Three seasons in charge, three Grand Final appearances, and standing on the verge of overseeing an unprecedented fourth-straight Betfred Super League triumph for the club. It is fair to say Kristian Woolf’s time at St Helens could hardly have gone much better.
On Saturday night though, win or lose against Leeds Rhinos in the showpiece game at Old Trafford, Woolf will bid farewell to the club as he prepares to return to Australia to take up a position as assistant to coaching great Wayne Bennett at NRL expansion club Dolphins ahead of their 2023 bow.
Even with the emotion of it being his last dance with Saints, it would be understandable if another Grand Final appearance seemed business as usual for the 47-year-old given the success of recent years.
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Yet the excitement and anticipation are as strong as ever and have been building since last Saturday’s 19-12 semi-final victory over Salford Red Devils.
“That hasn’t gone at all and as soon as we got through the Salford game, you’re obviously proud and happy with the effort which goes into the game and everything else,” Woolf told Sky Sports.
“But straight away, our minds start thinking about this week, the excitement of this week and the occasion, and this is why you want to be involved in sport – particularly professional sport.
“You want to be part of the big occasions and the big games, and it doesn’t lose that feel, that’s for sure.”
When he walked through the doors at Totally Wicked Stadium ahead of the 2020 season, Woolf was already joining a successful team which compatriot Justin Holbrook had guided to their first Super League title triumph in five years.
Even given the ability in the squad and his belief there were still ways that the Saints team could improve, what they have gone on to achieve during the Queenslander’s tenure is nothing short of remarkable.
Grand Final glory in the Covid-ravaged 2020 season courtesy of that last-second try from a 19-year-old Jack Welsby – a player who has gone on to play a pivotal role in Woolf’s team – was followed by the Super League and Betfred Challenge Cup double last year, and 2022 has seen them secure the League Leaders’ Shield as well as return to Old Trafford for the title decider.
Even more impressive is the fact this is Woolf’s first full-time head coach position in a top-tier competition, previously leading NRL side Newcastle Knights on an interim basis, but he is adamant the St Helens players have taught him just as much during this time as he has imparted on them.
“I think I’ve changed considerably because this group of men have taught me plenty of things and shown me what winning looks like and how you make winning enjoyable as well,” Woolf said.
“I’m extremely thankful for that and I think I’ll go back to Australia and be a much better coach for the opportunity I’ve had over here.
“They’re an outstanding group in terms of what they do day to day, week to week and what they do to train and prepare, but they’re also an outstanding group of men who, when you walk in, you want to have conversations and talk to personally.
“When they come to work with a smile on their face and are generally good people, it generally makes it more enjoyable as well, but also a lot easier in terms of heading in the same direction which is important in footy teams.”
I’m extremely thankful…and I think I’ll go back to Australia and be a much better coach for the opportunity I’ve had over here.
St Helens head coach Kristian Woolf
This year’s Grand Final will see Woolf up against another head coach who has a grounding in the second-tier Queensland Cup in Australia in Leeds boss Rohan Smith, someone who has enjoyed astounding success in a short space of time by guiding a team which were in the relegation battle when he took charge at the start of May to within 80 minutes of the Super League title.
Those three years in the competition leading Townsville Blackhawks from their inaugural season in 2015 gave the man from the mining town of Mount Isa the perfect grounding, not least of all with balancing the demands of a squad which was a mix of full-time players in an NRL club’s system and those who worked a day-job and played rugby league part-time.
But Woolf is just as effusive about how good working in Super League has been for him as a coach, as well as becoming a cheerleader for the competition and its clubs as a whole.
“If any coach in Australia was asking me about coming over here and whether it would be a positive coaching experience for their careers, I would 100 per cent recommend it because I think it’s been great for mine,” Woolf said.
“We’ve got so many things we can be positive about. We’ve got so many great players throughout the competition; we’ve got so many great clubs which if you picked them up and put them in the NRL would be really successful and great clubs over there as well.
“We’ve got a great competition as a whole with rivalries which are hundreds of years old and so deep-seated and passionate, and it’s outstanding to be a part of. One thing I’d really encourage the people over here to do is be really positive about what we’ve got because we got a great product.”
Those St Helens-Wigan derbies will remain a lifelong memory for Woolf in particular, but for now, he is only looking ahead to this year’s Grand Final and the chance for Saints to become the first team in the Super League era to win it four years running.
The fact they will be without influential prop and Dream Team member Alex Walmsley and could potentially include Dan Norman in their matchday 17 after he suffered a fractured cheekbone against Toulouse Olympique recently underlines some of the injury problems the team have endured this year.
That is partly why Woolf is so proud of how St Helens have again put themselves in a position to claim a 10th Super League title overall and send their coach out on a high.
“We’ve had a lot more injury and a lot more injury to really key players, and a lot more long-term injury,” Woolf said. “Some of those have been our absolute best players and some of the best players in their competition or in the world.
“The way we’ve overcome that and the way we’ve overcome adversity and still put ourselves in the position to win the League Leaders’ and put ourselves in the position for the opportunity we have got this weekend is what I’m extremely proud of.”