Keiron Cunningham tasted success in his first game as Saints coach in a stop-start match against Catalans Dragons that saw former Australia centre Willie Tonga knocked out just 12 seconds into his Super League debut.
Former London Broncos forward Atelea Vea marked his Saints debut with the game’s first try and 19-year-old Andre Savelio scored his first try for the club as the defending champions ground out an 18-7 victory against their injury-stricken opponents.
Tonga, one of the Catalans Dragons’ major close-season signings, was hurt in the very first tackle of the match at Langtree Park as he attempted to bring down Saints towering prop Alex Walmsley without ever getting into a position to make the tackle.
The game was held up for eight minutes before Tonga was carried off on a stretcher and, although he was later reported to be “fine”, he will have little recollection of his first taste of Super League action.
Already without first-choice half-backs Todd Carney, who withdrew on the day of the game after failing to shake off a calf strain, and Scott Dureau, it got even worse for the visitors when Thomas Bosc left the field for treatment after just four minutes, although he was able to return soon afterwards.
Second rower Zeb Taia, who switched with great effect to Tonga’s centre spot, had an early try ruled out by video referee Ben Thaler for an obstruction and Saints immediately opened the scoring when Vea took a short pass from fellow debutant Travis Burns and proved unstoppable from five metres out.
Tom Makinson’s goal made it 6-0 and centre Mark Percival looked certain to increase the lead when quick hands from Burns and Jonny Lomax got him into space, only for the refreshed Bosc to somehow dislodge the ball from his grasp.
The tide began to turn as the Dragons re-grouped and built pressure on the back of three goal-line drop-outs.
The Frenchmen were also aided by a run of five consecutive penalties, which stretched the patience of referee Phil Bentham, who sent Saints forward Greg Richards to the sin-bin on 35 minutes just moments after issuing a final team warning.
The Dragons instantly took advantage of the extra man, with hooker Eloi Pelissier catching the Saints defence napping with a quickly-taken tap penalty.
Bosc kicked the conversion to tie the scores and edged his side into an unlikely 7-6 interval lead with a drop goal.
Saints new captain Jon Wilkin was seen apparently remonstrating with Bentham before storming down the tunnel but the official began to endear himself to the 12,000 home fans by awarding the first three penalties of the second half to Saints, one of them for a shoulder charge by full-back Morgan Escare as he bundled Makinson into touch just short of the line.
The pressure told when centre Jordan Turner took Lomax’s pass to force his way over for St Helens’ second try three minutes into the second half with his side still down to 12 men.
Pelissier had a second try ruled out for a knock-on and Saints made sure of an opening-round win when Savelio forced his way over from close range for their third try on 57 minutes.
The Catalans were down to 12 men by then with winger Michael Oldfield despatched to the sin-bin for a professional foul, holding down Lomax after he had broken clear and looked a likely scorer, and Makinson went over for a fourth try five minutes from the end.
A last-minute skirmish quickly petered out but three yellow cards and one red after just two matches represents a stormy start to the first round of Super League XX.