St Helens hit the ground running in style in the Betfred Super League restart match with a convincing 34-6 victory over a Catalans Dragons side who struggled to get to grips with Kristian Woolf's side throughout. Lachlan Coote, James Bentley, Zeb Taia, Alex Walmsley and Tommy Makinson all went over for the reigning champions, with Coote adding an extra ten points with the boot. James Maloney registered the only points for the Dragons as Steve McNamara's side will look to improve quickly as Round 8 approaches next week.
Story of the match
Saints and Catalans started the game on fairly even keel, with both sides attempting to break through the respective defenses. It was a relentless start, with the first extended chance of a breather for the players coming on 11 minutes when Saints took the lead. Morgan Knowles was tackled too high by Jimmy Maloney and Coote converted the penalty with ease.
On fifteen minutes Saints extended their lead in spectacular fashion. Quick hands at a breathtaking pace saw Coote stretch to the line to ground the ball. He failed to convert the kick, but Saints took a 6-0 lead and looked in control in the early stages. Zeb Taia's skill was what made the try, though. He caught the ball and immediately tipped the pass to Coote to touch down, catching Catalan napping. James Roby and James Graham were also heavily involved with Saints playing some devastating rugby.
On 25 minutes the Dragons were punished for a knock on when James Bentley got on the end of a Coote kick to make the score 10-0. Coote again failed to convert the try but the Scot's kick for the try was excellent, and was showing his worth in a big way for Kristian Woolf's side. It went from bad to worse for the Dragons as Zeb Taia had a very simple job of touching down after being put in by Johnny Lomax. This time the conversion was completed and the Saints were 16-0 up on 34 minutes. The Dragons also lost hooker Micky Mcllorum to injury as he failed his head injury assessment after being forced to leave the field.
As the Dragons put the pressure on in the last five minutes of the first half, Saints almost scored a length of the field try. Mark Percival, Roby and Regan Grace combined to almost put the Saints further ahead, but the Dragons defense managed to put a stop to the attack. It stayed 16-0 as the hooter went for half time.
The second half saw Saints have two chances to extend their lead in the first two minutes, but the Catalans defense managed to hold firm. On 45 minutes though, Saints did go further ahead. Great link up play yet again from Lomax, Louie McCarty-Scarsbrook and Taia saw Coote go over and add the extras with the kick. However, Taia was soon on the deck after massive clash of heads with Alrix Da Costa. The former came off worse and went off for a Head Injury Assessment.
On 52 minutes Tommy Makinson went over the line to extend Saints' lead. It was a wonderful jinking effort from the winger who never gave up the chance. Catalans tried to smother him out, but he came back in field before straightening up and powering over. Coote added the extras to make the score 28-0. Aaron Smith went close afterwards, as did Makinson before he was bundled into touch close to the hour mark.
Catalans finally got on the scoreboard when James Maloney dropped the shoulder and touched down beneath the posts for his second try of the season. He took advantage of some hesitant defending from St Helens for the first time in the game and converted his own try to make it 28-6.
With ten minutes to go, Alex Walmsley powered over the line after Saints kept the ball alive with numerous offloads. A magnificent hand off by Walmsley on Julian Bosquet in the run up to it showed how much it was men against boys for the majority of the game with Saints in full control. Coote added the conversion to make the score 34-6, and that's how the game finished - with St Helens worthy winners.
Takeaways from the game
The new "Six Again" rule is definitely going to take some getting used to for teams - particularly those with big packs like the Catalans Dragons. The game was relentless in speed, with very few breaks for the players to recover. Coaches are going to have to be even more shrewd with their interchanges to make sure players are able to recuperate.
The lack of noise was palpable too, with Morgan Knowles shaking Headlingley to it's very core in the first half with a colossal hit on Remi Casty. With no crowds allowed back in Super League until at least October - possibly later - fans can expect to hear more bone-crushing challenges on the field as the Super League restart starts to gain momentum.
Israel Folau - already a controversial figure - added more fuel to the fire before the game kicked off as he chose to stand when every other player "took a knee" as part of the Black Lives Matters protests. This was something highlighted by the Sky Sports Arena coverage and no doubt there will be more fall-out from this in the coming days.
Lachlan Coote was excellent throughout, scoring two tries and adding ten extra points with the boot - but the entire St Helens' team was outstanding for the majority of the match, with some of the link up play and attacking intent on another level. Alex Walmsley was also worthy mention, steamrollering his way over the line later on in the game. Morgan Knowles was named the man of the match by Sky Sports with a sparkling performance and it was difficult to argue with the decision as much of the good play came through the Welshman.
Knowles himself spoke to Sky after the game and was quick to say he was a fan of the new rules that certainly speed the game up. "It was a quick game, and a tough one," he said. "Fair play to Catalans - "Six Again" is going to take some getting used to. It suits me and the smaller blokes in the middle, but certainly something we are going to have to get used to."
When asked about the scenes before the game, the Welshman was quick to get behind the players taking a knee in support of Black Lives Matters campaign. "Doing (what we did) shows the respect and we wanted to show support to our lads with the BLM statement".
Arthur Mourgue never gave up hope for the Dragons and played well despite the unflattering scoreline. He tried to create opportunities for the Perpignan-based side and will be a valuable player for them in the coming weeks.
Reaction from the teams
St Helens' Head Coach Kristian Woolf was very pleased with his side's performance after the game and spoke to Sky Sports immediately afterwards. "I'm really happy with them, we knew they'd worked hard and had been good last couple of weeks," he said.
"Just before half-time we defended three or four sets in a row, and then in the second half we could have allowed things to get easier we kept defending.
"There were really good signs."
Catalans Dragons Head Coach Steve McNamara admitted that despite an even first ten minutes, they struggled to contain Woolf's side and will have to adapt their game quickly.
"The first ten minutes was a good contest", he told Sky Sports. "Then the "Six Again" rule and the momentum Saints had made it difficult. We had no energy or shape, so I'm disappointed. We were second best in every department".
He was also asked about Israel Folau's decision not to take a knee before the game. "As a club, players and officials we are completely against racism, and all for equal opportunity. It was a personal decision based around the player's principles and beliefs".
St Helens: Coote, Makinson, Naiqama, Percival, Grace, Lomax, Fages, Walmsley, Roby, Taia, Knowles, Bentley, Graham.
Interchange: Mc-Carty-Scarsbrook, Amor, Smith, Batchelor.
Catalans Dragons: Langi, Folau, Yaha, Maloney, Drinkwater, Casty, Mcllorum, Whitley, Tomkins, Garcia, Bousquet, Davies, Mourgue.
Interchange: Moa, Da Costa, Baitieri, Kasiano.