It’s been a long three and a half months since Saints glorious 23-6 Grand Final victory, as we prepare ourselves for the start of the 25th Super League season. There is a fresh feel to Super League this year, with a new logo, new branding and a new advert to promote the season alongside a few new TV shows that will be released throughout the year. The Super League narrative now feels a lot simpler and better than it previously did and with the likes of George Burgess, Gareth Widdop, James Maloney, Manu Ma’u, Mahe Fonua, Aiden Sezer and the controversial Israel Folau joining Super League this year, it certainly brings about an exciting season with some big name marquee players.
The Saints defend their crown at the Totally Wicked Stadium against the Salford Red Devils in a 2019 Grand Final repeat this Friday in what is sure to be an intriguing battle. The Champions go into the 2020 season as favourites to retain their crown, despite bringing in no new faces for the season. We have lost squad players Adam Swift and Danny Richardson – neither of whom featured in the Grand Final – but apart from that it is pretty much same again for this record breaking Saints team. The biggest change for us is a change of coach, as the departing Justin Holbrook (who has left to join the Gold Coast Titans) is replaced by Tonga coach Kristian Woolf.
I’m hopeful the new coach will freshen things up a bit for this side and keep them on their toes. It is sometimes difficult to motivate players when they win a trophy and they fail to live upto the hype the next season, but this squad of players needs more trophies to prove they’re a great side. The disappointment of the Challenge Cup Final still stings a little bit, but the Grand Final win has given the players belief and confidence to win trophies and you feel this should be the start of a new era of success for this Saints side. It would be a wasted opportunity if we didn’t win more trophies over the next 2 or 3 seasons with a core of players hitting their prime and some very talented young players getting better each year. There are also some older players coming to the end of their playing careers and they will be eager to maximise their chances of success aswell.
Salford had an incredible 2019 season, finishing 3rd in the regular season and breaking the usual cycle of a Saints / Wigan / Warrington / Leeds appearances in Grand Finals that have occurred in the last decade, which gave the final added excitement in the build-up, with the narrative being about a fairytale finish. It wasn’t to be for Salford as Saints dominated the game, but they certainly gave a good account of themselves.
There has been a lot of change at Salford with twelve new faces coming in and eleven leaving the club. Key players such as Jackson Hastings, Josh Jones and Jake Bibby have left and been replaced by the likes of Kevin Brown, Pauli Pauli and Dan Sarginson. They have made some good signings for 2020, but they do look weaker on paper especially in the halves with the loss of current Man of Steel, Jackson Hastings, who has joined our fierce rivals Wigan Warriors.
Watson is doing a fantastic job at Salford and they do have a good depth this season so they won’t be near the bottom of the table, but I don’t think they will finish in the top 5 this season. The teams around them and below them have strengthened so it will be much more competitive in that middle part of the table where I think they will end up. It could take some time for this Salford team to gel and it’s not the ideal game for them to start the season with.
21 Man Squads
Lachlan Coote, Kevin Naiqama, Mark Percival, Regan Grace, Jonny Lomax, Theo Fages, Alex Walmsley, Luke Thompson, Zeb Taia, Dom Peyroux, LMS, Matty Lees, Jack Ashworth, Joseph Paolo, Aaron Smith, James Bentley, Matty Costello, Jack Welsby, Joe Batchelor, Lewis Dodd.
Niall Evalds, Kris Welham, Dan Sarginson, Krisnan Inu, Tui Lolohea, Kevin Brown, Lee Mossop, Joey Lussick, Gil Dudson, Pauli Pauli, Tyrone McCarthy, Sebastine Ikahihifo, Adam Walker, Greg Burke, Luke Yates, Chris Atkin, Mark Flanagan, Josh Johnson, James Greenwood, Rhys Williams, Ken Sio.
In a change to the rules this season, all clubs will now name a 21-man squad instead of a 19 man squad and if any players are used that were not originally named within the 21 man squad, they will forfeit an interchange for the game. It makes it more difficult for us to guess the line-up on a week to week basis, but based on pre-season updates James Roby (groin), Tommy Makinson (shoulder) and Morgan Knowles (shoulder) will miss the opening game of the season. It is expected all three will be fit for the World Club Challenge in four weeks’ time with some likely to be back before then. Woolf has given all three a timescale of 2-4 weeks to be back playing, depending on their rehab. Kyle Amor is also a fitness doubt and will be checked later in the week to see if he can play in round one but is named in the squad. Everybody else is fit and ready to go and with competition strong, there will be a few disappointed players despite having a few injuries.
Referee – Liam Moore
Kick Off – 7.45pm
Venue – Totally Wicked Stadium, St Helens
The current weather forecast is expected to be rain during the day and cloudy at night so the surface could be slightly damp by the time the game kicks off. Temperatures around the 8 degrees mark, so weather not too bad for such an early season game. This should allow some decent rugby to be played and therefore I don’t anticipate a low scoring game.
Head to Head
Last 6 games – Saints 6 wins, Salford 0 wins.
Last meeting – St Helens 23 – 6 Salford Red Devils, Super League Grand Final October 12th, Old Trafford, 64,102.
The Saints have a fantastic record against Salford, winning all six of their last six battles. The last time Salford managed to beat Saints was back in 2017 during the final part of the Cunningham era, with a 22-14 win at the AJ Bell Stadium. They have come close a few times recently with a 25-24 defeat in 2017 (Matty Smith’s last second drop goal to win it) and a 32-30 defeat in 2019, but in general Saints have dominated clashes at the Totally Wicked Stadium and before that at Knowsley Road. You have to go back 40 years for the last time Salford beat Saints in St Helens, so omens aren’t good for the visitors.
Lachlan Coote v Niall Evalds – Two of the standout full backs of 2019, Coote and Evalds are both crucial for their teams attacking setup. Evalds is more of a runner than a creator whereas Coote plays a more creative role for Saints, but both are instrumental to their side. It will be interesting to see how Evalds performs with Brown, whereas we know what to expect when Coote and Lomax link the play.
Jonny Lomax v Kevin Brown – A lot will rest on the shoulders of Kevin Brown this season following the departure of Jackson Hastings. He’s not played much rugby in the last 12 months, so it’ll be interesting to see how he’s recovered from the Achilles injury as he reaches thw twilight of his playing career. Lomax, alongside Jackson Hastings, was arguably the standout player in 2019. It was ridiculous that Lomax wasn’t in the running for Man of Steel at the end of the season. His influence on this Saints side is huge and he will once again be relied upon for his creativity in 2020.
It’s always difficult to predict an opening clash of the season as you don’t have much to go off in terms of previous form, patterns of play, the weather etc, but this Saints side is a very settled team, so it will be subtle changes rather than mass changes and you’d imagine we will hit the ground running, especially with a big World Club Challenge game around the corner. Competition for places is strong again and with Matty Lees back it gives us plenty of options in the pack and opportunities for some to impress. Salford are still gelling their combinations so it will be difficult for them to overcome us in this opener. I think we will pick up from where left off last year and we’ll record a comfortable win at home. The players looked sharp in the trial game against London and defensively looked strong, so I think we’ll be far too strong for Salford on Friday. Saints by 20.