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Kevin Naiqama signs off from St Helens with Grand Final winner over Catalans

The Guardian
The Guardian
 2021-10-09
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St Helens’ Kevin Naiqama holds off Samisoni Langi to score his side’s second try.

Sometimes, sport has the ability to create moments that transcend the era we are living in. Make no mistake about it, this was one of the greatest Grand Finals there has ever been, and how Catalans Dragons played their part in their first – but surely not last – Old Trafford appearance.

But as the rugby world cast a watchful eye over whether the Dragons could create genuine history and take the Super League title out of England for the first time, we forgot the one thing that has stood the test of time in the modern era: you never, ever write off St Helens. To win the title once is special. Twice is unbelievable. Three in a row? That is the stuff of legend.

It is hard to understate just where this St Helens side belongs among rugby league’s greatest. Forget Super League and the summer era; since the sport was founded in a hotel in Huddersfield in 1895, only two teams – Wigan in the early 1990s and Leeds from 2007 to 2009 – had won the league title three years in a row before this.

As James Roby lifted the Super League trophy aloft for the third successive year, he almost certainly ensured his club entered the history books as one of the greatest of all time.

“This town has got a team to be proud of,” their coach, Kristian Woolf, said. “They keep fighting for each other and working for each other. I’ve confidence in what we’re going to do moving forward, too.”

How they were made to work for it, though. Sides have buckled under the pressure in their maiden Grand Final before, but there was little chance of that happening here with Catalans.

With a captivating match entering the final quarter, the Dragons had forged a four-point lead courtesy of Mike McMeeken’s try and, having already weathered an immense amount of pressure, you began to wonder if Catalans could do the impossible. But Kevin Naiqama’s second try, having put Saints ahead midway through the first half, was the defining blow.

“We’ve got no regrets,” the Catalans coach, Steve McNamara, said. “But we’ll be back. This isn’t the last step, this is the next step. We’ve opened up a whole new market for French rugby league; the door is open now and we’ve got to keep it open.”

Their efforts were best underlined by the fact that two of their players, Ben Garcia and Matt Whitley, both broke their hands yet somehow finished the match.

Old Trafford was frenetic pre-match, and that atmosphere bubbled over into the game itself. There was an early moment of controversy when James Maloney was struck by a punch from Sione Mata’utia, though it went unpunished. “That sort of incident, they generally go back, stop the play and look at it,” McNamara said.

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Sione Mata’utia of St Helens is tackled by two Catalans Dragons. Photograph: Jan Kruger/Getty Images

It was the reigning champions who dominated the first quarter, though they fell behind when Maloney kicked a routine penalty in his final game as a professional. Saints roared back, scoring the try their play deserved when Jonny Lomax’s pass laid the platform for Naiqama to scythe through and touch down despite extreme pressure from three Catalans defenders.

Another penalty from Maloney narrowed the gap to two at half-time, but when Tommy Makinson became the first player in Grand Final history to be sent to the sin-bin, for a high tackle on Fouad Yaha, it tilted the momentum in Catalans’ favour. Five minutes later, they took full advantage when Tom Davies patted back a kick into the path of McMeeken. Maloney converted and the Dragons led 10-6.

Suddenly, the most extraordinary rugby league story seemed possible. Catalans have changed the landscape in Super League this year, underlined by the fact that television crews from the likes of Barcelona and Paris were present here. Ultimately, they failed to complete the job, but you feel that this will not be their one and only Grand Final appearance.

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In the end, Saints made sure this would be their night when Lomax kicked through and Naiqama – who will retire a three-time Grand Final winner – cut through on the angle and touched down for his second. Lachlan Coote converted and St Helens had the lead once again.

There were late chances for Catalans and on another night, against another side, they might have been able to take advantage of at least one. However, there is no substitute for the experience and class this St Helens side possess.

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