IN tribute to Jamie Lyon, who hung up his boots at the weekend after a glittering career on both sides of the rugby league world, we look at his special two years at Knowsley Road.
We have reproduced excerpts of the chapter on the Aussie ace from As Good as it Gets, Saints 2006.
Where do you start with Jamie Lyon? The sublimely skilful centre had plenty to live up to when he first signed on the dotted line with the billing as the club’s biggest capture since Mal Meninga.
After all Big Mal’s name was etched indelibly into the town’s sporting folklore after leading the club out of a seven-year trophy drought in 1984/85.
But two eventful seasons in the red vee saw the Aussie ace Lyon surpass those expectations with a string of consistently stunning displays which earned him a cult status on the terraces.
His quick feet, sublime handling skills and remarkable strike rate of 46 tries and 213 goals in 63 appearances established Lyon as a player that will still be talked about 20 years down the line.
Sometimes it is hard to believe that the Australian superstar, who years later was still ranked up there among the world’s top ten players, actually swapped Sydney for St Helens for those two wonderful seasons.
Lyon arrived at Saints – via a stint at country club Wee Waa Panthers – after walking out on Parramatta and the NRL citing disenchantment with big game football and saying he was sick of Sydney.
Given his contract with the Eels only expired at the end of 2006 no other NRL club would have been allowed to tap him up. It fell into place perfectly for Saints, and he had a wow of a season in 2005.
Lyon struck up a great rapport with blond speedster Darren Albert and waltzed off with the Man of Steel and Player of the Year awards as well as scoring 24 tries.
But with Albert returning Down Under, Lyon would have a new partner to offer gifts during the course of 2006 and Ade Gardner blossomed as a result.
The 22-year-old Gardner became Saints’ leading scorer with 31 tries. Lyon’s rapport with the young Barrovian was built both on and off the field, starting the previous season, car sharing to training from Rainford.
But it was on the field where that the link-up provided sparks and more importantly points – and with points came prizes. Gardner explained that he needed a sixth sense and eyes in the back of his head at times to collect the money ball that would find itself being propelled out of the Lyon palm despite the attention of one, two and even three defenders.
“It became abundantly clear just training with Jamie that I had to expect anything. The ball could come at any time and in pre-season training I tried to get that in my head and sure enough, when the season started, that was the case.
Some of Jamie’s offloads were unbelievable ¬– but I knew the passes were coming. I got to the stage in that 2006 season when we would get in situations and parts of the field where I thought ‘we are going to score here’. I would know what to expect. And sure enough we did,” Gardner said.
Everyone knows about the silky skills of the man, the pace and his uncanny knack of giving his opponent the slip. However, Gardner believes his former centre partner in that right-hand gang does not get the plaudits he deserves for his pure dogged will to win.
Lyon also had a way of geeing up those around them and making sure they were always on their mettle.
“He was such a joy to play alongside and such a competitor as well. I don’t think he gets enough credit for that part of his make-up.
"He was a proper winner who would not give up on anything, any kick chase, a break by our team or chasing the opposition down.
“For such an easy going bloke and one who was quite a shy, laid-back lad he would have a pop at you if you were not on your game. He was a real proper winner.
“His attitude rubbed off on me a bit. I recall Sean Long’s try at Twickenham in the Challenge Cup Final where Jamie slipped it to me and I instinctively offloaded back inside to Longy, who did the rest.
"Playing alongside him gave you an almost contagious confidence.
“When Jamie signed we could not believe it. He was a bit of an enigma who had played Origin and for Australia, and had played in the NRL Grand Final. We were not sure how he was going to go in St Helens, but what a cracking player.
“It took him a while to get going but once he clicked it was frightening – he could do absolutely anything on the park,” Gardner said.
Lyon had another super season in 2006 with a try in the opener against Harlequins being the prelude to another 21 that year, scoring 164 goals to put the top hat on it. His start quality shone through, even in a crackerjack team of all talents.
Full back Paul Wellens saw at first-hand how Lyon grew into that team, taking off as the grounds dried out to allow him to display his full repertoire of talents.
Wellens said: “When you talk about players, Jamie Lyon is up there with Mal Meninga in terms of the impact he had on the club at the time.
“I remember going to pick him up from the airport with Paul Sculthorpe and he looked overweight with shabby hair and me and Scully looked at each other and thought ‘what the bloody hell is this?’ He looked like a caveman walking through, but he was a cracking fella.
“In his first few games the grounds were wet and soggy and we never got to see him full flow. But as soon as the grounds dried up Jamie went into overdrive and I had never seen anything like that.”
In 2006 Lyon got better from week one, and there was a sharpening of his focus for the business end evidenced by his hat-trick in the penultimate league game of the campaign.
Winning the Grand Final and winner’s ring that went with it was all Lyon was thinking about, particularly having already tasted Grand Final defeat with Parramatta.
Speaking to him the week of the final, the emotion of it being his last game in the red vee was not something that was playing on his mind.
Lyon said: “I will miss St Helens and it has been really good to me.
"The club has been great and the fans have been absolutely awesome and my team-mates especially have made me feel welcome from the day I first arrived.
“There were a lot of doubters at the start, but I did not think about it too much because what they were talking about was never in my mind.”
His six points in the final were the last contributions to a 610-point haul in the red vee.
Statistics alone though could not do the story of Lyon’s time at Saints justice. In the modern professional game where much emphasis is based on raw power, bulk and pace, Lyon displayed a subtlety and skill that rekindled that British rugby league fans’ appreciation of the finer points of centre play.
Team-mates will vouch that Lyon is the most skilful player they have played with – praise indeed, bearing in mind the calibre of stars that have shone at Knowsley Road in the Super League era – while supporters have marvelled at his magical handling skills, twinkle-toed running and brilliant cover tackling.
“It was just phenomenal what he could do – he was really skilful and super quick. I don’t think people realised just how quick he was, but if he got away nobody caught him,” Wellens said.
Reproduced from As Good As It Gets, the story of Saints' Grand Slam winning season, written by Mike Critchley, published by Vertical Editions.