THIS weekend sees the 29th anniversary of a Saints triumph which can be described as the culmination of home grown talent blending perfectly with a massive contribution from a genuine superstar from Down Under.
1984-85 was the season in which Saints ended their seven year trophy drought – aided hugely by the presence of Mal Meninga.
Boosted by the arrival of the huge Australian centre – and with no little contribution from compatriot Phil Veivers – Saints went on a 13 game unbeaten streak which brought the Popular Side to life and saw Saints win the Lancashire Cup by beating Wigan at a jam-packed Central Park.
Alas, the wheels came off around Christmas time when they suffered a shock John Player exit at the hands of Halifax and then previously high hopes of a Wembley return were dashed with a narrow home defeat by Hull KR.
The Robins took out the title for a second successive year, meaning that Saints had just one more chance of glory and rescue a season that had started so well – and that was in the old top eight competition.
So on 11 May 1985, Billy Benyon’s men took on the back-to-back champions Hull KR in the Premiership Final at Elland Road, Leeds.
Saints were up for it and buoyed by the absence of the durable number 13 Gavin Miller from the Rovers ranks was a big plus. It started well with Harry Pinner’s inside ball releasing mobile prop Peter Gorley, with Chris Arkwright up in support to send on-loan hooker Gary Ainsworth scuttling in to give them a great start.
But it was going to be one of those nip and tuck games and after George Fairbairn had responded Saints hit the front again when Phil Veivers took Barrie Ledger’s pass to go over. There was no doubting the brilliance of Saints’ third with a surging break by Meninga only halted by a crunching, high, tackle by Rovers' full back Fairbairn on the left. However, quick hands, particularly from centre Steve Peters, saw the ball whizz across our back line for Ledger to waltz in at the right hand corner.
Determined Rovers hit back through David Laws and Ian Robinson, but sandwiched in between was the first of Meninga’s interceptions courtesy of a David Hall pass.
The opening stages of the second half saw Rovers pound the Saints defence, but crucially it didn't flinch an inch. At 22-16 it was next score the winner – and crucially that pivotal moment fell Saints’ way. It is a moment that is etched upon the memories of those Saints fans stood up there on the Kop that day. Meninga latched on to another loose Hall pass before steaming fully three-quarters of the length of the pitch, holding off Fairbairn for a crucial try.
It broke the Robins’ resolve and man of the match Pinner sold an audacious dummy to score by the posts and then the flying Ledger grabbed his second, sparked by Neil Holding and assisted by Shaun Allen, to seal the 36-16 win.
The victory was a perfect finale to a season that had seen the club finally escape from the doldrums. Much of that success was the due to the crop of young St Helens players maturing – with the winning team featuring nine local players, one from Culcheth and a loanee from Leigh, plus one Tyke and a Cumbrian. But nobody can ever underestimate the role Meninga played in the 'Return of the Saints'.
Big Mal had completed his afternoon's work and his stint for the Saints with two crunching tackles. Unfortunately he hurt his own shoulder with the last tackle that lifted Kiwi Test centre Gary Prohm off his feet. Mal was left wincing, holding his shoulder. It was his last act for Saints, as he left the field a few minutes from the end to tumultuous applause.
Although Meninga signed to return to Saints in 1988 a broken arm prevented it and then his career at Canberra meant that there was never a possibility of him wearing the red vee again.
Although Saints have won bigger things since, that season will always have a special place in the hearts of players and fans, particularly those who had never tasted success before.