THE Saints 17 that will take the field for the opening game in 2022 will have a radically different look to the one that kicked off last year’s double-winning campaign.

Several of club’s big beasts from have moved on, with Saints losing some of the key cogs who have helped make the Saints machine run so slick and smooth this past three years of history-making success.

So out go full back Lachlan Coote, half back Theo Fages, centre Kevin Naiqama, second rows James Bentley and Joel Thompson, and hooker Josh Eaves.

As players they have all contributed in different ways in their time in the red vee – and their presence will be missed on and off the field.

Fans will just have to get used to seeing Coote setting up tries at Craven Park, Fages organising the Giants attack and Bentley adding some dog and devilment to the Leeds Rhinos back row.

However, despite the wholesale changes there is a calmness about the task of filling those big boots and excitement about what is in store.

And a big part of that comes from the fact that in the cases of Coote and Fages the replacements are already bedded in, with the Grand Final rings to show for it.

St Helens Star:

After patiently biding his time and grabbing every minute he could off the bench, teen scrum half Lewis Dodd’s displays in the latter part of 2021 have been the silver lining to Fages’ shoulder break.

He has slotted in seamlessly to the first team since Wembley, bringing his own style and skillset to table with a varied kicking game, an eye for the game and pace to exploit it.

Had Fages not suffered his unlucky break plenty will have spent the off-season wondering whether Dodd was equipped to call the shots as a Super League 7.

Those doubts were never there from coach Kristian Woolf or his peers, who have always backed him to step up. Those displays since August have surely dispelled any other doubts that he up to it.

St Helens Star:

And 20-year-old Jack Welsby finally gets the chance to nail down one spot, with him being handed Coote’s full back spot.

The 2020 Grand Final match-winner has filled in at 1, wing, centre, stand off and loose forward since making his debut in 2018 – and has now played 55 matches for the first team.

He could not have been kept out of the starting 13 for much longer, such is his talent, but he has a big job filling Coote’s role.

He will get his hands on the ball, something he relishes, but the role brings with it the huge responsibility of marshalling the defence – something Coote was adept at. That, plus working with wings Tommy Makinson and Regan Grace in a solid back three on kick returns, will be a massive part of his role.

But Welsby has confidence to back up his ability and shrugged off the odd blip in his early days at full back – and he also has the presence of assistant coach Paul Wellens on the training ground to assist his development. Wellens was also 20 when he claimed the full back shirt in 2000.

St Helens Star:

And in the pack, Bentley’s horrific brace of injuries in 2021 did allow Saints to get an extended look at Joe Batchelor in the second row – a player who took that opportunity with both hands.

Batchelor is a different type of player to the Leeds-bound Bentley, offering a strong running threat and on the odd occasion when called upon, a decent kicker of the ball.

Part of Bentley’s ‘in your face’ role has already been adopted by Sione Mata’utia who finished the season as one of the team’s best players after missing Wembley through suspension.

His muscular performances are something that this Saints side needs in those tight, tough games where no quarter is asked, and none is given.

Also in the second row, replacing the departed Joel Thompson, is another former Manly Sea Eagle - Curtis Sironen.

Son of giant former Kangaroo tourist Paul, Sironen adds size to the back row coming in at 6ft4 and tipping the scales at more than 17st, but Woolf sees more in him than a physical presence.

St Helens Star:

On signing coach Woolf said: “He is a big athletic, edge back rower with a very good skill set. Being a stand-off in his younger years he has a real good passing and second phase game, so he has all the attacking attributes to make a real impact for us next season.

“He knows how to play tough and has very good defensive ability so he will improve us.”

St Helens Star:

So that is looking a strong second row straight away, with Scottish international James Bell adds another option to cover back row. He earned a deal on the back of strong performances for relegated Leigh against Saints last term.

Bell played big minutes for the depleted Centurions last term, but will be gunning for a spot in the 17 next season.

The former New Zealand Maori captain, who has eyes on the World Cup with Scotland with his late granddad born and bred in Aberdeen, brings versatility having played in the halves, nine and centre.

St Helens Star:

A key Saints signing for next year and planning for the future is Parramatta’s former Salford hooker Joey Lussick.

He has been brought in to take the pressure off veteran skipper James Roby, who has announced that 2022 will be his last on the field.

The NRL nine can get settled in at Saints with a view to claiming that shirt for himself, whilst adding depth to the halves/hooker area.

St Helens Star:

Woolf said: “He really caught the attention for Salford and was always a player we made a mention of on a tip sheet.

“He has got a lot to his game as a hooker; he has a good service both short and long.

“He is a very good defender and a real competitor who likes to play tough and compete hard and do all the hard work.

“He has a kicking game, which is important because we can see the value of Robes’ kicking game at the moment.

“But he has not lost his ability to run and knows how to find the tryline – we think he has a lot of things that will complement how we want to play and what we need in that position.”

He has also played 13 and in the halves at Salford – adding to depth and cover in those pivotal positions.

Kevin Naiqama started his spell at Saints with a try against Wigan on debut and signed off with two in the Grand Final. He has left big boots to fill – especially on the big occasion.

St Helens Star:

In his place Saints have signed Tongan test skipper Will Hopoate – a player with 11 international appearances and five State of Origin games for New South Wales.

The 29-year-old former Canterbury Bulldogs centre can also play at full back.

“Will is a guy I know extremely well. He has played for Tonga since 2016 and captained Tonga in the past too which shows what a strong character he is,” Woolf said.

St Helens Star:

“If I go back to 2019 and Tonga played against Great Britain and Australia and he was one of our best players against two top quality teams on the world stage which gives you an idea of the quality we are getting.

“He has the ability to play in the centres, but he has versatility too. He has made a name for himself at full back and so will be a great support to Jack Welsby. He has also played at 6 for Tonga as well so that versatility and quality is going to be invaluable for us.

“From a personal point of view, he is not just a good player, but is a great bloke and will fit into the community and Club really well.”

St Helens Star:

And to add further depth to the three-quarters Woolf has enlisted another member of his Tongan team – Konrad Hurrell from Leeds.

It did raise a mixed response, given his drop in form in his last year at Headingley following two Dream Team seasons.

However, Woolf explained the personal circumstances – with Hurrell being understandably affected by the death of his mother during lockdown and not being able to go back to be with family in Tonga at that time.

Woolf is confident he can get the Hurrell he knows up to the mark at Saints.

Woolf said: “I have been really proud watching him get through that as well as overcome some injuries and I am really happy he is joining us.

“I know what he is as a player and he has played in some real big games for Tonga and been one of our best players.

“The 2017 World Cup beating New Zealand is an example, he really stood up in that game as he did against Great Britain and Australia in 2019.

“He was in the 2019 and 2020 Super League Dream team and coming into our environment next season I think he will rally thrive in it.

“We will get him at his fittest and at his best and if we do that and he is happy, we will have a real player on our hands.

“He can be a real X Factor for us next year and I am sure the fans will love him.”

St Helens Star:

On top of that, Saints still have Josh Simm who had limited opportunity last term –after enjoying a few decent run-outs in the centre in 2020 when he vied with Welsby for the then injured Mark Percival’s centre berth.

So again, more depth.

A lower-key recruit has been utility back Danny Hill from Widnes Vikings on a two-year deal.

The versatile 19-year-old, who can play full back, centre and wing, adds squad depth to the backline.

So with the new recruits in, that will give Woolf plenty of food for thought in squeezing those bodies into 17 jerseys on a matchday.

It looks like the starting 13 is more or less settled.

You would expect a line-up of 1. Welsby, 2. Makinson, 3. Hopoate, 4. Percival, 5. Grace, 6. Lomax, 7. Dodd, 8. Walmsley, 9. Roby, 10. Lees, 11. Sironen, 12 Mata’utia, 13. Knowles.

The first bench spot will go to interchange nine or 13 Lussick. Of the two spots reserved for the big men Aganatius Paasi takes the first of those.

Would that leave Kyle Amor and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook battling for the other interchange prop spot?

And for the fourth, to illustrate the strength in depth, will see Batchelor, Bell, Hurrell and Jake Wingfield will be vying for that spot.

Wingfield showed up well in the opportunities he was granted before his shoulder injury. The former Blackbrook junior is certainly a young player who did not look out of place at this level and will be keen to push on.

Could Hurrell be the back on the bench who could perform an impact role to run at some tired defences, similar to the way Fereti Tuilagi played in 1999-2000?

Batchelor was outstanding last season – and justifiably earned his selection in the 13. But he has plenty of competition again this year – so nothing is taken for granted and no place is guaranteed.

There are multiple permutations for injuries. Should Welsby or one of the wings take a knock, then Hopoate can go to full back and Hurrell in at centre.

Hopoate’s versatility could also free up Welsby to the halves if needed there.

Lussick, too, is an option in the halves – one that would not need to see adjustments elsewhere to accommodate him.

The hard work starts from November 22 when the first wave of newbies arrive – and they will be looking to stake their claim.

Competition will be intense, but Woolf’s well-honed man management skills that have come to the fore in the past for club and country will be needed if some senior players find themselves out of the 17 for a spell. But given the likely situation with a crammed fixture list, there will be scope for smart rotation.