Super League: St Helens thrash Catalans Dragons 34-6

By Andrew AloiaBBC Sport
Tommy Makinson celebrate try
Tommy Makinson was among St Helens' try scorers as they made a victorious return to Super League action
Betfred Super League
St Helens (16) 34
Tries: Coote 2, Bentley, Taia, Makinson, Walmsley Goals: Coote 5
Catalans Dragons (0) 6
Try: Maloney Goal: Maloney

Champions St Helens thrashed Catalans Dragons in the first Super League game to be played for 140 days because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Lachlan Coote grabbed Saints' first try, then set James Bentley up before Zeb Taia made it 16-0 behind closed doors at Emerald Headingley, Leeds.

A second Coote try and a Tommy Makinson score followed, with Catalans replying through James Maloney after an hour.

Alex Walmsley added a sixth try to compete Saints' resounding return.

After a minute's silence to pay tribute to the National Health Service and respect to those who have died during the pandemic, a majority of players took a knee in unison to show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Israel Folau, controversially recruited by Catalans this season after previously being sacked by Rugby Australia for posting homophobic comments on social media, chose not to do so - an action that Dragons coach Steve McNamara described afterwards as a "personal choice".

A number of sportspeople have chosen not to take a knee before events in recent weeks. Several Formula 1 drivers have worn anti-racism shirts and stood during pre-race demonstrations since the sport's return last month, while Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac became the first NBA player not to kneel during the national anthem since the league resumed last week.

"As a group of players and coaching staff, we spoke about it in depth and as a club we are completely against racism and all for equal opportunity," said McNamara.

"But there were some players and staff who made the decision not to take the knee. That was based on personal choice, they have their own reasons for doing that, and we decided we would respect anyone's personal choice on the matter."

140 days later

Twenty weeks had passed between Saints being beaten by Castleford in the final match before lockdown and the champions returning to the field to mark Super League's restart against the French club at the neutral venue in Leeds.

Those four intervening months saw the northern hemisphere's top rugby league competition endure unprecedented upheaval and exposed the game's financial frailties.

Toronto Wolfpack, the Canadian club that previously hinted at a prosperous new future for Super League with its cross-Atlantic reach, were supposed to have been among those in action for the triple-header at Headingley.

But their scheduled match against Hull KR would never kick off as the Wolfpack withdrew from the remainder of the competition just two weeks before its recommencement, citing "overwhelming financial challenges" posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The economic strain of the global health crisis may have cost Toronto its spot in Super League this year, but they are not alone in enduring such hardships.

In April, £16m in government loans were made available to rugby league clubs to help them recover from the financial fallout.

That money was channelled toward the business side of clubs rather than into player wages. But even before then, clubs - like so many across the sporting landscape and businesses throughout the UK during the pandemic - were relying on the government's furlough scheme to cover salaries.

Players have since taken pay cuts, a move that caused division and threatened the timing of Super League's return to action.

So seismic have been the effects of the pandemic that relegation from Super League has been scrapped.

And even when Coote kicked off the restart of Super League, the game on the field was also altered as scrums have been scrapped and new rules - including the introduction of reset tackle counts - have been adopted.

Graham returns after nine years

It all added up to a high-tempo return after hibernation, with Catalans - a side boasting cross-code Australia international Folau and former NRL winner Maloney - piling on huge early pressure.

But it was from the boot of Coote that Saints took the lead after 12 minutes, with the full-back following up soon after with the game's first try after getting on the end of a neat pass from Taia.

A threaded grubber kick from Coote was pounced on by Bentley for Saints' second four-pointer just before the half-hour mark, and the third try came courtesy of short ball from Jonny Lomax for Taia.

James Graham
James Graham made his first appearance for St Helens for almost nine years

The return of Great Britain and England prop James Graham for St Helens after nine years away playing in Australia's NRL drew huge interest, and the 34-year-old looked at ease if not domineering.

Folau was smothered as a threat and was denied a first-half Dragons reply just before the break by a number of desperate tacklers on the line.

Coote added to Saints' advantage after the interval by again linking up with Taia, following some fine work from James Roby, Lomax and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook.

A jinking solo effort from Makinson helped make it 28-0, with Dragons taking until the 61st minute before Maloney could muster a response.

Saints may have lost Great Britain prop Luke Thompson to NRL side Canterbury Bulldogs during the months of inactivity, but Walmsley provided more proof that they are not short of attacking verve after he ploughed over the line with 10 minutes left to complete the win.

Saints coach Kristian Woolf said: "I'm really happy. I thought we came back (into training) good, we trained exceptionally well and we were expecting a good performance.

"They're a good side and they certainly threw plenty at us. But our contact and our defence and the attitude showed was really good."

St Helens: Coote; Makinson, Naiqama, Percival, Grace; Lomax, Fages; Walmsley, Roby, Graham, Bentley, Taia, Knowles.

Interchanges: Batchelor, Smith, Amor, McCarthy-Scarsbrook.

Catalans Dragons: Mourgue; Davies, Langi, Folau, Yaha; Maloney, Drinkwater; Casty, McIlorum, Bousquet, Whitley, J Tomkins, Garcia.

Interchanges: Moa, Da Costa, Baitieri, Kasiano.

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