped from the Lancashire sky and allowed Corey Parker to touch down for the opening score of the game.
Despite Gardner’s first try the visitors still had the edge, leading 8-6 thanks to a Parker penalty. In the second half they built on that and on Gardner’s insecurities, Lockyer going full Bobbie Goulding as he launched another towering kick towards the right hand side of Saints defence. Again Gardner hesitated, allowing Boyd to nip in and gather the ball and ground it for the Broncos second try of the night. It gave them a 12-6 half-time lead. And didn’t Bennett look smug about it? Every close up of the legendary schemer’s face betrayed the thoughts of a man fit to burst with pleasure at the thought of boring everyone to death on his way to what he must have felt would be another landmark victory.
The Grind was becoming The Thing in rugby league. It arguably still is, certainly for Bennett who continues to five-drives-and-a-kick his way to success. Plus the odd nilling in a World Cup final. Yet Bennet was about to be hoist with his own petard. Whatever a petard is. The Broncos were not the only side to have mastered a more conservative, risk-averse style of play. Saints under Daniel Anderson were so much better than anyone else in Super League (whatever their appalling Grand Final results against Leeds Rhinos suggest) that their style of play is often overlooked. With a young James Roby only good enough to be an understudy to a head-banded and still strikingly brilliant Keiron Cunningham at hooker, Saints had a twin threat from dummy half unlike any other seen before perhaps anywhere in the rugby league world. The pair of them scooted their way through sleeping marker defenders with ridiculous ease at times. It was hugely enjoyable in as far as it invariably helped Saints marmalise the opposition, but it had less of an aesthetic pleasure than the approach adopted by Millward’s Wide-To-West-ing mavericks of the early 2000s.
Yet few of a red vee persuasion cared this night as Cunningham engineered the try that got Saints back into the game. Close to the line Cunningham chose not to scoot this time, but instead found Sculthorpe with a pass timed just well enough to get him on the outside of his defender and exploit the merest of gaps in the Broncos defensive line. Sculthorpe’s effort brought Saints back level at 12-12, but another Parker penalty put the Australian side back in front at 14-12. And so to the hoisting of Bennett on that petard.
Willie Talau had gained ground down the Saints left flank but been hauled down just inside the Broncos 20-metre line. Francis Meli stepped in at dummy half. Who knows what Cunningham or Roby were doing. Perhaps Keiron was adjusting that headband. In their stead, Meli flipped the ball out to the waiting Long who took a couple of steps before sending what used to be known as an up and under sailing above Boyd on the left side of the Brisbane defence. Which was also an area of the field patrolled by Gardner. Having the run on the waiting Boyd, Gardner surged forward and leapt like Michael Jordan on a trampoline, taking the ball and grounding it in one glorious movement. Boyd and Brent Tate were left floundering on the floor as memories of Gardner’s earlier fallibility under the high ball were erased. The Grind had born fruit, the cross-field kicks which had been such a weapon for the Broncos during the game had also brought about their undoing.
It was arguably the high point of a season which ended with the first of what would turn out to be five successive Grand Final defeats. Despite winning the League Leaders Shield with 19 wins from their 27 league games Saints were thrashed 33-6 by the Rhinos in the pouring rain in October. Tony Smith’s side scored five tries to just the one Roby reply for Saints. And all that just two weeks after Saints had edged a tense Qualifying semi-final between the two 10-8 at Knowsley Road. Anderson’s side just couldn’t do it in Grand Finals. It was a trend which continued through the shorter coaching tenures of both Mick Potter and Royce Simmonds but thankfully brought to a shuddering halt by Nathan Brown’s class of 2014.
Despite their Grand Final woes nothing could detract from the fact that the 2007 Saints side were World Champions. Defeat to the Rhinos meant that Saints would not get to defend that crown and their only appearance since is a fairly humiliating 39-0 hammering by South Sydney Rabbitohs at Langtree Park in 2015. But the 2007 Saints, grind or no grind, where as good as anything on the rugby league planet at that time.
Except maybe Harlequins and Wakefield.