It is finally here, the Grand Final, as St Helens and Salford Red Devils battle it out to claim Super League supremacy.
When the season kicked off between Wigan and Saints on the 31 January, October looked a long way away and it has been a rollercoaster, to say the least. We have had glory, despair, illation and commiseration throughout a campaign where we saw two new venues in Anfield and the Nou Camp, as well as a fairytale story that will never be forgotten.
2019 saw a season of fresh starts. In May of 2018, Robert Elstone was appointed as new CEO and with that came changes. The biggest change of all was the introduction of a new playoff system, adding an extra spot to give more teams the chance of competing for a place at Old Trafford. This was fresh and something that had new been done before and luckily for Elstone, it worked perfectly. What followed was an exciting playoff battle, with nothing being decided until the final day.
Salford Red Devils
However, it wasn’t just the playoff system which was new. A poor 2018 saw Salford Red Devils fighting for their Super League lives, only staying up by the skin of their teeth. Something clicked in the offseason, a transformation which changed the whole sides demeanour, taking them from relegation survivors to Grand Final contenders.
“Personnel, it is the people we have gone out and recruited, this is the best group that we have had at Salford in my time in being here,” said Watson when asked about what had changed from last year to this.
One man who has had a massive impact in 2019 is Jackson Hastings. The Australian came to the club in the middle of 2018 following his release from Manly after a difficult spell and it is fair to say that both parties have prospered since.
Hastings has been an influential part of the Red Devils’ success. The stand-off has recorded 10 tries and 36 assists throughout the campaign which saw him crowned the Man of Steel and Watson revealed that Hastings is creating his own legacy.
“Big games and big moments make big players and Jacko [Hastings] is no different. He is trying to create his own legacy as well but we are trying to create one as a team and Jackson needs to make sure that he does his job for the team and not worry that he has to win the game for us.
“But he has been phenomenal for us all year, on and off the field and is a credit to himself in the way that he has chosen specific decisions and reignite his career.”
On Saturday, Salford will enter the biggest game in the history of the club. Over the season, they have been exceptional, but to beat the Saints it is a whole different story.
“We know what to expect, we have played them a couple of times, we have watched them closely throughout the year,” said Watson.
“They are big up front with the likes of Luke Thompson and Alex Walmsley, so we will need to a job on them because the likes of [Tommy] Makinson and [Mark] Percival will try and get them on the front foot. Then you have the likes of [James] Roby and Jonny [Lomax], who will jump off the back of that and try and play.
“So, it is up to us to make sure that we control that speed in the ruck and not allow Lomax and [Theo] Fages to get their hands on the ball.”
When that final whistle goes, whatever the result, Ian Watson has made dreams, reality. However, until then, they can still dream.
“It would be a big achievement. But the biggest one for me would be about our team as backroom staff and the players,” he said.
“How it would feel for all of us and what it would mean as a group of people who have come together and worked really hard over the past 18 months to get where we are now.”
Justin Holbrook will live long in the hearts of St Helens fans. The Australian will leave Merseyside come the end of the campaign and what a way to end. Finishing the regular season with a record 16-point margin on second place, a Challenge cup final and now a Grand Final, 2019 has definitely not been dull if you’re a St Helens supporter.
However successful Holbrook has been over the years, major trophies seem to have eluded this Saints squad. They will be looking to put this right come Saturday, but Holbrook is under no circumstances underestimating their opponents and knows exactly what to expect.
“A very tough and committed opposition, that is for sure. That is the way they have played and have earnt the right to be here on Saturday.”
In an interview with Justin Holbrook just last week, he revealed that pressure on his Saints side can be a “privilege.”
At the start of 2019, they were odds on favourites to make an Old Trafford appearance and the bookmakers were exactly right. Now, eight-and-a-half-months on since the start of the campaign, Saints have been brushing away opponents left, right and centre, dealing with pressure week-in-week-out and Holbrook believes Saturday will be no different.
“I don’t think we have to combat that [Salford seen as the underdogs], I think that is just a natural reaction. All of the neutral fans are going to behind Salford because it is the first time that they have been in a Grand Final.
“That is fine with me, I accept all that and in the end, it is all about playing well. We will only be judged on the 80 minutes not on who is the underdog and who is the favourite, it is all about performing on the night and that is what we have to focus on.”
Holbrook will want to end his Saints tenure on a high, but however it ends, he can take pride in leading one of the most consistent Saints teams of all time.
— Betfred Super League (@SuperLeague) October 4, 2019
Over the course of the campaign, Saints and Salford have met twice, with the Justin Holbrook’s men running out winners on both occasions.
The first came back in February when tries from Percival, Lomax, Grace and a James Roby double maintained Saints’ 100% winning record. However, the fixture in May was a lot tighter as the League Leaders Shield winners scraped a 32-30 victory. Saints started fast and took an early three-score lead, however, Salford pegged the home-side back, going in front just before half-time. James Bentley saves Saints’ blushes with a last-gasp try to claim the two-point win.
When it comes to six o’clock on Saturday, form goes out the window and there will be only 80 minutes separating one of these two teams from Grand Final glory.