Captain Jon Wilkin believes this Friday’s clash away to Challenge Cup winners Leeds will provide the perfect opportunity for St Helens to bounce back from a “horrendously difficult” period.
Saints go into the game hoping to smash a four-game losing streak, which began with defeat to the Rhinos in the Challenge Cup semi-final.
A guy did say to me on my way into the stadium last week that it’s the worst St Helens side he’s seen in 80 odd years. It’s not true, obviously – the 70s and 80s were not a great period for the club – and I think you can over-reactJon Wilkin
While that game helped propel Leeds to Wembley glory, it’s had the reverse effect on Wilkin and his colleagues.
The Super League champions have since lost to Catalans Dragons, Hull FC and Huddersfield Giants during a wretched recent run.
And Wilkin is hoping that a return clash on Friday night against a Leeds side backing up after their Wembley win can act as a catalyst for Saints to kickstart their own campaign.
“Obviously it’s been a horrendously difficult month for us for a number of reasons,” acknowledged Wilkin.
“I think our form has been scratchy at best, and we’ve really struggled to string a solid performance together.
“There’s no other side in the competition that challenge you more to put in an 80-minute performance than Leeds do.
“I think the complicating factor for Leeds is obviously the cup final and how they respond to that.
“For us, and I’ve said this for the last few weeks, everyone else and how they prepare for the games is immaterial. We need to focus on ourselves and making sure we’re better.
“As captain of the club, I’m asking everyone in the dressing room to look at themselves and say, ‘Look, what can we do better?’ and forget the problems everybody else is having.
“I think that’s the core to getting back on track.”
Four straight defeats have not only damaged morale in the Saints dressing room.
They have also led to disharmony in the stands, with Wilkin being made aware first hand of one particular long-time supporter’s feelings.
“The thing with St Helens – one thing I’ve always been aware of, acutely aware of as a player – is that the fans are very demanding,” recognised Wilkin.
“They want success. They expect victory.
“A guy did say to me on my way into the stadium last week that it’s the worst St Helens side he’s seen in 80 odd years.
“It’s not true, obviously – the 70s and 80s were not a great period for the club – and I think you can over-react.
“Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but the fans being demanding is core to the club being successful.
“They drive the standards of the club, the players, the coaches, everybody, so I would never begrudge the fans from being demanding of us.
“There’s no one at the club who wants to win more than the players, but the fans demanding success and driving it is crucial.
“There’s a balance – I think there’s fair criticism and unfair criticism, and as a sportsman you deal with all those things.
“I think we have to be realistic and honest about the situation we are in – we are a great side who are not playing very well, but it doesn’t make us a bad team overnight.”
Saints’ slump in form has raised real fears the side could even miss out on a top-four finish – they are currently only two points above fifth-placed Castleford with four games to go.
But Wilkin insists now is a time for cool heads rather than over-reaction.
“We certainly don’t have to panic and change everything all at once,” he added. “But we have a lot to work on.
“A lot of what we’re doing wrong is purely concentration, for me, and attention to detail, and once we get back to that we’ll be fine.
“You’re only as good as your form in sport and our form is bad. I’m happy for people to write us off because the main games in the Super 8s are still to come.
“Assuming we do well in those, the last month will be forgotten.
“People who write about the game and talk about the game will use Leeds being in the cup final as a factor in the build-up and after the result.
“If we beat Leeds, the cup final will be used as a reason; if we don’t, it will be our poor form. The reality is it will always be a combination of both things.
“I think Leeds will be affected emotionally and physically from the cup final.
“But they know how to deal with big games and how to play again the week after because they’ve been doing for so long, so you wouldn’t expect it to affect them that much.
“And they are the form team in Super League, so they will be going into the game as favourites.”
“There were two things I wanted to do this year. One was walk up the stairs at Wembley and lift the trophy, which I can’t do.
“The next is to pick up the trophy at Old Trafford, and if I get the opportunity to do that I’ll be delighted.
“That’s the aim. We want to win trophies, and that’s the big trophy that we can still win.”