Tommy Makinson ran the length of the field to salute the St Helens supporters. Jake Wingfield, playing in his first Grand Final, broke down in tears. James Roby, who has seen this stage so many times, simply stood and took it all in. The range of emotions were contrasting but you knew every single St Helens player, in that moment, knew exactly what they had just managed to achieve.
Two Super League titles in a row is no mean feat. Three is borderline impossible. But four? That is genuine rugby league history you have just witnessed being written. For context, only the all-conquering Wigan team of the early-1990s have won four league titles in a row. Until now. Their great rivals have just joined them on that list and it is perhaps typical of this great St Helens side – perhaps the greatest ever – that they managed to take any nerves out of it by the end.
Leeds, who won 10 of their last 11 to reach Old Trafford against all the odds laid against them earlier in the summer, played their part in an engrossing final. But ultimately, St Helens did what St Helens always do: when the chips are down and the stakes are at their highest, they find a way to win.
Only in the years to come will it become apparent what this club have achieved. When years go by without a club winning three, or even two, successive Super League titles. St Helens have dominated British rugby league for four years and on a night when it was always going to need something special to deny Leeds Rhinos a fairytale ending, you can bank on a team that is the epitome of the word special to deliver.
“I think it closes the debate on who is the best team in the Super League era,” the victorious coach, Kristian Woolf, said. “They are an outstanding group and they deserve all the accolades they have got. It’s an outstanding feeling.”
Woolf now departs to return to Australia, with the club’s assistant coach, Paul Wellens, expected to assume control in 2023. He will inherit a team that have won 83 of their 102 Super League games since the start of 2019.
But the worry for the rest of Super League? This dominance could easily continue into next year and beyond. This is not a team at the end of their cycle. It takes two teams to make a Grand Final of course, and Leeds certainly gave St Helens some worries, particularly in the first half.
After the reigning champions took a 12-0 lead courtesy of tries from Matty Lees and Jon Bennison, you felt the Rhinos would be in for a chastening night.
But to their credit, they fought to remain in the arm wrestle and when Kruise Leeming forced his way through a gap on the stroke of half-time, suddenly, Leeds trailed by just six.
At that stage, you wondered if Leeds could cause a major upset. But St Helens took control after the break and this time, they would not relent their grip on the contest.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the players for the way we pulled together and done some great things,” Leeds head coach Rohan Smith said, who inherited a side that were second-bottom when he arrived in April. “But you’re here to win it, and we were clearly the second-best team more than them.”
Who scored first after half-time felt crucial. It took only six minutes to get the answer to that question, as former Leeds favourite Konrad Hurrell carried not only the ball, but four Leeds defenders across the line with him in ruthless fashion.
In that moment, you felt the Saints had begun to turn the screw as they have done so often in these last four years. Tommy Makinson converted, and their lead was out to 12.
And as the hour mark approached, that 12-point lead became 18 in the game’s defining moment. As St Helens bombarded the Leeds line with pressure, Jack Welsby’s pinpoint kick cut through perfectly for Mark Percival to collect, gather and ground. Makinson converted again, and while three-score leads are often decisive in finals, here, against a team this good, the outcome felt inevitable from that moment on.
Leeds, to their credit, rallied until the final moment and scored the last try through Rhyse Martin with seven minutes left. But even then, the celebrations were muted. They knew. We all knew. We were present in a moment of genuine rugby league history. Take it in, because you may never see this again.