Saints plan a final flourish at end of Knowsley Road
A place at the season's showpiece is the prize as St Helens play the last match at their home of 120 years
Friday 24 September 2010
The paint is peeling, the toilets can't cope and the stand shakes when the spectators stamp their feet, but there has always been something special about Knowsley Road.
St Helens bid farewell tonight to their home for 120 years, for more than half of which Ray French has been going there in some capacity.
"I only lived 500 yards away and I was first aware of the place right at the end of the war. It still had concrete pillboxes there that the Home Guard used and we used to play at capturing the Gestapo," says the long-serving BBC commentator, who will call his last game there in the qualifying semi-final against Huddersfield this evening. "It was more of a playground than anything to do with rugby."
He does remember with some vestiges of envy, however, a lad from his street who had the sought after job of walking around the pitch carrying a board with the team changes, for which he was paid a penny.
French was paid rather more than that when he made his professional debut there for Saints against Wakefield Trinity, having already won England caps at rugby union. He was in direct opposition that night to a tough forward called Don Vines, whom he had been signed to replace.
"He put his shoulder straight into my stomach and really hurt me. I was just thinking 'I've got to get up'. He's there at the play-the-ball and he says: 'Welcome to rugby league.' I did the same to him second half."
French has no doubts about the most unforgettable player he saw or played with at Knowsley Road.
"Tom van Vollenhoven – some of his tries were phenomenal. I remember one against Wigan, with Jackie Cunliffe at full-back. He was one-on-one with Voll and gave him 75 yards on one side and a yard between him and the touchline. Voll went round him in that yard he'd left him on the outside. I remember Jackie walking back and saying to me: 'What the hell can you do?'"
The legendary South African was also responsible for French's most embarrassing memory of playing at Knowsley Road.
"It was a headline in the old News Chronicle – 'French and Vollenhoven in 95 yard scoring dash'. My contribution was passing to him in a panic near our try-line. He did the rest. I took some stick in the dressing room over that."
The most vivid relatively recent memory is particularly appropriate this week, because it was in the play-offs exactly 10 years ago that Saints scored what is popularly known as "that try".
They were a point down to Bradford with three seconds to play when they went 80 yards and through the hands of half the team for Chris Joynt to win the game.
It was that try, says French, that cemented Saints' modern reputation for never being beaten – especially at Knowsley Road – until after the last strains of the final hooter.
Those who visualise Knowsley Road in a Lowryesque landscape of mill chimneys and pit gear have the wrong idea. When it opened in 1890, it was as good as in the countryside and now it is firmly in the leafy suburbs.
Saints will be going against the tide when they move to their new stadium, on the site of an old glassworks, because its setting will be both more central and more industrial.
"I'll miss the place," says French, who will be behind a BBC microphone at Knowsley Road for the last time tonight. "I've been coming here all my life. My dad did. My grandad did. But it's vital that St Helens move into the 21st century. They need the income from the new ground."
In a couple of senses, tonight's last match at the old ground could be ever so slightly anticlimactic. Huddersfield, who have not won there since 1978, are less evocative opposition than Wigan or Warrington would have been.
Besides, Saints are cunningly declining to confirm or deny that there will be a Boxing Day friendly against Wigan before the bulldozers move in.
It will, however, be the last game there for Keiron Cunningham, who is retiring after a career that has made him such a Saints icon that it will be his statue outside the new stadium.
"I've always said it would be a fitting send-off for myself and Matt Gidley to win the last match here and get to another Grand Final," Cunningham says, while warning against underestimating the Giants, surprise conquerors of Warrington in the last round.
"We're going to have a real tussle on our hands," he says. "They are a fantastic team. Defensively, they've been strong, with a real will to work for each other. It's going to be in the middle where it will be won or lost. Warrington have got a massive pack but Huddersfield took it to them and came out on top."
Saints are likely to be boosted by the return of the last in the great line of Knowsley Road crowd-pleasers, Kyle Eastmond, after a hip injury. He could form a half-back combination with Matty Smith, so impressive against Warrington on his return from Salford two weeks ago.
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