The wind of change swept through Super League last season as St Helens saw their four-year status as domestic top dogs brought to an end by Matt Peet’s resurgent Wigan and “reimagination” became the buzzword on everybody’s lips.

If Saints’ memorable World Club Challenge win over Penrith that kicked off the 2023 campaign did not exactly explode the sport’s established order, it certainly helped tilt its axis slightly more in the direction of the northern hemisphere.

The beginning of the sport’s long-term ‘strategic partnership’ with IMG, along with recent announcements of ground-breaking new broadcast deals with Sky and the BBC, has also fostered a real mood of optimism ahead of the 2024 campaign, which kicks off with the Hull derby at the MKM Stadium on Thursday night.

Yet the more things change, the more they stay the same. Saints and Wigan, the two giants from the west end of the so-called M62 corridor, appear more likely than ever to be wrestling for the top spot at the end of the season, underscoring their dominance of the domestic game.

At the other end of the table, London Broncos face the farcical situation of knowing their fate – relegation – before the first ball has been booted, an unfortunate consequence of the very IMG grading system that has been set up to support aspiring clubs from beyond the traditional heartlands.

They are timely reminders that it will take more than a magic wand to re-think the scope of a sport that even the biggest cynics of its partnership with IMG acknowledge requires radical change if it is to continue to thrive into future generations.

The upcoming season begins with plenty of tantalising talking points on the pitch, led by the strength of Saints’ response to being knocked off their perch as they prepare to start life without the talismanic James Roby.

Peet’s Wigan were clearly the best team in 2023 and they are arguably in even better shape for the defence of their trophy, having landed ex-Leeds Rhinos pair Kruise Leeming and Sam Walters as well as centre Adam Keighran from Catalans Dragons.

Their duel threatens to leave the others trailing, with last year’s Grand Final runners-up Catalans – shorn of their own talisman in Sam Tomkins following retirement – looking a little short of mustering a repeat performance in the south of France.

Leeds Rhinos are certainly heading the right direction, writing the biggest headline in the off-season with the signing of Salford’s former Man of Steel Brodie Croft, and while another play-off failure is unthinkable, Rohan Smith’s men require more time before they can truly be classed as contenders again.

Sam Burgess brings a mountain of unknowns into his first head coach role at Warrington, while plenty of questions can also be asked about the ability of Hull KR to build on their promising 2023 season in light of the unexpected exits of Jordan Abdull and assistant coach Danny McGuire.

Adrian Lam’s Leigh, more or less intact from their stunning first season back in the top flight, stand as good a chance as anyone else of muscling in on an end of season play-off berth, while Hull, Huddersfield and the post-Croft Salford can only realistically eye improvement.

Castleford hope the appointment of Craig Lingard, after so many seasons beating the odds at Championship Batley, can help them exceed pretty low-key expectations that have them simply holding off hapless London for 11th spot.

The Broncos, unfortunately, find themselves reduced to being collateral damage in the quest for change – dumped in a vicious circle that leaves them understandably reluctant to invest to give themselves a shot when they know that shot has already effectively been fired.

At the end of this coming campaign, irrespective of where they finish, and barring only an unlikely announcement of wholesale restructuring for 2025, London will be relegated, and replaced by the second-tier club that ticks the most boxes on the IMG scoresheet.

It is a bitter blow for a club that fought so brilliantly to win back-to-back play-off games against Featherstone and Toulouse, and one from which it begs the question whether rugby league in the capital will ever recover.

The Broncos plight serves as a timely reminder that for all the justifiable optimism and shared excitement in an IMG-driven future, there is an awful long way to go before rugby league can truly be said to have snared an expansive new audience.

Forget the M62 corridor, for all the talk of “reimagination” and expansion, the 2025 Super League season looks set to be played out within a contracted area of its traditional heartland: between the two giants straddling either end of the eight-mile long A571.

Daryl Clark is under no illusions about the size of the boots he has to fill as he prepares to pull on St Helens’ famous number nine shirt for the first time in Betfred Super League action this week.

The 31-year-old hooker ended his decade-long stay with Warrington at the end of last season to step into the role vacated by James Roby, who retired after 19 trophy-laden years, with 551 appearances to his name.

Having assumed a role on the coaching staff, Roby’s presence continues to loom large at the Totally Wicked Stadium, but Clark is convinced his best route to emulating even a fraction of his predecessor’s success lies in making the position his own.

Clark told the PA news agency: “I knew the challenge when I signed up for it.

“I know I’m not going to be at this club as long and I’m not going to achieve as much as Robes has done at this club, but hopefully I’ll be part of some success and write my own little part of history.

“I have already spoken to Robes and I’m sure he will be there to give me some tips and advice going forward. But it is important that I am judged by my own performances and not against his.”

Clark’s ambition was echoed by Saints head coach Paul Wellens, who ear-marked him as the man to replace Roby as soon as the stalwart confirmed the 2023 season would be his last, but insisted he had never envisaged a like-for-like replacement.

“If Daryl goes out there to be the best version of himself, he will improve our team,” insisted Wellens.

“I need to be clear on this – it would be absolutely ridiculous of Daryl to go out there and try to be James Roby.

“In James Roby, he’s got someone there to have a chat or give guidance and that’s absolutely fine.

“But he’s also an experienced player in his own right, who knows what the game looks like at the highest level, so I told him to ‘just go out there and be you’ and that’s what I think the players and certainly I will respect.”

Having come through the ranks with his home-town club Castleford, Clark experienced five straight final losses – three in the Challenge Cup and twice in Grand Finals – before finally striking it sixth time lucky, ironically against Saints, at Wembley in 2019.

A recipient of the prestigious Super League Man of Steel in his final season Wheldon Road, he is relishing the task of helping Saints reclaim the trophy-winning status they lost to Lancashire rivals Wigan at the end of last season.

“The general feeling is that we’d been champions for so long and to get knocked off last year put us back chasing – and I think that could be a good thing,” he added.

“The main reason I came to Saints at this point in my career is because I wanted to be involved in the big games and win some silverware and that is what I have every intention of doing in the future.”

Jonny Lomax says St Helens will draw on relative adversity and relish their unfamiliar role as underdogs when they kick off the new Betfred Super League season next week.

Saints saw their four-year reign end in a play-off semi-final defeat to Catalans Dragons in October, and will lose their status as world club champions to either Wigan or Penrith.

The 33-year-old Lomax, who was confirmed as his club’s new captain earlier this month, will also be leading Saints into something of the unknown this year following the retirement of talismanic hooker James Roby after 551 appearances.

But Lomax, the obvious choice to step into Roby’s shoes, believes the unusual situation will bring out the best in a club that had grown accustomed to both starting and finishing the season on top of the pile.

“Last season still hurts but having had the pressure of chasing more titles released in some ways, there’s a new excitement and a hunger to go out and chase it again,” Lomax told the PA news agency.

“It’s a nice tag being champions, but now someone else has to wear that and take the added pressure and scrutiny that comes with it.

“When you are winning all the time we are never satisfied. If we’d won the title last season we’d have wanted number six then number seven. When you’re chasing something, it really makes you appreciate the ups and downs that get you there.”

Lomax is better placed than most to acknowledge the difficulties of sustaining a career at the pinnacle of the sport.

He overcame a life-threatening head injury as a teenager, after which doctors told him he would never play again, plus three serious ACL surgeries that left him contemplating retirement.

Lomax admits that none of those setbacks were far from his mind when he was asked to replace Roby as captain by head coach Paul Wellens last month.

“I was a little bit taken aback and emotional when I was given the task,” he admitted.

“The good is never without the bad. We see the bad as something we want to push away, but the reality is that that’s where you learn the most – the good habits, the good practice, the resilience and desire to keep showing up.

“It’s probably more about the down moments. They make the highs feel sweeter, and they have probably shaped me into the person who others see as having the right mindset to lead by example.”

There were few higher points for Lomax than their stunning world club win over Penrith in Sydney a year ago, when half-back partner Lewis Dodd converted a golden point drop goal.

And the pain of seeing that title slip from their grasp – potentially into the hands of their Lancashire rivals – at the DW Stadium later this month, is evident for a player who signed for Saints as a 14-year-old in 2005.

But he believes the way in which Penrith responded to the crushing disappointment of their loss to Saints by going on to retain their NRL title last season provides a blueprint for a similar revival.

“To see Penrith go on and win it (the NRL) after that, and to see how that disappointment really drove them on, is a lesson for us,” added Lomax, who is anticipating Wigan’s crack at the Australian champions with mixed emotions.

“In some ways I hope they (Wigan) win,” he smiled. “The NRL is the pinnacle competition, certainly from a financial perspective, but at the same time I think we are guilty of downplaying our own competition a bit.

“We should be proud of the competition and the players we’ve got here. There are players who are certainly good enough to go to the NRL but for whatever reason they might not want to. I think we should champion ourselves a bit more.”

England head coach Shaun Wane has urged his side to learn the lessons from last year’s World Cup heartbreak as they prepare to kick off their three-match international series against Tonga in St Helens on Sunday.

Wane has named an initial 24-man squad for the series, which will mark their first serious test since their agonising golden-point semi-final defeat to Samoa at the Emirates Stadium last November, following a facile 64-0 win over France in June.

“We fell short at the World Cup and we need to improve,” said Wane, whose squad is a blend of youth and experience, and includes Wigan captain Liam Farrell, making his first appearance since 2021 after missing the World Cup with a knee injury.

“Tonga are very talented and their players play in an unbelievable competition so it is a massive challenge for us.

“Samoa was a massive test for us last year and we fell short, but we learned a lot of lessons and we have made progress. I’m very happy with the squad that I’ve got and I’m really excited to see how the young players perform in such a pressured environment.”

Farrell is one of four players from the newly-crowned Super League champions to be included in the squad along with team-mates Tyler Dupree, Toby King and Harry Smith.

England captain George Williams has also been named in the squad despite awaiting the results of a disciplinary tribunal which could rule him out for all or part of the action.

Catalans winger Tom Johnstone and St Helens full-back Jack Welsby – both Man of Steel nominees – are included, and there is also a place for Leigh forward Robbie Mulhern after an impressive campaign with the Challenge Cup winners.

Wane added: “I’m really happy with the mixture of senior players and young kids, and I know they’re all proud to represent their country.

“All of the players included have impressed me throughout their respective Super League and NRL campaigns and are worthy of representing their country in this historic series.”

Nevertheless Wane’s options were hampered by a series of injury-enforced withdrawals, including Saints duo Jonny Lomax and Alex Walmsley and Wigan centre Jake Wardle, fresh from winning the Harry Sunderland Trophy for man of the match on Saturday.

Dismissing questions over the international futures of the likes of Lomax, who also missed out on the World Cup, Wane continued: “Without sounding nasty, I’ve forgotten about them. The only people I’m thinking about are in the 24-man squad.”

England squad to face Tonga: Matty Ashton (Warrington Wolves), John Bateman (Wests Tigers), Tom Burgess (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Daryl Clark, Ben Currie (both Warrington Wolves), Tyler Dupree, Liam Farrell (both Wigan Warriors), Chris Hill (Huddersfield Giants), Tom Johnstone (Catalans Dragons), Toby King (Wigan Warriors), Morgan Knowles, Matty Lees (both St Helens), Mikey Lewis (Hull KR), Tommy Makinson (St Helens), Mike McMeeken (Catalans Dragons), Robbie Mulhern (Leigh Leopards), Harry Newman (Leeds Rhinos), Victor Radley (Sydney Roosters), Harry Smith (Wigan Warriors), Danny Walker (Warrington Wolves), Jack Welsby (St Helens), Elliott Whitehead (Canberra Raiders), George Williams (Warrington Wolves), Dom Young (Newcastle Knights)

Catalans Dragons head coach Steve McNamara is confident a first Grand Final win for his club against Wigan at Old Trafford on Saturday would herald a bright new era for rugby league both in France and beyond.

Having slayed four-time defending champions St Helens in last Friday’s epic play-off semi-final, the Dragons are already generating unprecedented interest in Perpignan – with six private planes already booked to fly fans for the final.

A Catalans win would build on their historic Challenge Cup success over Warrington in 2018 and their only previous Grand Final appearance two years ago, and McNamara believes one final step to the top of the sport could not come at a better time.

“I think it’ll make huge noise around the world if we could get the win,” said McNamara. “Getting to the Grand Final is good but winning it would potentially open the door to a World Club Challenge and other avenues.

“The impact on the game in France would be huge. We’re fighting against a big animal in France in rugby union, but we’re holding our own without a doubt, and games like last Friday against St Helens grabbed the attention of everyone around the world.”

Catalans have grown used to trailblazing since their formation from an amalgamation of a number of French sides in 2000, and the historic granting of a Super League licence for the 2006 season.

Coincidentally Wigan were the first victims of the sport’s new Anglo-French era when they were sunk 38-30 in Catalans’ first match in the competition, and the arrival of former Bradford coach McNamara in 2017 helped them entrench themselves within the game’s elite.

One year after winning their first Challenge Cup in 2018 they staged the first Super League game at Barcelona’s Nou Camp and expanding sponsorship and television deals in Catalonia have led club owner Bernard Guasch to target an imminent return.

Catalans’ former Wigan great Sam Tomkins – who scored the dramatic winning try against Saints – may be deservedly garnering the attention and the plaudits as he approaches a fairytale final match of his stellar career.

But significantly, Catalans’ success is increasingly underpinned by an emerging group of French players, the first generation of home-grown talent to make an impact in Super League, and McNamara is convinced the club’s potential can only continue to grow.

“The club is continuing to develop and the young French players coming into the club now are a lot more professional than they were before,” added McNamara.

“We still have some way to go, but the overall impact on the game (of winning the Grand Final) would be huge not only at the top end, but at the grass-roots level as well.”

Organisers are confident the increasing prominence of the sport in the south of France since 2021 will ensure a healthier crowd than the 45, 177 who witnessed Catalans’ close defeat to Saints, the lowest Grand Final crowd since 2021.

Less than 24 hours after Catalans’ Old Trafford bid, Toulouse will host London Broncos in Sunday’s Championship Grand Final with a swift return to Super League beckoning for their rivals, who were relegated after a single, hard-fought top-flight campaign last year.

The contrasting fortunes of the domestic game are a stark contrast to the international stage, with the French authorities withdrawing from hosting the 2025 World Cup in May, shortly after both their men’s and women’s teams were brushed aside 64-0 by England in Warrington.

“It’s been a difficult period for the French national team,” added McNamara. “But step by step we’ve managed to achieve some real consistency over the last four years, and that can only help to put us in a strong position as a game in France.”

James Roby will keep his emotions at bay and focus on leading St Helens towards an achievement he believes would eclipse all others when he steps out on home turf for the final time against Warrington in Saturday’s Betfred Super League play-off.

The 37-year-old’s swansong at the Totally Wicked Stadium is guaranteed whatever the result, with a win propelling Saints into a semi-final against Catalans in Perpignan, and one game away from enabling Roby to fulfil his dream of signing off with an unprecedented fifth straight Grand Final win.

Beyond the business-as-usual mantra which has served the home-grown hero so well since he made his Saints debut as a teenager against Widnes 549 games ago, he acknowledged he will be stepping into the unknown when the final hooter brings an end to his last home appearance.

“My whole approach is that it is just another game, but maybe after the final whistle I might think a little differently,” Roby told the PA news agency.

“As of yet, it’s not sunk in that it’s the last time. I’m not the most emotional person.

“But I know after the game it might feel different, depending on the result and the atmosphere, if the fans are singing my name, a little bit of emotion might come out.”

Having announced in February that 2023 would be his final season, Roby, who would duly go on to break his club’s all-time appearance record, started the campaign by lifting the World Club Challenge trophy after a stunning upset win over Penrith in Australia.

The after-effects of that gruelling early trip threatened to curtail his career before the play-offs, with Paul Wellens’ men initially struggling to wrestle their way into the play-off positions before a late flourish sealed their customary post-season place.

Whilst he may be unsure about his emotional response to his final home appearance, Roby is crystal clear on what a fifth successive Grand Final crown would represent in the context of his already-glittering career.

“It’s the ending I would love to pick – to do five in a row, I don’t think that could ever be beaten by any other success I’ve had, or any accolade or praise I’ve had in the past,” continued Roby.

“It would be an amazing accomplishment for us as a team, and to finish on that, I couldn’t think of anything better.

“If you’d told me back when I made my debut that I would be in this position I wouldn’t have believed it.

“My mentality was, I’ve got my foot in the door a little bit here, don’t mess it up, keep your head down, keep your mouth shut and do what’s asked of you.

“It seemed to work well and before you know it you’re 20 years down the line and you’re getting ready to retire.

“I know for a fact I’ve been extremely lucky and privileged to do all this for my home-town club, and I’ll be forever grateful for everything they’ve done for me.”

Roby is honest enough to admit there is little about the matchday experience itself that he will miss: “I just look forward to coming to watch a game without the stress of having to play in it,” he joked.

His investment in the Saints’ cause will not end when he hangs up his famous red vee shirt this weekend.

Roby hopes his legacy of longevity will ensure future generations of Saints players maintain and extend the club’s dominant stature in the domestic game.

“I’ve never led this team on my own,” added Roby. “There’s a bunch of leaders in this team who are individually fantastic, but when it all slots together it becomes bigger than the sum of its parts and we can go on to achieve greatness.

“Hopefully a little bit of me and Louie (McCarthy-Scarsbrook, who is also retiring) will live on in the quality of those we leave behind, and it’s their responsibility and privilege to drive standards until it is their time too to pass on the baton.”

Wigan Warriors claimed the League Leaders Shield on points difference from Catalans Dragons and St Helens with a hard-earned victory over near neighbours Leigh Leopards.

Tries from Jai Field and Jake Wardle plus a conversion from Harry Smith looked to have put Matt Peet’s side on course for a routine victory.

But Leigh hit back just before half-time with a try from Lachlan Lam, added to by Ben Reynolds which cut the deficit to 10-6.

No points were scored in a titanic second half as Wigan were forced to hang on for their eighth straight win, which secured top spot in Super League and the shield which they were presented with on the pitch after the game.

Leigh started the night in fourth but dropped to fifth after Hull KR’s big win at Wakefield. It means Leigh will face Hull KR – the team they beat in the Challenge Cup Final – at Craven Park in the play-offs.

The home side were without influential skipper John Asiata for the third game running through a shoulder injury. Former Wigan centre Zak Hardaker was also missing with a hand problem.

It was an explosive start in front of a sold-out crowd at the Leigh Sports Village with both sides coming up with some big hits to make it a crackling atmosphere.

The home side had looked the more likely to open the scoring but it was the visitors who struck first in the 18th minute. Field showed great footwork after taking Smith’s pass to beat three Leigh defenders and score in the corner. Smith – making his 100th appearance for Wigan – added the conversion to make it 6-0.

Wigan had beaten Leigh three times already this season and scored a second try 10 minutes later – Smith and Field combining on the left edge to send Wardle in at the corner. Smith could not add the goal but the Warriors looked in control at 10-0.

The introduction of Joe Mellor from the bench gave the Challenge Cup winners some impetus and they finished the half strongly. Reynolds combined with Kai O’Donnell on the left edge and Lam hit the pass at pace to cut through and score. Reynolds kicked the conversion to cut the deficit to just four.

Both sides felt aggrieved to see potential tries disallowed in quick succession early in the second half. Field was pulled back after an earlier obstruction before Oliver Gildart’s effort for Leigh was sent to the video referee and ruled out after lengthy deliberation.

Leigh continued to press in the closing stages but they were thwarted by some determined Wigan defence.

The regular Betfred Super League season comes to a close on Friday night with both the League Leaders’ Shield and the sixth and final play-off slot still up for grabs.

Ahead of the announcement of the official 2023 ‘Dream Team’ this weekend, the PA news agency selects its own all-star line-up from the campaign so far.

Jack Welsby (St Helens)

The flashy 22-year-old full-back remains a cut above most of his rivals and has played an integral part in helping Paul Wellens’ men shake off their sluggish early season and re-emerge as a threat at the business end.

Abbas Miski (Wigan)

Just a year after being loaned out to Championship side Newcastle Thunder, the Lebanese winger has evolved into a try-scoring machine for the Warriors, his 27 taking him into the final week of the regular season joint-top of the standings.

Adam Keighran (Catalans)

Brilliant with the boot and equally at home at centre, hooker or in the halves, Keighran – who will move to Wigan at the end of the current campaign – has been a crucial element of another successful season in the south of France.

Jake Wardle (Wigan)

Wardle’s move to Wigan last October raised few eyebrows but the 24-year-old has exceeded expectations at centre, underlined by a superb first career hat-trick in the 50-0 win over Leeds earlier this month.

Tom Johnstone (Catalans)

Johnstone, equalled only by Miski in the season’s try count, has been a revelation in his first season in Perpignan, his trademark surges down the left flank suggesting his previous injury issues are now a thing of the past.

Bevan French (Wigan)

Having migrated to the halves in mid-season to help solve a minor injury crisis, French appears to found his true home under head coach Matt Peet, seamlessly transferring his speed and invention on the wing to a much more pivotal role.

Lachlan Lam (Leigh)

A model of consistency in Leigh’s spine, Lam has been one of the biggest reasons for their phenomenal success, and fittingly kicked the golden-point winner after a man-of-the-match performance in the Challenge Cup final.

Paul Vaughan (Warrington)

His season may be set to end in ignominy after a four-match ban for unnecessary contact, but few will dispute the juddering impact the Australian prop made in the early part of the season, when Wire were intent on sweeping all before them.

Edwin Ipape (Leigh)

Tirelessly influential, constantly probing, only Saints veteran James Roby came close to matching Ipape’s impact at number nine this season, as the Papua New Guinea international adapted superbly to life in the top flight.

Tom Amone (Leigh)

Only Vaughan has made more metres from the front row this season, and the Tongan’s gritty consistency has been a major factor in the success of his team-mates in the Leopards’ all-action spine.

James Bell (St Helens)

Bell has been a revelation in Saints’ second row this season, adding strong defence to a more consistent attacking threat to make himself an indispensable part of head coach Wellens’ late-season revival.

Matt Whitley (Catalans)

Whitley has been a model of consistency in his five seasons with Catalans and saved his best for the current campaign. His impending addition to a congested Saints back row for 2024 is a coup for Wellens.

Elliot Minchella (Hull KR)

That KR’s injury-hit campaign did not buckle after their Challenge Cup final loss to Leigh is largely down to Minchella, whose increasing influence steadied the Robins’ ship and marked him out as the stand-out number 13 in the competition.

Tara Jones sparked a first-half burst which left Leeds Rhinos reeling as St Helens kept their grip on the Betfred Women’s Challenge Cup for the third straight year.

In the first women’s final played at Wembley, Saints scored tries in three consecutive sets and seldom looked in danger of surrendering their advantage as they cruised to a 22-8 triumph.

Caitlin Beevers did give Leeds some degree of hope with a brilliant solo try two minutes after the interval, but a swift response from Shona Hoyle effectively sealed a second straight loss for the Rhinos.

Lois Forsell’s side had started strongly with Dannielle Anderson and Jasmine Cudjoe both held up over the line before former Saint Amy Hardcastle’s 40 metre surge was brought to an end by a last-gasp tackle by Eboni Partington.

Jones created the shift in momentum by crashing over from dummy half in the 13th minute and two minutes later, Zoe Harris sent Phoebe Hook jinking down the right wing to add Saints’ second.

Two fine conversions from Amy Taylor – the second from the touchline – extended Saints’ advantage and they extended their lead three minutes later when Chantelle Crowl’s tenacity made space for an attack which ended in Partington crossing in the corner.

Saints were scything through the Leeds defence almost at will, but the Rhinos clung on and finally got on the board in the 25th minute when Beevers sent Sophie Robinson over in the corner.

Beevers’ sensational start to the second half – when she picked up the ball on her own 30 and shrugged off a series of Saints defenders – hauled Leeds back to within eight points and suggested a significant momentum shift.

But Leeds were guilty of slacking off at a crucial moment as Shona Hoyle found it too easy to bull over on the right to land their fourth try and restore Saints’ 12-point cushion.

Despite some tricky kicking from Caitlin Casey, Leeds were unable to breach a resolute Saints rearguard and a two-point kick from Taylor in the 64th minute stretched Matty Smith’s side further out of sight.

Pip Birchall is no stranger to Wembley having cheered on her beloved St Helens at the showpiece venue in each of their last four Challenge Cup final appearances.

But during those big occasions Birchall and her Saints-supporting family never dared dreamed that one day she might be the one chasing silverware on the game’s biggest stage.

The 23-year-old forward, who was born and raised in the town, will finally assume the limelight with her team-mates on Saturday when Saints face Leeds Rhinos in the women’s Challenge Cup final.

“Every time I sat in those stands I was itching to get onto that pitch but I assumed it would never happen because the women didn’t get to play there,” Birchall told the PA news agency.

“I just had the mindset that it would never happen. But I gradually started to wonder if it might be possible, which just shows how far the women’s game has come.

“My parents were at a wedding in Ireland when we won the semi-final, and when I phoned them we were all in tears. They have been with me to so many places in my career and we couldn’t believe we are going to Wembley.”

Birchall started playing for Saints at junior levels but the women’s game was still in its infancy and her and her team-mates had to routinely overcome obstacles just to get onto the playing surface.

“I remember one game at Chorley where they’d left the gates locked and we had to knock on a door and ask a man in his pyjamas if it was all right to climb over his back fence to get to the pitch,” added Birchall.

“We would often have to play four versus four or join the other team just to make up the numbers. If you hurt your leg you just jumped in the car and tried to make it to A&E as quickly as possible.

“It’s been a rollercoaster but being able to be a part of the first-ever women’s final at Wembley is another sign of how far the game has come.”

Saints booked their place in the final when Faye Gaskin kicked the winning drop-goal in their semi-final against York – but hours later the men’s team failed to keep their side of the bargain as they slid to defeat against Leigh.

Birchall could hardly hide her disappointment at that shock result but the hurt is diluted by the knowledge that for once the town will be placing its women’s team at the front and centre.

“It would have been the pinnacle to have both teams there,” admitted Birchall. “But with the men not managing, it’s now about us. We’re who the town is talking about, there’s a buzz about the place and that’s exactly what we need.”

Paul Wellens has urged his all-conquering St Helens squad to draw on the memory of recent heartbreaks if they wish to avoid adding an unwanted chapter to Challenge Cup history when they face Leigh in Saturday’s first semi-final.

Wellens’ men might have amassed a glittering pile of silverware but remarkably they will barely start favourites against Adrian Lam’s side, who only last season were celebrating lifting the 1895 Cup for second and third-tier sides at Wembley.

A revolution led by owner Derek Beaumont has catapulted the club to second place in their first season back in Super League – four points and two places above Saints – and within 80 minutes of a first Challenge Cup final appearance since they sunk Leeds at Wembley in 1971.

With the sport’s established order increasingly being stood on its head, it is perhaps no surprise that Wellens wants his players to forget their recent prize haul and focus on rare setbacks, such as their stunning semi-final defeat to Catalans Dragons in 2018.

Seven members of Saints’ current squad were involved in that game, which the French side won after blazing into a 27-0 half-time lead, and Wellens stressed: “A lot of of our group have won big matches but they have experienced a fair bit of heartbreak as well.

“Losing in the Cup semi-final to Catalans was an experience they have learned from, and has shaped them in terms of the way they approach big games. Sometimes out of those negative experiences, you can draw a lot of positives.”

Saints, who head into the game on the back of a gruelling Super League defeat to the French side which robbed them of influential duo James Roby and Mark Percival due to failed head injury assessments, certainly hold no fear for Lam’s buoyant side.

Lam’s men hit back from a 12-point half-time deficit to sink Saints 20-12 in their previous meeting in March, and have since forged a remarkable run of 12 wins in 13 games which has seemingly cemented their improbable place in the end-of-season play-offs.

For the Leigh-born former Saints hero Tommy Martyn, Lam and Beaumont have breathed new life into a club and a town for so long considered a “laughing stock” in rugby league circles for their inability to hold down a regular top-flight place.

Martyn, who played in Saints’ victorious 1996 and 1997 Challenge Cup final wins and also won Grand Finals and the World Club Challenge before ending his career with his home-town club, told the PA news agency: “It is the only thing anyone in Leigh is talking about.

“When I was growing up it was a golden era, winning the First Division title in 1982, and the town was booming then like it’s booming now. For so long the club was seen as a laughing stock. What Derek and Adrian have achieved is remarkable.”

Leigh’s stunning rise has been built on solid foundations, from a front row featuring stand-out prop John Asiata and mercurial hooker Edwin Ipape, to the flair in their three-quarters including the current joint-top Super League try-scorer, Josh Charnley.

But in a warning to Saints and the other clubs whom they must still face in their unlikely quest for silverware this season, Lam believes his side are still searching for their best.

“We pride ourselves on our identity but there are also one or two more levels we can keep improving on, and everyone agrees about that, so that’s the exciting part,” said Lam.

“We know the challenge ahead of us, we know it’s a massive mountain to climb, but the way this season has been rolling, if we can turn up and give our absolute best and be that same consistent side, I know we will give ourselves a chance.”

Jack Welsby insists St Helens are getting back to their best ahead of their “biggest game of the season” against Leigh in the Challenge Cup semi-finals on Saturday.

The Challenge Cup eluded the defending Super League champions for 13 years prior to their win in 2021, when they beat Castleford 26-12, and they are now bidding to reclaim the title.

St Helens have enjoyed an upturn in form in recent weeks, but saw a two-match winning run end with a 14-12 defeat to Catalans Dragons last Thursday ahead of their clash with the in-form Leopards at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.

Full-back Welsby told the PA news agency: “It’s been a bit of a different year than we are used to.

“We had a really great start in Australia but then came back and struggled for a bit of form but in recent weeks we are looking more like ourselves.

“There is still ample amounts of confidence in the group and we are really ready to go this week. This is the biggest game of the season so far, this is the one that really matters and hopefully we can get it right.”

James Roby and Mark Percival will miss the clash after failing head injury assessments.

Welsby admits the absence of the duo will be a big one but it offers the opportunity for other players to make a name for themselves on the big stage.

He said: “You can play it down and say you can move on but the likes of Roby being out as your captain is a pretty big loss.

“Then Mark Percival who is probably the best centre in the competition for the last five years or so, they are two massive losses and two massive personalities in the dressing room so they are big boots to fill but we are more than confident with the players coming in.

“There’s lots of opportunities out there this weekend and lots of incentive and all the boys will be ready come Saturday.”

Welsby has scored eight tries so far this campaign but feels his performances can still improve.

He added: “I’ve been a bit hit and miss. Some games I’ve been at my best and some games I’ve not, I’m still learning and still have a lot to learn.

“Probably got a bit of a lesson with the way Sam Tomkins played at the weekend but I’m enjoying my rugby and just hope we hit a bit of form going into the back end of the season.”

Leigh captain John Asiata insists he always believed his side could do “something special” as they prepare for their Challenge Cup semi-final against St Helens.

The loose forward has been part of the team which have shocked Super League this season, winning 12 of their last 13 games in all competitions and setting up the chance to reach their first Challenge Cup final since 1971.

The former NRL star, who played for North Queensland Cowboys and Brisbane Broncos, brings a wealth of experience to the Leopards, having won the NRL grand final in 2015 and the 2016 World Club Challenge.

Now, the Australian has a different task at hand as he aims to continue Leigh’s stunning run with a Wembley appearance at stake, and he always believed his side could do the unthinkable.

Asiata told the PA news agency: “I said it at the beginning of the year that I trust this group and we are going to do something special this year.

“We are doing that at the moment and now we have to just keep going. Coming here, I did not understand why I was coming here but it was a door that God opened for me and since I’ve been here it’s been nothing but great things so I’m very happy.

“This year is all about making history and this is another opportunity to do that.”

Asiata has been one of Super League’s standout performers this season, leading the way for the most carries with 441, but he has also received help from a number of other key players such as Tom Briscoe and top try-scorer Josh Charnley.

The skipper hailed the team effort which has seen Leigh climb to second in the league and helped them recently come from 12 points down to beat Salford away 24-22 for the first time since 1981.

He continued: “As a group we set some goals in the beginning of the year but we have created a bunch that believe in each other’s ability to do the job.

“No matter where you are on the field, no matter how tired you can be, there is going to be someone else just as tired as you and we’ve built a very solid foundation for the new guys to jump on board.

“It’s just been awesome to see the boys achieve what they have done so far and we have a coach that is leading the way and helping us do that.”

Leopards earned a 20-12 victory over Saints in their meeting earlier in the season and sit two places above their semi-final opponents in the league.

Despite their superiority this season, Asiata insists Leigh have no mental advantage over St Helens and believes Saints are still the favourites heading into the game at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.

He said: “It’s a whole different ball game when it comes to semi-final footy. It’s going to be a whole different Saints team that we are playing.

“They have been there and done that and are world champions for a reason but I am excited for the challenge because if you want to be the best you have to beat the best.

“I think Saints will be favourites which I don’t mind being the underdogs. If you look at the beginning of the year, nobody gave us a chance to do anything and that’s the good thing about our game.”

Paul Wellens has told his stuttering St Helens stars he will not tolerate any more complacency as they prepare to host struggling Castleford in the Betfred Super League on Friday.

Wellens’ world champions looked to have shrugged off their sluggish start to the current campaign after dazzling back-to-back wins over Wigan and Huddersfield earlier this month.

But having belatedly nudged themselves back into the play-off slots, Saints summoned an abject display in last Thursday’s 34-6 loss at Hull FC that suggests their bid for a fifth consecutive title remains very much a work-in-progress.

In contrast Castleford head for the Totally Wicked Stadium on the back of a stirring win over previous pace-setters Warrington last week, and Wellens has demanded his players be on their guard for a repeat performance.

“I thought we were complacent at the weekend, Hull came at us with an intent and energy that we couldn’t match, and that was the most disappointing aspect,” said Wellens.

“Too many of us turned up to the game hoping for an easy night, and when you do that you make things much more difficult for yourself.

“It’s a massive learning for us and we’ve had some pretty honest conversations this week. But what this group has done well in the past is respond to a bad performance and we need a really positive performance at the weekend.”

Wellens did not exclude himself from criticism last week, admitting he may have made an error in opting to rest captain James Roby and hand Morgan Knowles a rare start at number nine.

So ineffective was the formation – though no particular blame could be attached to Knowles – that Roby emerged off the bench for the second half and immediately made a difference in his side’s bid to claw their way back into the match.

Their patchy performances this season have made Saints increasingly aware of their talisman’s impending retirement, with Warrington’s Daryl Clark yet to be officially confirmed as his replacement next season.

Insisting he is relaxed about the prospect of having to fill such a huge hole in his line-up, Wellens referenced Roby’s ability to make the position his own in the wake of the departure of the previous incumbent, Keiron Cunningham, in 2010.

“As a club we will be really smart about how we go about bringing in a replacement, and I will bring in a player of real quality who can add to this team,” said Wellens.

“When Keiron retired, James Roby came in and was true to himself, and we expect the same from James Roby’s replacement. James Roby is going to retire and we will move forward as a club and deal with that.”

Jake Clifford returned to inspire Hull FC to their first win over St Helens in 17 attempts as they shrugged off the painful memory of last week’s Challenge Cup defeat with a blistering six-try performance at the MKM Stadium.

Just five days ago Josh Griffin’s sending-off for dissent cost his side a realistic chance of claiming a rare win over Paul Wellens’ men but Clifford – who had missed the Cup tie through concussion – delivered a 14-point haul to seal a 34-6 thrashing of the world champions.

Clifford, who was yet to turn professional the last time Hull beat Saints in 2017, set the tone by scoring the first try with less than seven minutes gone and set up the clincher for Cam Scott, before Darnell McIntosh rounded the night off in style with a devastating 70-yard burst.

Saints had swaggered into east Yorkshire on the back of six straight wins and suggesting they had recovered their best form in impressive recent wins over Huddersfield and Wigan.

But they were distinctly second best all evening, the visitors’ misery was compounded by glaring errors from the usually dependable duo of Lewis Dodd and Jack Welsby as Tony Smith’s men effectively sealed their win by storming into a 22-0 half-time lead.

Clifford opened the scoring when he stretched over from a short pass from McIntosh, then Carlos Tuimavave added a second after a burst from the impressive Andre Savelio after Dodd carelessly booted the ball into his arms.

Welsby’s moment to forget duly followed on 20 minutes, when he loitered over Jake Trueman’s kick, McIntosh squeezed past to flap the ball back and Trueman pounced to pat it down, Clifford’s second conversion taking Hull’s lead to 16.

Chris Satae found it far too easy to drive over just past the half-hour mark to score Hull’s fourth, and the first half damage could have been even worse for Saints after Davy Litten went over acrobatically in the corner but lost contact just before grounding.

Ears no doubt ringing from Wellens’ half-time team talk, Saints summoned the immediate response they required, when James Bell crossed under the posts after a storming run from Konrad Hurrell broke the Hull line for the first time.

With the half-time introduction of James Roby, Wellens’ men had added urgency, and there were signs of a momentum shift as Hull were forced to defend deep to repel a series of Saints attacks.

But the hosts emerged uncowed, and after surviving another difficult set they responded in style, Scott darting onto Clifford’s clever kick to twist over for his side’s fifth try.

Litten failed to ground another chance in the corner but McIntosh served up a fitting finale that sees his side shake off the memory of their early season woes and shaping up for an unlikely shot at the play-offs.

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