A new week starts with increased optimism in British rugby league circles after history was made on the other side of the world over the weekend.
The gravity of what St Helens did on a soaking Saturday night in western Sydney cannot be exaggerated. For only the second time ever – and the first in 29 years – a British team went down under and claimed the World Club Challenge by beating the Australian champions.
For Saints, this was a big dollop of validation. They might have won four consecutive Betfred Super League titles over here in Blighty, but there were countless neutrals putting their successes down to a supposed lack of competition. Some said they weren’t a patch on the 2006 Saints who swept all before them, if only for 12 months. Others mentioned the great Wigan team of the 1980s and 90s when discussions about dominant forces began.
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But Lewis Dodd’s golden-point drop-goal against the Penrith Panthers will be replayed forever. At a time when Super League doesn’t have the riches and subsequent pulling power of the NRL, what it does have is the best club side on the globe, and that match-winning play will come to symbolise what Saints have done for the British game.
Paul Wellens’ first game in charge is threatening to be the pinnacle of his coaching career no matter what he goes on to achieve in the years to come. With his predecessor and close friend Kristian Woolf sat beside him, he looked a picture of calm for the most part as his Saints side took an early 10-point lead and then hung on gamely with some incredible defensive effort to hold a 12-6 advantage going into the dying seconds.
And even Brian To’o’s converted try to send the game into extra time didn’t knock St Helens out of their stride. Dodd, who ruptured his Achilles tendon last Easter and hadn’t played a first-grade game since, was the coolest man in Australia as he slotted over the winning one-pointer. When other British teams might have crumbled, Saints showed the mental fortitude to stand tall.
The irony of watching an English side overcome a team punctuated with Samoa stars by a golden-point drop-goal was not lost on anyone, little more than three months on from Stephen Crichton’s history-making winner in the World Cup semi-final in London which sent the hosts crashing out. But Saints’ mettle is to be admired.
The pictures of Alex Walmsley collapsing to the floor and sobbing after the final kick summed up what it meant. Meanwhile, chairman Eamonn McManus was to be found leaping around and screaming uncontrollably as he invaded the pitch with the look of an eighth-year chemistry teacher who had just heard the final bell of the school year.
Those parallels drawn with club sides from recent history can now be redrawn. Nobody had won four straight summer-era titles before, but Saints have now chalked that one off. No one since Wigan in 1994 had beaten the Australian champions on their own turf, yet St Helens have now matched their achievements.
Much of the talk in the build-up to this weekend’s opening round of Super League had suggested that this could be a year in which the best of the rest had a chance, but those 83 minutes in Penrith showed that Saints are still very much the team to beat.
That Wigan side of Ellery Hanley, Martin Offiah, Shaun Edwards et al was the yardstick for the entire sport for decades. But their eight years of domestic dominance came at a time when they were the only full-time professional outfit in the country, and it took that stunning 20-14 victory over Brisbane Broncos to truly cement their legacy.
Now Saints, beating teams with similar resources to their own on a regular basis, have gone and toppled the Panthers to confirm themselves as one of the greatest sides the country has ever seen. They deserve every last plaudit that comes their way over the next 12 months.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject to Change