From the moment he first walked through the doors at the Totally Wicked Stadium, Kristian Woolf’s modus operandi at St Helens has been one of constantly striving for improvement.
It was the mantra he was preaching this time last year ahead of his first season in charge of the club and, after a rocky start before the campaign was suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic, led to Saints emerging from 2020 as back-to-back Super League champions.
This time around, as they aim to become only the second team in Super League history to win the Grand Final three years running on the back of that hard-fought win over rivals Wigan Warriors last November thanks to Jack Welsby’s last-second try, it is no different for Woolf either.
“If I think back to the Grand Final in particular, the effort and the way we took that game on and the challenges in it, I couldn’t be prouder of the group,” Woolf said.
“At the same time, I think we can play a little better footy and be a little bit smarter in terms of what we do with the footy.
“Last year, we had a really disrupted pre-season from the point of view we had a lot of players who had surgery and we had a lot of players who were away with Great Britain and basically came back two or three weeks before the season started.
“While we had some things we wanted to improve, and things we worked on, it didn’t give us a lot of opportunity to evolve how we play – particularly with our attack. That’s what we’ve spent pre-season doing this year, trying to change and evolve a couple of things.”
In the Australian’s mind, the level of competition in Super League from 2020 to 2021 has already gone up on the recruitment done by the other 11 teams alone, although St Helens have made moves in the transfer market this year as well.
Aside from the now-retired James Graham returning to the club he began his glittering career with following Luke Thompson’s early switch to Canterbury Bulldogs and gradually bringing through some of Saints’ homegrown prospects, Woolf’s squad last year was not too dissimilar to the one left by predecessor Justin Holbrook.
This year has seen him add firepower to the pack though, with promising prop Dan Norman joining from London Broncos plus the trio of Sione Mata’utia, Joel Thompson and Agnatius Paasi from the NRL following the retirements of Graham and Zeb Taia, and the departure of Dom Peyroux and Joseph Paolo.
Norman has shown plenty of raw talent so far, while Woolf is particularly impressed with how his three recruits from down under have adapted both to the new environment at St Helens and life in the UK with heavy anti-Covid-19 restrictions still in place.
“They came over at a really difficult time, they all came exactly when we asked them to and they came without hesitation, and it has been difficult for them,” Woolf said. “Australia doesn’t have many restrictions at all, and they came over and they’re in the middle of a lockdown.
“While the players get the opportunity to jump in their cars, come to training and do a pre-season, all the players we’ve brought in from Australia have wives and young kids which does make it a bit tough.
“But they’ve done that exceptionally, they’ve fitted into the group exceptionally and they’ve all brought their own personalities and added to the group in that way.”
So far, Leeds Rhinos are the only team in the Super League era to win the Grand Final three years running from 2007 to 2009, while no team aside from the great Wigan side which won seven titles on the trot from 1990 to 1996 ever won more than two in a row during rugby league’s winter era.
Woolf is acutely aware of the challenge facing St Helens if they are to buck that historical trend and make it three in a row, although whether they are crowned champions again or not at Old Trafford on October 9 it will not be for lack of trying.
“To win a competition is a really tough thing to do, and you’ve got to pour a lot of hard work in, a lot of emotion, and go through a lot of ups and downs to do that once,” Woolf said.
“Then to get yourself back up and find the hunger and drive, as well as opposition teams who are getting better every year and recruiting to get better every year, and working with a real hunger and drive to take that away from them is why it’s so hard to do it twice in a row. To do it three times in a row becomes even more difficult again.
“Once we get into the season you obviously need a little bit of luck in some elements, you need your best players playing more games than not, and you try to make sure you’ve done the hard work and show the hunger so you can stay ahead of that pack.”