Saints on the brink of perfect season

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The Independent Online

St Helens can set the seal today on their reputation as one of the finest sides of the Super League era.

There have been teams with marginally better records over the course of a season than the Saints of 2006, even teams with more obvious stars, but none which have consistently played better as a team. Sean Long says it is easily the best Saints team he has played in and Daniel Anderson is adamant it is the best side he has coached - and he has worked with a Test team and with NRL Grand Finalists.

From the start of the season, they have looked like dominating both domestic competitions. They have carried off the Challenge Cup, led Super League all the way and, unlike last year, have not slipped up in the play-offs. Only Hull at Old Trafford tonight stand in the way of a perfect season.

With Keiron Cunningham recovered from a leg wound they are injury-free apart from the loss of Paul Sculthorpe and even his absence is offset by the rapid development of players like Jon Wilkin.

The other major difference from last year is that they have now adapted fully to the coaching methods of Anderson. Saints' fans were divided when he was appointed in place of the sacked Ian Millward mid-way through last season, but this quiet Australian has proved his point and brought new levels of consistency and defensive solidity to the club, but not at the expense of Saints' traditional flair.

Their support play is as good as it gets and the only question is whether they can rescue impossible situations. Their performance level has been so high that they have not been in those situations often enough for us to find out.

Hull's season has also been about a successful change of coach. Dismissing John Kear while last year's Challenge Cup triumph was still fresh in the mind looked like a harsh decision, but Peter Sharp's record since he arrived has vindicated it. His was not an appointment that set pulses racing in the city. He had no particular reputation in this country, but those who knew him argued he was the right man for the job.

The Hull captain, Richard Swain, was probably his strongest advocate and he says that Sharp has been all that he expected and more. "He's been a breath of fresh air," he said. "He's still teaching us things every day. I hadn't learned anything for a couple of years before he came, but the amount he has taught me has been unbelievable."

Like Anderson, he has tightened his team's defence and emphasised discipline off the field. He made his mind up very quickly that there were players who had played an important part the previous season who did not figure in his plans. On the other hand, a young fringe player like Danny Washbrook has been given his head and has become a fixture at loose forward.

There is no arguing with Sharp's results. Hull only started to lose games under his coaching when they had already clinched second place in the table. They can also point to being the side that has given Saints the most trouble in recent times. Under Kear, they beat them in last year's Challenge Cup semi-final and they are the only side to win at Knowsley Road this season.

They have shown their capabilities, but the suspicion is that Saints have a depth of quality in their squad that will make it fiendishly difficult to deny them.

Stacey Jones, the New Zealand scrum-half identified by Australia as the main threat in this morning's opening Tri-Nations game in Auckland, has not decided that the series will be his international swan-song. Jones came out of Test retirement last year and has hinted that he may turn out again in 2007.

Old Trafford teams

St Helens
FB Paul Wellens
RW Ade Gardner
RC Jamie Lyon
LC Willie Talau
LW Francis Meli
SO Leon Pryce
SH Sean Long
P Jason Cayless
H Keiron Cunningham
P Paul Anderson
SR Lee Gilmour
SR Jon Wilkin
LF Jason Hooper
Substitutes: James Graham, James Roby, Mike Bennett, Maurie Faíasavalu

Hull FC
FB Shaun Briscoe
RW Motu Tony
RC Sid Domic
LC Kirk Yeaman
LW Gareth Raynor
SO Paul Cooke
SH Richard Horne
P Ewan Dowes
H Richard Swain
P Garreth Carvell
SR Lee Radford
SR Shayne McMenemy
LF Danny Washbrook
Substitutes: Chris Chester, Graeme Horne, Paul King, Scott Wheeldon