St Helens head coach Justin Holbrook has the job of lifting his players from the disappointment of losing to Warrington Wolves in the final of the 2019 Challenge Cup at Wembley as they bid to end the season on a high.
Saints went into the final as the heavy favourites. However, they were unable to transfer their high scoring form from the Super League into the showdown for the trophy, while Warrington raised their game to hold their rivals to just four points in a 18-4 scoreline success to make up for their own heartbreak 12 months earlier.
It had been 11 years since St Helens had reached a Challenge Cup final and the last chance for Holbrook to get his hands on that particular piece of silverware before he leaves the Merseyside club at the end of the year to take up the coaching job at Gold Coast Titans in the NFL.
When Theo Fages crossed the line in the second half for Saints, they looked set to begin a comeback against Wolves. Yet, Lachlan Coote’s missed conversion soon ended any hope of the favourites getting back into the contest.
Holbrook will be desperate his players recover quickly and change their focus on the Super League, where they have the chance to still finish 2019 on a high and prove they have been the best team in the country this year.
St Helens are 16 points clear at the top of the Super League table after what has been a superb campaign for them in the regular season so far. Their latest success came against Castleford Tigers where they won 4-0 in a low scoring game at the Totally Wicked Stadium.
There are two rounds of fixtures left in the season before the play-offs. Saints have to face Huddersfield Giants at home, while they then travel to the KCOM Stadium to take on Hull FC in the final game of the regular season.
The league leaders have rugby league odds of 8/11 to come out on top at Old Trafford in Manchester in October. Given they now have first place secured and the League Leaders’ Shield in the bag, they will head straight into the semi-final where they will face one of the quarter-final winners.
Holbrook’s men will get a second chance to qualify for the Grand Final if they lose their opening semi-final tie as they will take on the winners of the second semi-final at home. If he reaches the championship-deciding game, it will be the Australian’s first experience of the match at Old Trafford as he has yet to guide his side there in his three-year stint at St Helens.
The last time Saints were in the Grand Final was in 2014 when they beat Wigan 14-6. The five-time winners have just Leeds ahead of them in the standings on who has won the trophy the most since the Super League was launched in 1998.
The pain of the defeat to Warrington is likely to be hurting the camp but they can soon get over that disappointment with Grand Final success on October 12.
The Sydney Roosters narrowly finished atop the table in the 2018 NRL season, creeping ahead of the Storm in the final round and finishing just a solitary game ahead of the Warriors in eighth in what was an incredibly close season.
Throughout the finals series, however, they showed that they were every bit the best team in it, dismissing all challengers they came across with aplomb. This season, they are tipped to be the team to beat again, but nipping at their heels is a long list of talented teams. Let’s take a look at the top contenders heading into 2019.
The Roosters, fresh off their fourth victory in the World Club Challenge in mid-February, will head into the 2019 season full of confidence and eager to become the first team since the league went national to win back-to-back Premierships. Despite their triumph last season, the Roosters will most likely be an even better side this year. Angus Crichton is a huge addition, the 23-year-old back rower set to make an immediate mark in a forward pack that is already one of the best in the league. Englishman Ryan Hall could be an important addition once he recovers from a knee injury, while all three of James Tedesco, Joseph Manu and Latrell Mitchell have the capacity to take their games to yet another level. The Roosters roster is a scary prospect for any side, and they are deserved favourites as we enter another season.
The Broncos are an enigma. In 2018, they finished sixth after an up-and-down season, and were promptly belted by the Dragons in the first week of the finals. A disappointing end to the year no doubt, but heading into 2019 there is plenty of reason for fans to be optimistic. The Broncos have a young but extremely talented forward pack, while Anthony Milford and Kodi Nikorima have the potential to be a dangerous halves combination. They will also receive a boost from the returns of Matt Gillett and Jack Bird, each of whom missed a large portion of the 2018 season due to injuries. Brisbane had a difficult off-season with Anthony Seibold taking over the coaching reigns from Wayne Bennett in controversial fashion, but the talent they have on the field is undeniable, and if they can put it all together they may just be one of the best chances to challenge the Roosters.
The perennially successful Melbourne Storm deserved plenty of credit for making it through to the Grand Final last year despite the loss of Test halfback Cooper Cronk – who would ultimately play a vital role in the Roosters’ victory over his old side on Grand Final day – but that would have been of little solace after they failed to defend their 2017 Premiership. This year, they will again have a huge hole to fill after the retirement of Billy Slater, and how either Jahrome Hughes, or Scott Drinkwater fares as his likely replacement will have a major impact on how deep into the finals they are able to go. With Cameron Smith still hanging around, and plenty of capable support in the form of Josh Addo-Carr, Jesse Bromwich and Will Chambers to name a few, the Storm should find themselves there or thereabouts at the pointy end of the season.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
The South Sydney Rabbitohs won’t have to wait long for their chance at revenge against a Roosters side that knocked them out of the finals in 2018, with the Round 1 match-up between the two sides sure to be quite the spectacle. You can check out the full Round 1 fixture and odds here: https://www.odds.com.au/sport/rugby-league/nrl/.
The Rabbitohs were a good team last year, finishing the season in third place, and this year they will probably be even better – though not necessarily due to changes in on-field personnel. The most successful coach in Australia Rugby League history, Wayne Bennett, will attempt to lead the Rabbitohs to a 22nd Premiership in 2019 after moving across from the Broncos, and with a squad as talented as the one he has at South Sydney, it would be of little surprise if he managed to do exactly that.
Who looks the strongest team in the NRL?
There’s no doubt that the Sydney Roosters head into the 2019 NRL season as the team to beat – they were the best side last year and have made some valuable additions to their squad in 2019. As 2018 highlighted, however, the league is as close as it’s ever been, and there are plenty of teams more than capable of challenging the reigning Premiers. The Broncos are capable of beating anyone on their day, the Storm have a culture of success and the experience to go deep, and the Rabbitohs have added the game’s best coach to a great roster. Add to that the probable improvement of the likes of the Panthers, the Dragons and the Sharks, and it wouldn’t surprise to see yet another bottleneck at the top of the table come the end of the season. Bring it on.
Eddie Jones has refused to fully close the door on Danny Cipriani’s England career, after the fly-half found himself with off the field issues once again.
Cipriani made his first start for England in a decade in South Africa this summer, but was fined £2,000 after admitting charges of common assault and resisting arrest during his club Gloucester’s pre-season tour of Jersey.
He then found himself sanctioned by the Rugby Football Union.
England head coach Jones has warned after recalling him to the international stage that “there’s always a plane back from Johannesburg”, but the half-back’s latest off-field problems does not appear to have ended his chances in the long-term.
Jones said: “We never close the door on anyone. Everyone makes mistakes. He was very contrite afterwards, realised he’s done the wrong thing and we move on from that now.
“I think it’s been dealt with. He was punished by his club, punished by whatever happened with the RFU. He’s now back playing and we’ll look at him in terms of how well he plays.
“In South Africa, he worked well and again at the August camp, he worked well and if he gets an opportunity at the September camp, he’ll have another opportunity to work well.”
England hooker James Roby will continue his St Helens career into a 16th season, after the Betfred Super League leaders revealed they had taken up an option on his contract for 2019.
The 32-year-old has won every domestic title whilst with his home-town club.
Roby made his debut as an 18-year-old in 2004, and recently reached 400 appearances for the club.
Roby, who was awarded the award for Steve Prescott Man of Steel in 2007, was appointed as St Helens captain at the start of the 2017 campaign, and has helped them on their way to the top of the table at the halfway mark for the season.
“I’m really happy to stay at my home-town club,” Roby said. “Although there is a long way to go this season, everything is going well and I’m looking forward to the rest of the year and next.
“I’m proud to have played at the Saints my whole career and I’m really looking forward to the future.”
England international back Alex Lozowski has signed a contract extension with the current Aviva Premiership leaders, Saracens.
The deal will keep Lozowski at the reigning European champions until 2020.
Lozowski, 24, has been a crucial player for the Saracens since he joined them from the Wasps last year, offering options not only at fly-half, but centre too.
His form has seen him rewarded with two England caps, whilst on the Argentina tour four months ago.
“We are delighted that Alex has agreed a new deal,” Saracens rugby director Mark McCall said.
“Alex will have an important role to play for us as he continues to develop as a player, so naturally we are very happy to announce that he will be staying at Allianz Park until at least 2020.
“In his brief time at the club, Alex has already shown how good a player he is, but the most exciting thing for us is how much improvement we believe there is to come from him alongside our core of young, hungry, home-grown players.”
Lozowski is not the only player to sign new terms with Saracens in the recent weeks, as he follows Owen Farrell, Jamie George and Nick Isiekwe to sign on the dotted line.
“I have really benefited from being in the environment and from being around good players and good coaches,” Lozowski said.
“I think being surrounded by the calibre of guys that we’ve got here is only going to bring your game up. I am really grateful to be part of this team.”
Manu Tuilagi has been named as one of the 37 man squad that Eddie Jones will take for a three-day training camp, which begins this weekend.
The Leicester centre hasn’t represented England on an international stage since 2016, as continuous injury setbacks threatened to hamper the 26-year-old’s career.
Seven of the chosen 37 – Dan Cole, Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, Jack Nowell, Kyle Sinckler and Anthony Watson – will spend only one day at the camp, to undergo medical check-ups.
The England head coach said:
“We are at an incredibly important stage with two years to go to the Rugby World Cup in Japan, and there is still a big step to make if we want to be the number one team in the world.
“We are going to have to be meticulous in preparation in everything we do as we build towards Tokyo, and that is why this camp is vital ahead of this season.
“The players, coaches and staff will use these three days to reconnect and ensure we are all clear on what our priorities and expectations are ahead of the Premiership season, as well as the upcoming Old Mutual Wealth Series (in November).”
England training squad: Backs – M Brown (Harlequins), D Care (Harlequins), N Earle (Saracens), O Farrell (Saracens), G Ford (Leicester), P Francis (Northampton), A Lozowski (Saracens), H Mallinder (Northampton), J Marchant (Harlequins), J Maunder (Exeter), J May (Gloucester), J Nowell (Exeter), R Wigglesworth (Saracens), H Slade (Exeter), M Smith (Harlequins), D Solomona (Sale Sharks), M Tuilagi (Leicester), A Watson (Bath), B Youngs (Leicester).
Forwards – D Cole (Leicester), L Cowan-Dickie (Exeter), T Curry (Sale Sharks), T Dunn (Bath), C Ewels (Bath), E Genge (Leicester), J George (Saracens), D Hartley (Northampton), N Hughes (Wasps), N Isiekwe (Saracens), M Itoje (Saracens), J Launchbury (Wasps), C Robshaw (Harlequins), K Sinckler (Harlequins), S Underhill (Bath), H Williams (Exeter), M Wilson (Newcastle), B Vunipola (Saracens).
Hull FC will take on Wigan in Australia in 2018 for the first Super League game to ever take place outside of Europe.
Date: 10 February 2018
Venue: WIN Stadium in Wollongong
A week after the game, both sides will then take on Australian opponents. Wigan will face the South Sydney Rabbitohs, whilst Hull will face St George Illawarra Dragons. Both games will be in Sydney.
If either side qualifies, it will open the door for them to take part in the World Club Challenge or Series, which starts on the 24th of February.
Shane Wane’s Wigan side have previously played in Australia, when they were defeated 36-14 by the Sydney Roosters in 2014 during the World Club Challenge, but the Warriors will be hoping for a sweeter outcome this time around.
Warriors chairman Ian Lenagan said:
“We firmly believe that the Wigan and Hull fans will be as excited about this venture as we are and we have announced early to allow fans the chance to plan their trip to Australia.”
Whilst Hull chairman Adam Pearson also spoke:
“There will be a great deal of excitement from fans of both clubs and we’re sure many will want to travel to New South Wales for such an historic occasion, support their team and help showcase all that is good about rugby league in the UK.”
From the comforts of home in Tokoroa, New Zealand, where walking around the town barefoot was the norm, to the bright lights and fast moving pace of the City of Bradford in the North of England, where Robbie Hunter-Paul and his family were subject to a few gazes of disbelief as they walked around the city centre without wearing so much as sandals on their first day there.
It was safe to say Hunter-Paul had made a big change to his life, and at such a young age. But his move to Bradford Bulls would ignite the start of hugely successful career at the top of the Rugby League game in England, which spanned over the course of 17 years.
The 40-year-old was only 18 when the move to the Bulls came about, and to understand the cultural differences that was about to become a reality for him, he tuned in to Sky Movies to watch the Bradford based film Rita, Sue and Bob too.
“We were one of the first families in our neighbourhood to get Sky as we followed the Rugby League in Australia.
“I knew nothing about the culture in England, and I knew less about a city in the North of England called Bradford. Rita, Sue and Bob too is a British cult classic about a guy who sleeps with babysitters on a council estate in Bradford, and that was my introduction.
“You can imagine as an 18-year-old who was brought up as a mummy’s boy, that after watching that I had a firm grip on my mum’s skirt as I got off the plane when I arrived.”
The former Scrum-half believes British people are among the most tribal in the world, although he claims they don’t even realise to what effect. Hunter-Paul pinpoints his success as Captain of the Bulls at such a young age as being down to managing all of his teammates personalities, no matter where they had come from, no matter what ‘tribe’ they were a part of.
“Depending on what side of the street you grew up on in Britain, you will go ‘Nah I’m not speaking to that lot over there’. The melting pole which is a professional rugby team, you have so many different backgrounds and cultures.
“When it came to training, I’d train the house down. Very few people trained as hard as I did. Off the field I was very focussed, but when it came to being able to communicate on those different levels, I was able to do that. I was also wise enough and smart enough to know that 18 years of age, I didn’t know it all.”
1996 turned out to be a phenomenal year for the Kiwi, when he ended the season as the the Bulls top try scorer, before winning the man of the match award and the Lance Todd Trophy, after scoring three tries in the Challenge Cup final against St Helens.
“When I scored the first try I rolled over and there was a wall of 30,000 Bradford fans, it was just amazing. We were losing at this point so it got us back into the game and within 2 points. It was rock star moment.
“Do you know why rock stars do what they do? Put aside the money, it’s because it feeds that kind of adrenaline and endorphin release. It’s the strongest drug on the planet, and you can never replace that.”
Although throughout his career Hunter-Paul worked hard to never make costly mistakes, he’s reminded daily of one in a Grand Final between Leeds and Bradford where he fumbled the ball around the Bulls own 22 with only minutes to go, a mistake that eventually led to the Rhinos overturning the Bulls lead and winning the final.
“My father taught me one of the best lessons in life. He told me that if I made a mistake it’s not your fault, but if you make it again it damn well is. Because you should have learned from the first time you made that mistake.
“Did I always learn from the first mistakes? Hell no. Show me someone who didn’t. The people who are of the elite understand failure, they understand losing and making a mistake. Most of the time it’s the best lesson learnt. Did I let that mistake beat me up? No, I just had to move on.”
You don’t need to be a world class sportsperson to understand sibling rivalry. You fight, squabble and kiss and make up countless times before you grow up into men, and even then not a lot changes. Robbie played alongside his brother Henry at the Bulls, but they had to face up against each other as rivals too.
“He’s the best player I’ve ever played with or against. The way he was able to transcend his game to international level was exceptional. He’s a very driven man, and I picked up some of my skills from him.
“It was hard having to compete with someone growing up who was two years my senior, and two years physically more developed than I was, but playing with him every day developed me as a player.”
With his career in England blooming, a personal dream of the New Zealanders that stemmed back to being a six-year-old was about to become a reality in 1997, as he was set to represent his country for the first time. Not even his initial self questioning of his worth of wearing such a shirt would hamper one of the proudest days of his life.
“It was such an honour to lead the Haka against England, the other half of my life. That was a truly joyous day, and one of my proudest moments as a rugby player.
“I remember stood in front of my shirt whilst it was on the hook, and suddenly things go through your head like ‘am I even worthy of this jersey?’.
“Then the doggedness and drive that got your there in the first place comes out and says ‘snap out of it you pussy, pull this shirt off the hook and put it on.’ I was lucky to have a long stint as a New Zealand international, but you have to earn it.”
Although he came to England with little knowledge of the culture, he remains resided here, married to an English wife, with English children, and will be seen as legend that will forever have his story written in the Bradford Bulls history books. He may have moved to the country originally for his Rugby career, but he is quite happy to admit he stayed for the people – And thankfully he now has enough shoes to not worry about those looks of disbelief that shoe-less day it all begun.