Mr Perpetual Motion: Record-Breaker Roby Is In A League Of His Own

The Saints hooker will break the Betfred Super League appearance record on Sunday
17:58, 09 Jun 2022

Paul Sculthorpe calls him ‘Mr Perpetual Motion’ - a nickname stolen from his favourite player from the 70s and 80s, the great Australian lock Ray Price. And as legendary St Helens hooker James Roby prepares to surpass Kevin Sinfield’s Super League appearance milestone this weekend, the whispers are that he may not quite be done yet.

One of the greatest number nines the British game has ever produced, Roby will wear a Saints shirt in Super League for a staggering 455th time when Hull Kingston Rovers visit the champions on Sunday. It is a record that is unlikely to ever be broken.

His peers at St Helens and England rate Roby alongside Keiron Cunningham and Australian great Cameron Smith as the finest hookers of all time.

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“I questioned when Cunningham retired whether we would ever see anyone of that ability again in a number nine jersey at Saints,” says Sculthorpe, like Roby a St Helens and Great Britain legend, and the only player ever to win Man of Steel honours two years in a row.

“But we have now had arguably the greatest two nines that there have ever been. Saints have had the best hooker in Britain, arguably the world, for 25 years. To have both in the team and then Robes to take on the mantle himself is something we will never see again.”

Sinfield tells me he is genuinely delighted to see his record broken by Roby, calling him a brilliant role model, a player and a person who he could not have any more respect for. And that respect for Roby within the game is universal. Indeed, Roby shares many of Sinfield’s qualities. Both have enjoyed careers drenched in success but maintained humility, parking ego and commanding respect.

THE SAINTS LEGEND HAS WON FIVE SUPER LEAGUE TITLES
THE SAINTS LEGEND HAS WON FIVE SUPER LEAGUE TITLES

Sculthorpe, himself a player and man of that ilk, can still remember the first time he saw a young half-back who would evolve into a legendary hooker.

“The first time I ever saw him was when we had trained late and then watched one of the academy games at our famous old Knowsley Road ground,” Sculthorpe recalls, in an exclusive chat with The Sportsman.

“I remember seeing this kid, I think he had number seven on his back, and he was just running through people. He wasn’t the biggest but you could see his natural strength, agility, competitiveness. That was the first time I saw him and I knew he had something special.”

Roby came through that academy at Saints to make his first-team debut as a slender 18-year-old in 2004. He has spent a further 18 years since then excelling in that shirt, winning Man of Steel himself as a 21-year-old in 2007.

“He has probably had 10 seasons better than that one when he won Man of Steel,” another St Helens great Paul Wellens told me this week. So what is the secret to Roby’s remarkable longevity and what has made him great?

“It is his fitness, his drive, his dedication, his fearlessness, his humility, his honesty,” Sculthorpe explains. “He’s an unassuming fella, he doesn’t say a lot, he just gets on with the job, never complains or calls anybody out, and crucially he has been the fittest player in any team I have ever been in for club or country.

“He’s so likeable and an ultimate professional. You know he will train at 100% and will be at the front in every drill. He has won everything in the game but still leads training sessions and fitness drills. That is the only way he knows. 

“In some players, putting in that much defensive effort can stall their attacking game. But Robes is completely the opposite, he is such a strike player from dummy half, a super-fit bloke who is very smart too.”

PAUL SCULTHORPE RANKS ROBY AMONG THE GREATEST HOOKERS EVER
PAUL SCULTHORPE RANKS ROBY AMONG THE GREATEST HOOKERS EVER

On top of his fitness, it is Roby’s tactical brain and passing technique that have seen him dominate the position for so long.  His team-mates say Roby will never throw a bad pass in training, will give the halfbacks the ball where and when they need it and is not afraid to get hurt in defence. 

“I just can’t recall James Roby having a shocker,” Sculthorpe adds. “He has never had a bad game and that standard he sets himself, alongside his ability and the delivery from dummy half, the running game, his defensive effort... That is what makes him the best.”

St Helens’ current young playmakers, England stars of the future Jack Welsby and Lewis Dodd, both talk about wanting to be like Roby. The players are motivated to perform for their leader because of what he has achieved for that club.

Wellens, now assistant coach at St Helens and England, tells me Roby is the best “sufferer” he has come across as a player. 

“By that I mean when the game gets tough it can find a lot of players out, but that is when he is at his best. He is the most mentally resilient person I have ever come across in the sport.”

So are we watching the curtain call for a modern great, or might there be one final chapter? 

As things stand Roby will not star on the global stage when England host the World Cup later this year. His international retirement was announced last year after the pandemic forced the tournament’s postponement, and Roby felt time would have caught up with him by autumn 2022. 

But the truth is it hasn’t. His international “retirement” has not seen Roby miss any major games or training camps, as there haven’t been any. And he still remains the best number nine England has. I understand head coach Shaun Wane is hopeful of Roby reversing his decision and carrying on. 

Sculthorpe is part of Wane’s England backroom staff, and while he would not disclose whether any dialogue has taken place, he is also hoping for a rethink.

“Roby is still the best nine around, 100%. He is the best hooker in the competition and I would love to see him take a u-turn on international rugby and play for us in this World Cup. He is the best nine we have and, with an England hat on and as an England fan, I would love to see him sign off internationally in a home World Cup.

“I would put him right up there with Cameron Smith as the best hooker in world rugby league.“

Roby has not only been the best, but remains the best. 

It would be no surprise at all to see him carry on playing, and carry on inspiring those around him as he does so.

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