Kristian Woolf: St Helens head coach confident of improving Super League champions

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Super League Grand Final highlights: St Helens 23-6 Salford Red Devils
Betfred Super League
Dates: 30 January-10 October Coverage: Listen to live commentary across BBC Radio 5 live, BBC Radio 5 live sports extra and BBC local radio, watch highlights on the Super League show, live text commentary on selected games and reports on the BBC Sport website and app

It could almost be a conundrum from a Mensa entrance exam paper.

How do you improve a team like St Helens, who for much of 2019 were as close to perfection as has been seen in Super League history?

A Challenge Cup final loss to Warrington was the only blot on their copybook as Saints finished 16-points clear in the regular season table, were top scorers and, ultimately, champions, with victory over Salford in the Grand Final seeing former boss Justin Holbrook bow out on the highest of highs.

New head coach Kristian Woolf has exactly that challenge before him and, thankfully for Saints fans, thinks he has the answer.

"We've identified things we can do better," the 44-year-old Australian told BBC Sport. "Every team has improvement in them and this team certainly does as well.

"The really good thing there is that when you win a premiership you know you've got a group that is hardworking and honest and that makes it easier in some ways to come in."

'Real motivation to win another premiership'

Woolf's predecessor Holbrook, now with NRL side Gold Coast Titans, turned Saints from rudderless bunch into dominant force in two and a bit seasons.

Before that, it had been five years since St Helens last brought silverware back to WA9, and the trick for Woolf is to ensure last season's dominance is not a one-off.

There has been no new recruitment for the 2020 campaign, other than in the coach's seat, of course.

"Usually you walk into a new club because there have been problems," said Woolf. "You're trying to identify what those problems are and trying to change them.

"But it's a different challenge for me. Obviously there is a challenge of how we deal with the expectation now, and how we make sure there's real motivation to win a premiership.

"We need to make sure we're just as hungry, if not hungrier than what we were last year, to go from being a very good team that wins a premiership to a great team that can win more than one."

Battle-hardened with Tonga

Kristian Woolf chats to Sam Burgess after the 2017 World Cup semi-final
Kristian Woolf (left) led Tonga to a World Cup semi-final

While Holbrook was something of an unknown quantity when he arrived at Saints from an assistant coach role at Sydney Roosters, Woolf is well-known for his work as head coach of the Tonga national team.

Having assembled a squad featuring megastars such as Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita, he guided the South Pacific nation to the semi-finals of the 2017 World Cup, beating New Zealand along the way, before a heartbreaking 20-18 defeat by England.

Last year Tonga saw off Great Britain during the autumn's disappointing southern hemisphere tour, before going on to shock Australia in a watershed moment for the international game.

There will be several reunions with members of the Mate Ma'a Tonga squad during the season, from the Hull FC duo of Mahe Fonua and Manu Ma'u to Salford's Tui Lolohea and Warrington bulldozer Ben Murdoch-Masila.

"They're a terrific group of people," Woolf said of his Tonga players and staff. "I couldn't speak more highly about all of the players who have been involved and the core playing group that are there.

"My desire to challenge myself over here started in 2013, I was with the Tongan team at the World Cup, and I got to experience coming over here and go to a few games.

"It's a different feel and the fans bring that, the footy community over here is a bit different and there are lots of differences which are hard to explain which make it different but make it exciting.

"Ever since then I've had the idea I'd like to spend some time over here and when the opportunity comes up at a club like St Helens it's certainly a good one to take."

Winning over the players

Walking into a dressing room of champions and telling them how to do things better takes belief, courage, determination and tact.

Woolf's approach on arriving at the Totally Wicked Stadium was direct, respectful and quickly won over his new charges.

But the litmus test will be when his Saints take on Salford, and "my old mate Tui" as Woolf describes him, in their season opener on Friday, coincidentally a Grand Final rematch.

Saints prop Kyle Amor is one player who has been impressed by the new man in charge.

"This club demands trophies, but even more so off the back of last year, a trophy is a must," Amor told the 5 Live rugby league podcast.

"He's not really changed too much, but I liken it to when you buy a new house, you always want to put your own stamp on it. He's no different.

"He pretty much got straight in and identified areas we could get better. He's identified things, when he's spoken about it and shown us evidence of how we can get better you start thinking 'actually, he is right, we can evolve again'."

'Proud to give my family the opportunity'

Coaching around the clock is a tough balance for Woolf, whose winters are spent with Tonga - "that's my holiday I guess", he laughs - after a season which runs from the last embers of January through to early October.

While he would love to explore Europe, and the United Kingdom for that matter, rugby league is the priority.

"Coming over here and living here is a completely different experience and part of the excitement, and I can't speak highly enough about my experience so far," he added.

"While I won't get chance to experience a lot of things, I do take a fair bit of satisfaction that my family will be getting school holidays and they will be able to tour the world.

"From a kids point of view, I've got four kids, and they'll get to experience things that other kids in Australia read about in textbooks, and our kids will be able to go and see it. So I'm really proud I can offer that for them."