St Helens season preview 2012

By Ray FrenchRugby League Commentator, BBC Sport
Saints celebrate after play-off semi win over Wigan
Paul Wellens, Michael Shenton and James Roby (l to r) celebrate after the 26-18 play-off semi-final win over Wigan at the Stobart Stadium in October

A classy international half-back pairing as talented as Kyle Eastmond and Leon Pryce have gone. And dynamic Great Britain frontrower James Graham has gone to seek fame and fortune on the other side of the world with the Canterbury Bulldogs.

You would think, then, that doom and gloom might surround the Saints' new £25m Langtree Park Stadium. Not so - and neither should it!

Despite Graham's departure down under, Eastmond's move to rugby union with Bath and Pryce's departure to Perpignan to join the Catalan Dragons, Saints are better equipped this season to win at least a trophy.

Last season they twice just missed out on silverware thanks to a Challenge Cup semi-final loss to Wigan and Grand Final heartbreak courtesy of the Leeds Rhinos.

But, ironically, thanks to last season's series of long-term injuries to many of their more experienced players, coach Royce Simmons was able to nurture many of Saints' fine array of stylish young talent.

I see former academy players Jonny Lomax and Lee Gaskell pushing on for honours and helping to drive St Helens' attacking machine in midfield.

Youngsters Jamie Foster and Tommy Makinson are on hand too to show their paces down the flanks and provide stiff competition for the seasoned Ade Gardner, hopefully fully recovered from serious Achilles tendon trouble.

Up front too, youngsters Shaun Magennis, Andrew Dixon, Nathan Ashe, Paul Clough and company will be pushing their international colleagues for regular places in the pack. And they have already shown that they are certainly worth a place.

Throughout Saints' greatest eras, they have been renowned for the quality of their back play and the scoring ability of their leading stars but, in all those glittering eras, the pack has been at the heart of any success. It is still so today.

In a hopefully refreshed Josh Perry, after injury, Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Tony Puletua, Jon Wilkin, Chris Flannery, new man Mark Flanagan and Aussie Test recruit Anthony Laffranchi, they have forwards big enough, strong enough and fast enough to challenge any opposition set of six.

They will be a handful to keep in check. But I do think that a trio of their international stars will determine St Helens' season in 2012 and will be at the heart of any success.

Evergreen skipper Paul Wellens might now lack that extra yard of pace needed to scythe his way through the opposition but he remains one of the most crafty and wily of players when joining the play from full-back. His timing is impeccable, his passing is precision-like and his defence is still rock solid.

As captain, he inspires confidence in all in front of him, none more so than hooker James Roby, a human dynamo, who invariably tops the tackle counts, makes deep penetrating breaks from the ruck area and scores tries with great frequency for the full 80 minutes. A talisman to the team.

Just as Saints' new Kiwi recruit, Lance Hohaia, has been to Auckland Warriors and New Zealand for the past 10 years. Whether at full-back, half-back or hooker, Hohaia is the ultimate Mr Cool, the playmaker for whichever team he has been playing.

I expect him to be in such a role for St Helens this season. Indeed, a fit Hohaia can be the key to Saints winning a Grand Final or a Challenge Cup. The bigger the game, the more composed is the Kiwi. If, as I think, Saints bring some silverware back to their new Langtree Park Stadium this year, then Hohaia will have played his part to the full.

And what part for the new stadium to play in any success this year?

Plenty if, as expected, crowds of 15,000 and more cheer home their favourites.

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