Stars return as St Helens hope to benefit from international success

Jonny Lomax
Jonny Lomax
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Saints' Test series heroes returned to training this week - and head coach Justin Holbrook hopes England's 2-1 victory over New Zealand will rub off on his own squad as they bid to make up for the disappointment at losing in the semi-finals of both the Challenge Cup and Super League play-offs.

Golden Boot winner Tommy Makinson, Jonny Lomax and Luke Thompson who played in all three matches against the Kiwis and the unused Mark Percival, will be brimming with self-confidence after the country's end of season exploits and put the experiences of international rugby, both on and off the field, to good use at domestic level.

Holbrook, who had the consolation of steering St Helens to the League Leaders' Shield in 2018, said: ''These boys will be more confident on their return and the beauty for them is that they were able to get over the disappointment of our own season straight away.

''It was the best thing that could have happened and hopefully we will benefit.''

The Aussie boss has parted company with four experienced players - Matty Smith joining Catalans Dragons, Jon Wilkin moving to Toronto Wolfpack, top try scorer Ben Barba returning home to link up with North Queensland Cowboys and Ryan Morgan signing for London Broncos on loan.

But on the flip side he has recruited a trio of overseas players in Kevin Naiqama, Joseph Paulo and Lachlan Coote, who have a combined total of 441 NRL matches under their belts, and Joe Batchelor from York City Knights.

Holbrook said: ''I'm quite happy with my squad and whether it is better than last season only time will tell.

“The new players coming in will alter our style of play slightly but we won’t throw everything out of the window.

''We won 26 of our 30 league games last season but we don't want to finish the new campaign in a similar way to last time.

“It wasn’t a frustrating season, just disappointing in the end. We suffered two completely different exits from competitions we wanted to win.

“We won a lot of games before the Challenge Cup semi-final with the Dragons but we were ambushed, while In the play-off semi-final against Warrington there wasn’t much between the teams

'"We were leading with five minutes to go so it was disappointing we couldn’t hang on and complete the job.”

Hopefully, Saints will have learned from that bitter experience, especially the younger players who are still trying to find their feet at the top level.

The Aussie head coach added: ''Danny Richardson had his first full season in Super League and then you have Matty Lees and Jack Ashworth plus the likes of Morgan Knowles and Regan Grace who are still young.too.

“These guys got plenty of game time and contributed well which will help us in the season ahead.”

A further boost will be the return of prop Alex Walmsley who missed the majority of 2018 with a serious neck injury which required major surgery.

Alex is taking a full part in pre-season training and will have a scan on his neck tomorrow (Wednesday) and then will see a specialist on Friday.

Holbrook said: ''Alex has to get enough bone regrowth to be able to play again. In training, he is doing everything asked of him and is just waiting for the green light.

''it will be like a new signing when he pulls on a first team shirt - something he is itching to do.''.

Saints are quoted by bookmakers William Hill as 4/1 favourites to win the Grand Final next October but Holbrook is reluctant to make any predictions.

''There are 11 other good teams besides ourselves and I think it's going to be exciting how things pan out with some clubs making big signings.''