Can Saints do the double in 2018?

Ben Barba
Ben Barba
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Saints failed by the width of a cat’s whisker to reach last season’s OldTrafford Grand Final, suffering a golden goal extra-time 23-22 defeat

against Castleford Tigers at Wheldon Road.

It was a bitter pill to swallow but now that’s just water under the bridge and consigned to the sporting history books.

All eyes will now be totally focused on Betfred Super League XXIII and in many people’s eyes the equally important Ladbrokes Challenge Cup.

Saints are approaching the 10th anniversary of their 28-16 victory over Hull FC at Wembley - the last time they graced the Mecca of British sport - and that’s far too long for a club of their stature and standing.

They went on to reach the Grand Final that season before losing to their Old Trafford bogey team, Leeds Rhinos - but can they go on and win both

trophies and stand alongside Knowsley Road double winners of 1965/66, 1996 and 2006?

The bookmakers are certainly not ruling this out on the evidence of Saints’ surge since new coach Justin Holbrook arrived from Down Under in May and quote them as 9/2 joint favourites with Castleford Tigers to lift both trophies.

Whether that’s a realistic target for either club only time will tell and while not recruiting heavily in the off-season, St Helens look to possess a squad of players better equipped than 12 months ago to at least bring home one piece of silverware.

At the same time, Aussie full back Ben Barba can be described as virtually a new signing as he played only a handful of games towards the end of the 2017 campaign following an elongated ban for a cocaine-related offence in the NRL the previous year.

Holbrook has already hinted that the former Cronulla Sharks NRL Grand Final winner will be his first choice No. 1 and it will be interesting to see what role he then hands of England World Cup Final loser, Jonny Lomax.

Until Barba was able to resume his career, Lomax had nailed down the full back spot but the latter is so versatile he is capable of filling most roles and will be putting pressure on his team-mates to secure a starting spot.

There’s nothing more healthy than competition for places and I believe Saints have it in abundance with veteran Matty Smith, who was plagued by injury last season, wanting to prove his worth following a move from Wigan Warriors prior to the 2017 season and no doubt relishing the challenge from the ever-improving Theo Fages and the up-and-coming Danny Richardson.

Up front, Saints have a pack of forward capable of competing with the best, which is a mixture of youth and experience and may have plucked a gem from one-time Super League giants and rivals Bradford Bulls with the signing of back rower James Bentley on a three-year deal

Dubbed the best player in the Championship’ by an absolute mile by former Saints and Odsal ace Leon Pryce, James made his debut for the Bulls against Oldham last season and went on to be named as the Championship Young Player of the Year.

Obviously he still as a lot to learn but nothing could be better if he wants to continue his improvement than coming under the wing of fellow forward and club skipper, Jon Wilkin, especially in the hurly-burly of match action.

Wilkin has ‘seen it and done it all’ in his chosen sport since arriving at St Helens in the summer of 2002 from Hull KR and will have a key role both on and off the pitch to keep things tickling over smoothly.

But at 34 he is in the twilight of a trophy-laden career - even though that didn’t appear evident by his contribution to games last season - and only he knows when it will be time to hang up his boots.

Neither is his team-mate James Roby showing any signs of wear and tear as he approaches his 15th Super League season.

Hooker Roby, who turned 32 in November, is one game short of 400 appearances for his home-town club, and judging by his performances in the end-of-season World Cup he still has more mountains to conquer in the future.

So, too, do Saints !

Saints will play two pre-season friendlies. Sheffield Eagles will visit the Totally Wicked Stadium on Saturday, January 20 (kick-off 3pm) and then on Friday, January 26 (kick-off 8pm( Justin Holbrook’s side will entertain neighbours Leigh Centurions.