CHAMPIONS Saints begin the defence of their Super League crown tonight (7.45pm) in a repeat of last year’s Grand Final.

They face Ian Watson’s much-changed Salford Red Devils side – one that contains a few familiar faces and some added size to the pack.

Saints will be without at least three of their title-winning team with skipper James Roby, wing Tommy Makinson and loose forward Morgan Knowles.

Prop Kyle Amor is included in the 21-man squad and was due a fitness test as the week progressed.

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The start of the new decade sees Kristian Woolf take charge of his first competitive game as Saints boss.

And Woolf will not have had to do too much pre-match research on Salford’s half Tui Lolohea, who he coached during a successful autumn series for Tonga.

Woolf said: “I know Tui well and he is a terrific player so I am looking forward to the challenge of coming up against him.

“He is a terrific, talented player and he is growing in confidence in his time at Salford at the end of last year and with what he did against Great Britain and Australia at the end of last year as well.

“He is going to hit the ground running in the same way and we will have to make sure we are ready for that with what we do against him.”

Salford have lost last year’s Steve Prescott Man of Steel Jackson Hastings, but in his place comes veteran Kevin Brown – a steady hand on the tiller.

Up front the Red Devils have added size in bringing in man mountain Pauli Pauli on a year long loan from Wakefield.

Sebastine Ikahihifo’s direct running will provide impact that Saints will have to deal with.

“ It is a good test across the park. It has been well noted that Salford have lost a couple of players, but like they have done in the past they have been smart how they have replaced those players.

If you go back a couple of seasons Ikahihifo was one of the best players in the competition and was selected in the Super League Dream Team in 2017.

You can put him the same boat as Tui in that he has not played as confidently the last 12 months. But watching his trial form he looks confident in his running again.

“He is a real handful, then Pauli Pauli is another big body there and can be really damaging on an edge.

“How we defend those guys and interact with what they are good at is going to be a big part of the game. I am certainly confident with what our pack can do so it will be a great battle.”

Selection wise, Woolf has a couple of options with how to fill the wing spot vacated by Makinson.

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The versatile Jack Welsby started there in the trial game, but they also have the option of putting either Matty Costello or Kevin Naiqama on the wing, with the other staying at centre.

If Amor plays, it will leave a question of which of the big men will miss out with Matty Lees’ return to fitness.

With Knowles out, it is likely Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook will start at 13, but he could be spelled by Joseph Paulo – who missed out at the end of last year – or one of the other big middles.

Woolf started with James Bentley at nine a fortnight ago, with Aaron Smith playing the second stint, but that could be swapped about for tonight.

Bentley’s competitiveness has caught Woolf’s eye in pre-season and his versatility is a huge asset to the squad – something that will add to welcome selection headaches when the casualties return.

Saints 21-man squad: 1. Lachlan Coote, 3. Kevin Naiqama, 4. Mark Percival, 5. Regan Grace, 6. Jonny Lomax, 7. Theo Fages, 8. Alex Walmsley, 10. Luke Thompson, 11. Zeb Taia, 12. Dom Peyroux, 13. Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, 15. Matty Lees, 16. Kyle Amor, 17. Jack Ashworth, 18. Joseph Paulo, 19. Aaron Smith, 20. James Bentley, 21, Matty Costello, 22. Jack Welsby, 23. Joe Batchelor, 27. Lewis Dodd.

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SAINTS are defending a 40-year home record against Salford - but there haven't half been some close shaves this past three years.

Salford have previously lost all 15 matches at Knowsley Road since 1997, one game at Widnes in 2011 and eight at Totally Wicked Stadium (2012-2019).

Salford last won at St Helens on 12 January, 1980 (18-17). The Saints have won 35 consecutive home meetings between the sides since then.

But last year - in the corresponding home fixture - they needed a thrilling comeback, with James Bentley's late converted try securing a 32-30 victory.

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Last ten meetings:

Salford 6, St Helens 23 (SLGF, 12/10/19)

(at Old Trafford, Manchester)

St Helens 32, Salford 30 (SLR15, 17/5/19)

Salford 4, St Helens 26 (SLR4, 28/2/19)

Salford 10, St Helens 60 (SLR13, 26/4/18)

St Helens 34, Salford 2 (SLR4, 4/3/18)

Salford 4, St Helens 30 (SLS8-R7, 21/9/17)

St Helens 25, Salford 24 (SLR19, 23/6/17)

Salford 22, St Helens 14 (SLR7, 30/3/17)

St Helens 34, Salford 20 (SLR14, 13/5/16)

Salford 44, St Helens 10 (SLR2, 11/2/16)

Super League summary

St Helens won 41 (includes win in 2019 Grand Final)

Salford won 6

St Helens highest score: 66-16 (H, 2001) (Widest margin: 58-4, A, 2000)

Salford highest score: 44-10 (H, 2016) (also widest margin)