It was announced on Wednesday 31st July (today) that Justin Holbrook would be leaving the club at the end of the season and going back to the NRL to coach Gold Coast Titans, who currently sit bottom of the NRL. Whilst the news is disappointing it was expected after several weeks of intense speculation that Canterbury Bulldogs and Gold Coast were interested in his services. In April / May time it seemed he would sign a new deal but as the weeks and months drew on, it became inevitable he would not be signing a new contract and would leave us.
How do we assess his time at Saints? I feel it would be best if we go back to just before his reign began back in 2017. Saints were lying 7th in the Super League table, we had been hammered by fifty points against Castleford in the Cup and we were at our lowest point for over twenty years. I’ve been watching Saints since 1993 and I can honestly say it was the most apathetic period I had felt watching the club. The spirit, the bond between club and fans had completely disintegrated. The rugby we were playing was insipid and uninspiring to watch under Cunningham and results were deteriorating badly.
Things completely changed when Holbrook came in. His positivity, his smile, his confidence and simplistic nature that he brought to the role was a breath of fresh air and there was a glimmer of light at the end of a very dark tunnel. Saints first game at Magic Weekend against Hull couldn’t have gone any better as we beat Hull 46-0 in a free flowing, pressure free masterclass. The players were enjoying their rugby again, it was like a weight had been lifted and they could just go out and enjoy themselves again. The feel-good factor increased even more when we defeated derby rivals Wigan in our 1st home league fixture under Holbrook a week later and the bad times under Cunningham had almost been forgotten.
The rest of the 2017 was hit and miss with some good wins and some very narrow losses and it was clear that whilst Holbrook had improved most players within the squad, we were lacking a spark, a gamebreaker who could win a game on their own. Enter Ben Barba, who we signed midway through the 2017 season. Due to a lengthy ban he picked up in the NRL, he was unavailable to play until August / September. His initial impact was slow, but for six months in 2018 Ben Barba was unbelievable, and it was the first signing we had had since probably Jamie Lyon or Matt Gidley where a player excited the fans. The whole culture and feeling had changed at Saints and instead of signing poor to average players, we were signing exciting players and players that had a clear role who could benefit the team. Attendances were increasing and fans were enjoying watching Saints again.
The 2018 season saw a completely different Saints to 2017. We looked fitter, stronger, faster and our handling skills were clearly better. The focus in preseason was on attacking rugby, the forwards running hard and in numbers to confuse the defence, whilst letting the ball players such as Barba, Lomax, Richardson and Roby create the excitement, which they did. We flew out of the blocks with an opening day defeat of Castleford and never once gave up top spot from the first game of the season until the end.
Despite being completely dominant throughout the league season in 2018, we ended up with just the league leaders shield to our name as Catalans won the cup and Wigan won the Grand Final to take the major prizes. The overall result was devastating and there was almost a feeling of injustice that it wasn’t us lifting the major trophies. But ultimately, we only had ourselves to blame. Holbrook insisted on playing the same team most weeks and it meant when it mattered, we ran out of steam and had players carrying injuries. Holbrook lost two Semi Finals last year and one in 2017, so some were starting to question if Saints and Holbrook had the mentality to win under pressure. This question still remains, despite beating Halifax last week in the Cup and we will only know for sure in four weeks’ time at Wembley and in September / October when we head into the Play Offs.
Holbrook has learned his lessons from last season though and that is very evident in the players he brought in at the end of last season (Lachlan Coote to replace Ben Barba, Joseph Paolo and Kevin Naiqama) and the way we have approached this season. We didn’t come flying out of the blocks in week one. We were winning games, but they were smaller victories and we were clearly building into the season in the hope of peaking in the bigger games. Holbrook was also using his big squad of players much more in 2019. The likes of Adam Swift, Danny Richardson, Matty Costello, Kyle Amor, Aaron Smith, Jack Welsby and James Bentley have featured much more including a near reserve side which we fielded at London a couple of weeks ago.
We still find ourselves top of the league, like last season, with a similar points gap, yet the side looks in better shape than last season. We also appear to be more adaptable when we do suffer injuries because other players are able to fill the void, so the transition feels more seamless. Like any side, we still rely on key players – Alex Walmsley, Jonny Lomax, James Roby, Lachlan Coote and Luke Thompson will be key to our chances of winning trophies, but the depth in our squad is much greater now and you don’t wince as much when we do pick up an injury or two.
If we don’t win a trophy this season it will be a big failure. We have been the most dominant team for two seasons now, so to not win a major trophy would be a failure for the players and for Holbrook and would undoubtedly tarnish his legacy slightly. People would question Holbrook’s ability to deal with pressure and would question whether he has the winning mentality, despite a coaching record of over 80% since his arrival. He cannot yet be compared to some of the great coaches we’ve had in the last 25 years such as Shaun McRae, Ian Millward and Daniel Anderson who all won several trophies. Maybe in three months’ time we can put him in that company and compare his ability and achievements.
We can’t fully judge Holbrook’s legacy until the end of the season, when we know the results of the big games, but there’s no doubt he’s transformed this side since his arrival, and he will leave us in much better shape than when he arrived. Whoever takes the reins from Holbrook will have a much easier transition into the role, as the squad of players he inherits are currently the best in the league. The biggest challenge for the new coach will be to maintain the high standards set by Holbrook, especially among growing competition. Wigan, Hull, Catalans and Warrington will all have improved their sides for next year, whilst we will go with pretty much the same group of players. Can the new coach hit the high consistency standards set by Holbrook? Can the new coach improve the good work set by Holbrook? Again, these questions are yet to be answered but I will miss Justin Holbrook and his positive attitude. He was born to coach this club and befits the ethos of St Helens rugby league. I only hope the next coach we bring in has the same type of qualities.
Good luck Justin and go win us the Challenge Cup and Super League trophy, you deserve it!