The stage was set in Perpignan on Saturday evening for Castleford Tigers to produce the most historic win in the club’s history. The 200/1 outsiders to win the league at the start of the season have surprised everyone this year and were 80 minutes away from lifting the League Leaders’ Shield. All the Tigers had to do was win, but in what turned out to be a frustrating evening for Daryl Powell’s men there was no fairytale ending to their extraordinary campaign.
Instead the shield, which has been in and out of its case more times in recent weeks than a jack-in-the-box, was heading to Langtree Park as St Helens finished top after the 27 regular season rounds.
They may have only finished first by 1 point, but consistency across the whole season has led them to the Super League summit. Winning the Shield is particularly rewarding for Saints given all the adversity they have had to overcome this season, after a series of long term injuries to key players and the occasional shock defeat has often seen them labelled as the league’s ‘crisis’ club.
To be crowned Super League champions you need a strong end of season to help progress through the play-offs in a knock-out format, but to win the League Leaders’ Shield you have to be the best team consistently over the course of 8 months. That is St Helens’ reward.
A very impressive start to the campaign saw them maintain a 100% winning start 8 games into the season and were hailed as the early frontrunners and the team to beat. However, after a poor couple of previous seasons, pundits were waiting for Saints to slip up and it came on Good Friday, or ‘Bad Friday’ as St Helens fans labelled their 33-14 loss to Wigan. In fact, the Easter weekend turned into a disaster following a shock 40-26 away defeat to Widnes on Easter Monday, which was followed up by Saints being knocked out of the Challenge Cup the following week by Leeds.
The word ‘crisis’ was thrown around for the first time, but St Helens returned to winning ways even if it was against London and Bradford.
The Magic Weekend brought smiles to the faces of many rugby league fans but there was little to cheer about for Saints’ supporters after watching their side go down 41-24 to rivals Warrington. Veteran Paul Wellens was very critical of his team’s performance and attitude on that day, and his words appeared to evoke a response from his teammates who bounced back to maintain their lead at the top following wins against Huddersfield and Salford.
St Helens’ lowest point of the season came the following week away to Catalan. A humiliating 42-0 defeat once again saw pundits hail them as a club in ‘crisis’. But Saints remained top of the league and were keen to prove that the result would be an anomaly come the end of the campaign.
Sure there were further defeats to Hull FC and Hull KR but St Helens won the key battles against teams fighting with them for the top spot, and overcame the challenges that Castleford, Wigan and Leeds threw their way. The 13-12 win away at Leeds most notably would have pleased head coach Nathan Brown, after his side fought back in typical St Helens fashion from a 12-2 deficit to secure a vital 2 points.
The team won that game without 3 of their most influential players, Jonny Lomax, Jon Wilkin and Luke Walsh, all of whom have suffered season ending injuries for this campaign. Walsh in particular is a big loss and is a signing that Saints supporters will credit for their final league position this year.
St Helens’ long injury list this year has seen many youngsters being given an opportunity to impress in the first team and Nathan Brown will be pleased with the way his young side have responded to the challenges faced. It’s also been a season which has seen academy products such as Josh Jones, Mark Percival and Tommy Makinson cement their place in the side, with Makinson rewarded for his contributions this season by being named in the Super League Dream Team.
Needing just 1 point from their final 2 games to secure the League Leaders’ Shield, Saints appeared to have fallen at the final hurdle after defeats to Warrington and Huddersfield. Crisis? In the end other results went their way and St Helens finished the regular round season as league leaders.
The team will now be looking to bounce back once again like they’ve proved they have the ability to this season as the club chase Grand Final success for the first time since 2006.
If Saints had faded in recent seasons, there’s no doubting that 2014 is the year they fought back.
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