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

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.

BUY RUGBY WORLD CUP TICKETS

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

Secrets of comedy couples

What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

The best swimwear for men

From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

Mark Hix goes summer foraging

 A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

Aaron Ramsey interview

Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms