How ‘villains’ St Helens became real heroes of Old Trafford again and scuppered Catalans Dragons dream finale

THE way in which St Helens’ Morgan Knowles plays rugby league is tough, uncompromising and with no fuss whatsoever; nothing is ever wasted in any of his countless actions and he is brutally efficient.

St Helens' Morgan Knowles (centre) is tackled by Catalans Dragons' Joel Tomkins (left) and Ben Garcia at Old Trafford Picture: Martin Rickett/PA

With his tireless work in both attack and defence, and ability to cause so much damage from loose forward, it is little wonder the bruising Cumbrian – a silent assassin – has become so integral to this star-studded Saints side.

However, it is also the reason why he needs to be listened to, too. Knowles does not do hyperbole.

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After Saturday’s enthralling, high-quality Super League Grand Final, he respectfully asked that this Saints side, who completed an historic “three-peat” with a dramatic win against a spirited Catalans Dragons, were given the respect their efforts deserve.

He has a point. Much of the build-up had been centred on Catalans impressive story, the French club rising to a maiden League Leaders’ Shield and reaching Old Trafford for the first time, with so much rhetoric about what a win could mean for French rugby league and the sport as a whole.

After one of the most physical and compelling Grand Finals since the concept began in 1998, Knowles was understandably asked about the contribution of Steve McNamara’s side to a truly classic contest that was in the balance right until the final hooter.

“Catalans have been brilliant and they’ve only had a short history in Super League,” said the No13, whose shuddering first-half cover tackle on a Fouad Yaha in a game of few chances epitomised the resilience of this Saints side.

“They’ve done amazing, and the expansion is really positive for the game. I’m definitely happy about that.

HERO WORSHIP: St Helens' Kevin Naiqama thanks Rob Burrow after receiving the Harry Sunderland trophy from Rob Burrow's daughter Maya after victory over Catalans Dragons Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com

“They’re probably going to be in more Grand Finals; Steve Mac has done a great job and they’ve recruited the right kind of players.

“But to be honest I think we deserve more credit. I think we do get portrayed as the villains.

“That was definitely motivation for us; unless you were a Saints fan, everyone wanted to see Catalans win.

“We’ve been the best team for the last three or four years, although we didn’t win it in ’18. But the consistency we’ve had – the win percentage has been better than any other team in Super League.

St Helens' James Roby lifts the Betfred Super League grand final trophy at Old Trafford Picture: Martin Rickett/PA

“British and UK culture likes to see people fail and the underdog win, and I think it’s about time now we get the credit we deserve for three back-to-backs, the Challenge Cup and (two) League Leaders’ along the way.

“I’m really, really proud to be a part of this team. What we’ve done over these last few years has been special.”

It certainly has. And there were some special individual performances on Saturday, not least from two-try Kevin Naiqama, the Fiji centre who rounded off his excellent three-year stint with Saints as a champion yet again.

He heads home to Australia now for family reasons and with nothing lined up in the NRL but, still just 32, it seems absurd he should pack in given the continued quality of his play.

St Helens' Kevin Naiqama (right) evades Catalans Dragons' Samisoni Langi to run in for a try in the Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford Picture: Martin Rickett/PA

There were lovely scenes at the end as a tearful Naiqama prepared to accept the Harry Sunderland Trophy man-of-the-math award from two-time winner Rob Burrow and his family.

His second try, latching onto Jonny Lomax’s pinpoint grubber in the 66th minute, proved pivotal. Australian full-back Lachlan Coote, who heads to Hull KR as a three-time Super League champion, slotted a conversion to his earlier penalty to give Saints the narrow lead and, as they so often do, they held on to spark jubilant scenes. They are only the second side in the summer era to win three on the bounce following Leeds Rhinos from 2007 to 2009.

Nevertheless, undoubtedly there was plenty of drama and controversy along the way.

St Helens second-row Sione Mata’utia was fortunate not to be red-carded as early as the fifth minute for punching James Maloney in back play but no officials seemed to see or even acknowledge it.

Saints winger Tommy Makinson did become the first player in Grand Final history to be yellow-carded in the 46th minute for a high tackle on Yaha just as the Catalans player looked set to score.

However, there were calls for a penalty try and it is hard to understand why one was not given.

Dragons did score their only try of the night via Mike McMeeken while Saints were down to 12 men, Maloney adding the conversion to his two first-half penalties to leave them 10-6 ahead and in sight of a famous victory.

But Saints, who saw Naiqama brilliantly step over in the first half, held their nerve in a breathless encounter to complete the double after July’s Challenge Cup final win over Castleford Tigers.

Clearly, Knowles is right to hail this side.

But furious Catalans president Bernard Guasch had other ideas; having re-watched the contest and studied numerous decisions, yesterday he vowed never to play another Super League Grand Final again unless three Australian officials are appointed.