Under the radar: Lowered expectations could help Wellens to succeed at St Helens

 | January 03 | 

6 mins read

Paul Wellens St Helens Rugby League coach

It is perhaps the greatest reflection of St Helens’ dominant run of success since 2019 that their 2023 return of a World Club Challenge victory, two semi-final exits and a points haul to match the Betfred Super League champion Wigan Warriors, was considered a relative failure.

Paul Wellens’ first season as a coach, which had started with that historic golden-point triumph over the NRL’s perennial kings, the Penrith Panthers, was always going to prove a test given that he was being asked to follow in the footsteps of Kristian Woolf and Justin Holbrook. Four consecutive Super League crowns under those two predecessors proved as much a millstone around the rookie head coach’s neck as they were a glittering trophy cabinet attraction.

St Helens 2024 odds

To win the Betfred Super League - 3/1

To win the League Leaders' Shield - 3/1

To win the Betfred Challenge Cup - 9/2

So in 2024, Wellens may well benefit from the lowered expectation. Twelve months removed from their last piece of silverware, and with Wigan looking primed for another title tilt after a strong off-season of recruitment, there’s a chance for the 43-year-old to go about his business away from the spotlight somewhat.

That might seem oxymoronic given that this is St Helens we’re talking about, with their record 10 Super League titles in the summer era and a faultless trot of 26 successive play-off visits. Of course, there is a minimum requirement at Langtree Park to have a say in the post-season shake-up.

But to a large extent, what happened in 2023 has given Wellens some breathing room. They might not have won a domestic trophy, but they were oh, so close on every front. Edged out by a single kick in the Betfred Challenge Cup semi-final against Leigh Leopards, denied the League Leaders’ Shield on points difference, and then denied by a Sam Tomkins shimmy and step in the Super League semis. As near misses go, theirs were pretty epic efforts in each competition.

They were also achieved with very little change to the squad. Barrow Raiders winger Tee Ritson was the only real addition for 2023, with Wesley Bruines’ short-lived move having had little effect on the first-team picture. Joey Lussick’s mid-season departure was offset by the arrival of Moses Mbye, but for the most part Wellens was asked to largely get on with what was already there.

The big glaring alteration for 2024 is the loss of the legendary James Roby to retirement. Daryl Clark becomes only the third number nine in Saints’ Super League history, and after Roby and Keiron Cunningham he has one hell of an act to follow. One of his forerunners has a statue outside the club’s stadium, with the other also likely to be honoured in bronze before too long.

Meanwhile, second-rower Matt Whitley comes in from the Catalans Dragons having forged a great reputation for himself at Super League level. Add his arrival to James Bell’s Player of the Year performances of 2023 and George Delaney’s breakout spell in the pack, and there is belief that the forward unit ought to set a decent platform in the 29th summer season.

St Helens 3/1 to win Betfred Super League Grand Final

The one huge area to address comes from the retirement of Will Hopoate, with Wellens admitting after the Tongan’s announcement that his loss is a big one. “Losing Will, who can play full-back, centre and wing, presents a sizeable hole to fill,” he told reporters in October.

“We have had a number of players who have done a really good job in 2023. Jon Bennison showed up in big games and Tee Ritson in his first year at full time has been a really competent player.

“We have options, but what is probably the most important thing is that whoever we bring in has got to improve us. We won’t be making signings for the sake of it, it has to be absolutely the right person and the right player.

“We’ve always been first and foremost about retaining our best players, particularly players who have come through our junior system. That’s really important.”

And perhaps that is where Saints could surprise a few people in 2024. Yes, they have lost Roby, Hopoate and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook. Their exits have left gaps in terms of leadership, character, versatility and the driving of standards. But there’s still a very St Helens look about their squad, and any replacement for Hopoate they might bring in now – they have left the number three shirt unallocated for just such an eventuality – would provide a timely boost.

St Helens to win Betfred Challenge Cup at 9/2

The jury remains out on Wellens as a result of them falling short in big games last season. There were accusations that they became too insular and dogmatic when it really mattered, rather than backing themselves to be expressive. And there are opposition fans just waiting for him to following Cunningham in the ranks of legendary former Saints players to find their coaching stint cut short.

But the well-worn Eddie Hemmings quote that you can “never write off the Saints” is well-worn for a reason. They are 3/1 to win the Betfred Super League title and 9/2 to lift the Challenge Cup, but, while they are favourites for neither thanks to Wigan’s favouritism, among rugby league fans there is a sense that those odds are on the short side by reputation as much as expectation.

Few outside of Merseyside have high hopes for what Wellens and his side could do in the months ahead, but what the might lack in superstar addition they arguably make up for by way of consistency and belief in their ability to turn their own talent into superstars.

In Jack Welsby they have the best young player in the game, complete with a new four-year contract under his belt. Bennison and Ritson will only getting better, while the likes of Ben Davies and Sam Royle could find themselves getting increasingly more game time after racking up 16 and 17 games respectively in the league last season. Lewis Dodd should be back to full strength after a shoulder injury which dogged him last term, and will arguably benefit from the experiences of the last 18 months as he looks to step up another level.

They might not be heavy favourites to land the big gongs as in previous years, and their loss of key figures might suggest another period of transition. But perhaps that just makes Saints an altogether more fascinating prospect in 2024.

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