Justin Holbrook brought the curtain down on his time with St Helens on a high as his side defeated Salford Red Devils 23-6 in the Super League Grand Final.
Converted tries from Morgan Knowles and Zeb Taia had put Saints in the ascendancy early on, but Salford replied through Jake Bibby eight minutes before half-time go in trailing 12-6 when the hooter sounded.
There was to be no fairy-tale end to the season for Ian Watson’s men, however, as a further try from Mark Percival after the break and Lachlan Coote’s steady kicking helped ensure the departing Holbrook finished with a major trophy as St Helens secured their first Grand Final triumph for five years.
The 43-year-old Saints head coach, who is returning home to Australia to take over at Gold Coast Titans, had guided the club to back-to-back League Leaders’ Shields. Exits in the Challenge Cup and play-off semi-finals last year along with defeat in this year’s Cup final meant the big prizes had eluded him up to this point though.
But his players underlined their status as the dominant side in the competition after a year which had seen them finish top by a record margin of 16 points, sending Holbrook away as a Super League champion and sealing the club’s fifth Grand Final victory.
Salford, on the other hand, had defied all naysayers by finishing third in the regular season, and then blitzing both Castleford Tigers and Wigan Warriors in elimination games to reach this stage for the first time in their history.
They could also count Man of Steel Jackson Hastings in their ranks too, yet Saturday’s showpiece at Old Trafford against the heavy favourites proved to be one game too far for Super League’s Cinderella team.
It was Saints who enjoyed the brighter start to the contest, winning possession soon after kicking off when Kevin Naiqama’s bone-rattling hit on Lee Mossop knocked the ball free for the table-toppers to recover it.
Salford’s defence was able to successfully repel that attack, as they did with several more in the opening period, but St Helens patiently kept building pressure and that eventually told in the 15th minute.
Alex Walmsley took the ball up and shifted a short pass left to support-runner Knowles on his shoulder for the Barrow-born loose forward to finish near the posts for a try converted by Coote.
Six minutes later, Niall Evalds came up with a try-saving one-on-one block to check a dangerous break from Saints winger Regan Grace, yet it was not long before they were in again.
Ken Sio’s knock on while attempting to catch a high ball led to a scrum 10 metres from which James Roby broke off the back of before passing back inside for second row Taia to finish, with Coote again adding the extras.
Salford had barely been inside St Helens’ 20-metre zone up to this point, but that changed as they were able to bring their backs more into play after the forwards had put in a huge attacking shift earlier in the match.
Indeed, their first sniff of Saints’ try-line in the 28th minute led to Tui Lolohea finding space to dart over – only for the try to be ruled out as referee Chris Kendall has already blown for a penalty against Logan Tomkins for obstruction.
The Red Devils’ tails were up, though, and barely three minutes later half-backs Hastings and Lolohea combined for the former to send Bibby powering through to dot down from 20 metres out followed by the nerveless Krisnan Inu slotting the conversion from out wide.
That cut the deficit to six points at half time and the match continued in a similar vein when play resumed. However, Percival helped restore St Helens’ 12-point cushion 10 minutes after play had resumed.
It was a fine piece of individual play from the centre which led to the try, taking a pass from Coote and then threading a grubber kick through the defensive line followed by chasing it down to score under the posts, giving Coote a simple conversion attempt.
A high tackle by Gil Dudson on Luke Thompson led to full-back Coote kicking his side further in front from a penalty in the 61st minute while Salford saw another chance go begging at the other end two minutes later after Hastings’ 40-20 kick when Dudson knocked on trying to get away a quick play-the-ball.
A penalty for offside against Salford allowed Coote, who joined an elite club of players to have won both the NRL and Super League Grand Finals, to slot over his second penalty nine minutes from time and Tommy Makinson put the seal on the win with a rare drop goal in the 78th minute.