They were $6.50 outsiders. The betting line started gave them 18.5 point start. And yet St Helens, roared home by vociferous travelling support in frantic weather conditions at the foot of the mountains, are world champions.

Lewis Dodd field goal sailed over in Golden Point extra time to win them the game 13-12, and in truth, it would have been a travesty had it finished any other way. They were the better side and deserve every beer they will surely sink.

The Panthers’ final frontier remains out of reach. They lost in 1991, to an all-powerful Wigan side, and again in 2004, at the hands of a rampant Bradford. On both of those occasions, they were the visitors and had the travel aspect against them. Here, there are no excuses.

For Saints, this is their third World Club Challenge title and their greatest achievement, turning over the dominant side in the NRL on their own turf. It is one of the greatest performances by a British team in Australia, certainly since Wigan defeated the Broncos in Brisbane in 1994 and probably before that too.

“I remember watching Wigan beating that great Brisbane team, a victory like that has never happened since – this is a seismic result,” said Saints coss Paul Wellens.

“It’s a monumental victory for us as a club and for the British game.  We came over here with a determination of getting a result.  We knew we’d have to scrap to keep them out, but this group keeps turning up for each other.”

Ivan Cleary, for his part, knew that this was a champion team that his side had run into.

“Maybe they win it,” he said when asked where Saints would finish in the NRL.

“I think they would get pretty close. They are full of great players, they are a winning club. They deserve to win tonight. It’s hard to say but they would probably go all right.”

The weather, expected to be close to 40 degrees, took unexpected turn after unexpected turn. The heat subsided, the rain came in sideways and lightning delayed the start of the second half. In between, there was a double rainbow and a bright yellow sky.

The match was just as spectacular. Any notions that this was a pre-season trial were dissuaded by the five concussion tests before halftime.

Mitch Kenny and Zac Hosking returned from theirs within the distance, but Taylan May wasn’t so lucky: a knee complaint ended his night early. Fortune did shine on him last year, as the NRL suspension from 2022 that caused so much controversy now matters little, as he’d be injured anyway.

Perhaps only Parramatta have troubled Penrith so much, especially on their own turf, as this Saints team did. The Super League champions – who, remember, are playing off a third of the salary cap – were superb and should have won. They missed two field goal efforts and kept Penrith at bay save for tries from kicks.

Bring your umbrella – it’s the blueprint to stopping the Panthers

Anyone in doubt about the quality of this Saints side were put in their place in the first half. The Super League might not be close to the standard of the NRL across the board, but this St Helens outfit performed better at Panthers Stadium than pretty much anyone to visit in the last three years.

Moreover, they did in a way that might be a blueprint for the more regular visitors to follow. Their defensive shape was consistently challenging for Nathan Cleary et al to deal with: it was a traditional umbrella shape that forced the ball back inside and starved the edges of supply. 

They rode their luck a little, with the Panthers able to make line breaks from deep, but the scramble was good enough to survive. With three minutes to go, Morgan Knowles smashed the ball out in a tackle and that was the game.

It might have been a function of their roster weaknesses: Konrad Hurrell, never the best defender, is now both slow and old, so they had to hide him against the rapid left edge attack of the Panthers.

Hurrell was able to show his upside as an attacking threat, barging over in characteristic fashion, and was also able to jam in fast enough to stop his glaring lack of speed being exposed in the first half.

This is exceptional use of video from St Helens: Dane Gagai was used superbly to stop the NSW left edge that was Panthers-heavy in Origin I last year, with Isaah Yeo totally negated. It didn’t matter if Gagai – or Hurrell tonight – didn’t make the tackle stick, because they slowed up the attack sufficiently for the tactic to be successful.

Other teams have tried this. The Titans, also home to some of the worst edge defenders around, actually managed it surprisingly well in their game on the Gold Coast last year before falling to kicks in behind. NSW, you’ll remember, solved the problem the same way in Origin 2.

Jack Welsby is an absolute superstar

Imagine you could buy a triple threat fullback, five eighth and halfback with rep experience and three Grand Final wins, who is also just 21 years of age. You can throw in that he was the best on ground against the Panthers in Penrith, the toughest assignment in club rugby league.

That’s available for someone in the NRL in the form of Jack Welsby. The Saints fullback was exceptional, especially in the first half, where he scored a try, set up another for Hurrell and pulled off two miraculous try savers.

He’s got a contract until the end of 2025, but transfer fees talk in the UK and Welsby would be worth every single penny of it. There’s a lot of NRL teams who would pay top dollar for average talent: the best young talent in the world is right there waiting to be made offers he can’t refuse.

Panthers cohesion issues might be their downfall in 2023

As mentioned, few teams have been able to threaten Penrith like Saints did. They asked questions that rarely get asked of side and the answers came, though it took a while. They forced errors with their defence and then built pressure with their attack, but time and again met a defensive unit that had the answers.

There’s not many defences in the NRL that are as cohesive as St Helens’, who have played together and won together for years. But there were issues, too, that Saints have nothing to do with.

Stephen Crichton’s shift to fullback was far from a success, with his passing far too far from the line to force tacklers to stay honest.

Furthermore, they missed him in the centres, as he might well have iced some of the moments on the left edge that Sunia Turuva was unable to make the most of. Jarome Luai was incredibly quiet too, thwarted by the inability of Nathan Cleary to get him good ball.

It was noticeable that, when the tries did come, they were both from kicks that Saints failed to adequately deal with. In regular play, the Panthers got nowhere.

The truth is that the cohesion will come as the season wears on. But the question of whether it will return to the heady heights of 2021 and 2022, with other teams coming back stronger and the Panthers inevitably regressing, is now on the table.


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