Super League Grand Final: St Helens' record breakers take on Salford's 'motley crew'

Captains James Roby and Lee Mossop pictured with the Super League trophy
Six-time Super League champions St Helens will make their 11th Grand Final appearance on Saturday, while it will be a first for Salford Red Devils
Betfred Super League Grand Final
Venue: Old Trafford Date: Saturday, 12 October Kick-off: 18:00 BST
Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Radio Merseyside and BBC Radio Manchester, live text commentary on BBC Sport website, highlights at 17:00 BST on BBC Two on Sunday

The man who guided St Helens to a record-breaking winning margin in Super League is at ease with being overshadowed by a self-titled "motley crew" in his farewell game.

Justin Holbrook will leave his role as Saints head coach after Saturday's Grand Final against Salford, to take the top job with Gold Coast Titans in the National Rugby League in his native Australia.

A triumphant farewell is what he wants. The fanfare, he is happy to side-step.

And so he gladly deflects attention onto Salford; a side that started as 150-1 outsiders to reach the Grand Final at the start of the season who have gone on to gatecrash Old Trafford.

"We have no issue with it all being about Salford, they deserve it," Holbrook told BBC Radio 5 Live.

"I'm OK with it and understand why. For them to reach their first Grand Final and the way they have gone about it is great for the game, absolutely great.

"They deserve the credit, they deserve to be there - they earned it and it is up to us to be better than them."

Salford are just the eighth team in Super League's history to reach the decider - already, they have stunned English rugby league's establishment.

BBC Sport takes a closer look at how they and St Helens took distinctly different paths to the Theatre of Dreams.

Misfits - what misfits?

Salford fans cheer on their team
It is only the second time in the Super League era that Salford have featured in a play-off campaign

Moments after Salford toppled Wigan at the DW Stadium to reach their first Grand Final, it was Jackson Hastings who extolled his side as marvellous "misfits".

It was fitting coming from the half-back, an NRL outcast who went on to win the English game's highest individual honour days later as Man of Steel.

Mark Flanagan, a Grand Final winner with St Helens in 2014 who previously played in the NRL with Wests Tigers, proudly says he puts himself "in that category" of "misfit". He was on the pitch when Salford needed a golden-point drop-goal in extra time to keep them in Super League just three seasons ago.

"We are a bit of a motley crew," he said at Monday's pre-final press conference.

But perceptions about the Red Devils are not confined to bringing Hastings, a player who left his previous club Manly following reports of a bust up with a team-mate, over to England or backing captain Lee Mossop, a player who has had seven shoulder reconstructions.

Salford are a side that also grabbed attention in previous years for its on-field struggles, financial hardship and their outspoken former owner Marwan Koukash - who at one stage vowed "all-out-war" against the game's governing body.

"One thing we said at the start of the season was that we wanted to change the perception of Salford and how we are perceived as players," Flanagan said. "We wanted to prove a few people wrong and we have done that.

"In years gone by, especially when Marwan came in, we have been seen as a club that signs players on big money that are probably towards the end of their careers or didn't back up the money being paid.

"That has totally changed. We are a really hard-working group and we are so committed on the field. That is there for everybody to see."

A patchwork collection of players, Salford certainly are. But St Helens prop Alex Walmsley said viewing them as anything but their Grand Final equals would be dangerous.

"We are coming up against a team that are unjustly being called misfits," said the England international.

"We know for a fact they are not, they are a good side. They have Grand Final winners in that team, they have England experience, NRL and Super League experience.

"They are a good side, who are well drilled by a very good coach. They will be a really tough threat.

"Someone has to be favourite. We were favourites at Wembley and that didn't work out too well."

'Facts and stats don't lie'

Justin Holbrook
Justin Holbrook will go from the Super League's table-topping side to take over the NRL's wooden spoon club Gold Coast in 2020

St Helens, under former Sydney Roosters assistant Holbrook, have been a Super League phenomenon.

Of 59 regular-season games over two years, they lost just seven, collecting two League Leaders' Shields in the process.

It, however, is seen by many as the least desirable of the three domestic honours up for grabs in England every season.

Already, their pursuit of major silverware has gone better than 2018, having last season gone out at the semi-final stage of both the Challenge Cup and play-offs.

This time they have reached both finals, but in August - as heavy favourites - they were beaten in the cup by Warrington at Wembley.

And so, Holbrook's legacy and St Helens' place among the great English rugby league sides is up for debate, despite being peerless for consistency.

"We are proud of that achievement," Holbrook said of topping the table by 16 points. "It was hard to do and is something we are happy with.

"Saturday is what counts most and what we are now worried about.

"If we don't win we have to deal with it and accept it. Facts, performances and stats don't lie.

"If we are good enough to win, then great we will take the accolades and if we don't we will cop whatever we have to."

It is not until the final hooter sounds that Holbrook will let anything get to him, with talk of his own feelings about his send-off being brushed aside.

"My emotions are fine because I'm just concentrating on not letting anything distract me," he said. "At full-time, I'll worry about it then."

Earning respect as rugby league players

Ian Watson
Ian Watson has led a remarkable turnaround at Salford this term, with the club last season battling to avoid relegation

It is at the end of 80 minutes that Saints stand to be judged.

Salford, however, can rest assured that they have already achieved one of their major goals in the way they are now held in high esteem by so many in the game.

Ian Watson has forged a reputation for being one of England's brightest coaches since being elevated from Salford assistant to head coach in 2015. He will tour with Great Britain as assistant coach after Saturday's Grand Final.

His ability to mould a winning side from the off-cuts of other clubs is the triumph of the season - though their hunger for actual glory can not be understated.

Watson said getting his players to think like him has been key to their rise.

"I just want to work hard, do my job and be respected for what I do," he said.

"You have to want to be respected before you want to be liked. From my past experiences a lot of players, good players, want to be liked by everybody rather then want to be respected as a rugby league player.

"Some of these guys have got talent, they just need to make sure they have the work ethic to get the results they want.

"I'm not surprised by where we have ended up."

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