St Helens determined not to let Leeds Rhinos rain on their parade
St Helens will parade their World Club Challenge trophy at the Totally Wicked Stadium on Friday night but head coach Paul Wellens knows his side’s victorious homecoming could go up in smoke if they fail to extend their winning start to the new Betfred Super League season.
A home sell-out approaching 14,000 is expected for a repeat of last September’s Grand Final against Leeds Rhinos, after Saints’ heroics in wresting a dramatic golden-point win over NRL champions Penrith Panthers in Australia two weeks ago.
Captain James Roby, who misses out again through injury, will take the trophy on a tour of the stadium at half-time, but Wellens is conscious the carnival atmosphere must not be allowed to detract from the task in hand.
“We are in a bit of an unusual situation where the club has won a major honour in the first game of the season,” said Wellens, who can also recall Tommy Makinson for the first time since the winger was forced off during the win Down Under with a head injury.
“The supporters can sing, dance, clap and cheer as much as they want – but from us as a playing group it is about keeping consistency and performing well, week in week out because that is what our success has been built off in recent years.”
Saints shrugged off the jetlag with a far from perfect 24-6 win at Castleford last Sunday, and Wellens acknowledged it is too soon to say whether the effects of their hectic pre-season schedule could linger.
In the Rhinos they face a side struggling to get back into the groove after following their dismal opening defeat at Warrington with a close-run 22-18 loss to Hull FC at Headingley last Friday night.
But while comparisons are inevitably drawn to his side’s desperate start last season that left them teetering on the brink of the relegation zone, Rhinos head coach Rohan Smith is adamant there is no cause for alarm.
Smith’s arrival at Headingley in April sparked a dramatic revival in fortunes that saw them surge up the table and ultimately all the way to the season finale at Old Trafford, where they proved no match for Friday’s opponents.
“Really you want to be firing on all cylinders at the end of the year,” insisted Smith. “There’s a lot of teams that start like a house on fire and fall in a heap. We haven’t started great, it hasn’t all been bad despite the two defeats.”
Smith, who could bring in James Bentley for his first appearance of the season against his former club but must do without forward Morgan Gannon, believes Friday night’s big occasion could help his own side click back into gear.
“You’d expect them to be chomping at the bit to get home and celebrate with their fans,” added Smith. “But there’s no better time for us to have a crack at the world champions. It’s a great opportunity for us.”