St Helens know they must keep moving to stay ahead

Saints have a new coach, captain and key overseas player despite winning the Grand Final last season

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The Independent Online

At the start of a Super League season that promises so much change, you might expect the reigning champions to be the exception to the general rule.

St Helens, after all, finished top of the table and won the Grand Final at Old Trafford, despite being without key players for much of the season. More of the same would surely be enough to take them through whatever obstacles they encounter this time.

The bad news for the rest is that Saints, who begin the defence of their title at home to the Catalans Dragons on Friday night, would not know how to rest on a laurel.

With a new coach, a new captain, a new key overseas player and the return of another who missed most of the last campaign, they have embraced change, both enforced and voluntary.

“There is no way that what we did last season is going to be good enough this time,” says Jon Wilkin, who missed much of last year with injuries, but has been appointed skipper for this one.

For him, it is not merely a question of another winning season but of establishing a dynasty of teams that can regularly win trophies playing the St Helens way.

“I’m just glad for our younger players that we won trophies last season, after a few years of not winning,” he said. “They know what it’s all about.”

They will attempt to continue that success under the coaching of a club legend  in Keiron Cunningham (above), backed up by another in  Sean Long.

Cunningham was assistant to the previous head coach, Nathan Brown, who has returned home to Australia, and although he kept out of the media spotlight the two men were very much a team.

“I won’t change things for the sake of changing them,” he says. “You might not notice much of a difference, but we will always be looking for the little things that we can improve on.”

Cunningham is probably the only man in the world of rugby who goes to work past a statue of himself, erected at Langtree Park after their supporters voted him the club’s best-ever player. That is the sort of status he enjoys around the place.

Long is also St Helens royalty and Wilkin says: “He has a brilliant rugby brain and his skills coaching is another thing that will give us a big advantage.”

The presence of Luke Walsh in the No 7 shirt that Long made his own in his playing days is another reason to believe that Saints could be at the start of something big.

Walsh broke his leg midway through last season and, although Saints went on to win Super League without him, they are a far tougher proposition with him in the side.

Alongside him will be another Australian, Travis Burns from Hull KR, who has already impressed his new team-mates with his drive and aggression.

“I discussed several players we might sign with the directors,” says Cunningham. “But it was no contest. I told them I wanted Travis ahead of anyone else, because of his attitude.”

Saints’ coach is also enthusiastic with what Wilkin will bring to the role of captain. The back-rower is surely the busiest man in the game already. He is the leading light in the players’ association and owns an upmarket coffee bar in the middle of Manchester. “The devil finds work for idle hands,” says Wilkin. “Besides, I’ve no kids and no Xbox.”