Two games, two wins, and just one try conceded. It is still very early days in the 2024 season, but Paul Wellens is understandably pleased with how St Helens have begun their attempt to regain the Betfred Super League title.

A quest for an unprecedented fifth-straight Grand Final triumph was ended by an agonising defeat to Catalans Dragons in the play-off semi-finals last year. If there is one positive to come from it though, it meant second-year head coach Wellens was able to foster a renewed sense of purpose.

The retirements of James Roby, Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook and Will Hopoate have meant a changing of the guard too, with Daryl Clark, Matt Whitley and Waqa Blake brought in, and the initial signs for Saints have been promising after wins over London Broncos and Huddersfield Giants.


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“It was a really disappointing way to finish last year but it’s allowed us to draw a line in the sand in terms of it’s not the talk about four or five in a row,” Wellens said.

“It almost feels like, for myself, and the group, a fresh start. We’ve got a number of new faces in the squad, so in a lot of respects it is a fresh start.

“What we had is a team which was being successful doing things a certain way, and perhaps sometimes it takes a little bit of failure or a little bit of not quite getting the result for you to truly look at where you can get better.

“We feel we’ve identified a few of those, and we feel we’re putting into action some of those improvement areas. We feel it’s having a positive impact on our game, but at the same time we don’t want to get too carried away.”

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Highlights of St Helens’ 28-0 win over Huddersfield Giants in the Betfred Super League

Last Saturday’s clean sheet in the 28-0 win at Huddersfield underlined the work done in improving St Helens’ discipline, identified by Wellens as an area for improvement after conceding the joint-fifth-highest number of penalties and having the fourth-highest number of yellow cards issued in the 2023 regular season.

With more stringent interpretations of rugby league’s laws around head contact implemented ahead of this season too, Wellens put an emphasis on improving the tackling technique of his squad during pre-season.

So far, it has yielded positive results, with the 44-year-old trying to strike a balance between staying within the rules and not dulling the natural instincts of the players in a physical contact sport too much.

“We’ve had to curb our levels of aggression slightly, not only because we needed to change but also because the game has changed in terms of the tackle height,” Wellens said.

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Highlights as St Helens opened the 2024 Betfred Super League season with a 40-4 victory at home to London Broncos

“What I said to the players is I know they’re good defenders, but what they have to become is better tacklers.

“The game is changing and that’s a message we’ve really been pushing hard with the playing group because, quite naturally, we’ve got players who want to play aggressively and want to play physically, and we don’t want to take that away from them.

“But there is a discipline which has to come with it and so far, the signs are really good, but we’re faced with the same challenge every week.”

Last year’s Betfred Challenge Cup winners Leigh Leopards pose the next test for St Helens on Friday, live on Sky Sports, and the hosts go into the match having sat out Round 2 as their ‘Battle of the Borough’ clash with Wigan Warriors was postponed due to the World Club Challenge.

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Wigan Warriors’ Jai Field showed amazing pace and power to deny Penrith Panthers two certain tries which would have won them the World Club Challenge

That match against Penrith Panthers saw the reigning Super League champions emulate their rivals from the other side of Billinge Hill’s achievement last year in defeating the NRL champions by the narrowest of margins.

Wellens, who has formed a close friendship with his opposite number at Wigan in Matt Peet, had no compunction about praising the Warriors for the manner in which they toughed it out right to the end to secure a 16-12 victory over the Panthers.

It followed St Helens winning 13-12 on opposition territory in the 2023 World Club Challenge, and Wellens is in no doubt those results and England’s 3-0 Test series win over Tonga last autumn, where he was on the tourists’ coaching staff, are signs the gap between the leading Super League clubs and the Southern Hemisphere is not as big as perceived.

“It’s clear evidence of that if you go off the back of the past couple of years,” Wellens said. “The games were really tight and if you look to the way England performed in the Test series against Tonga with NRL players involved there and the top end of the game over here, things have been closed.

Picture by Olly Hassell/SWpix.com - 22/10/2023 - Rugby League - International Test Series - England v Tonga - The Totally Wicked Stadium, St Helens, England - Tonga Assistant Head Coach Paul Wellens before kick off of of the first match in the England v Tonga Test Series 2023 at the Totally Wicked Stadium
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Paul Wellens served on Tonga’s staff as an assistant coach during last year’s tour of England

“Even if Wigan or we hadn’t quite have won those games because both went down to the finest margins and you might not come out on the right end of the result, it doesn’t take away from how competitive both games were.

“That’s the point to hammer home. You always want to win those games, but being competitive over here is probably where we as a game get questioned a bit.

“But the signs are whether it’s England internationally or domestically in the World Club Challenge we are more than competitive, and that’s what we want.”

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Watch St Helens vs Leigh Leopards exclusively live on Sky Sports Action from 7.30pm on Friday, March 1. Also stream every match of the 2024 Betfred Super League season and more sport contract-free with NOW.



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