St Helens began the defence of their Super League crown with a victory over Catalan Dragons at Langtree Park.
Kieron Cunningham’s side battled to a hard fought 18-7 win in a repeat of last year’s play-off semi-final, although in truth this was a much scrappier affair.
The Dragons were unable to name marquee signing Todd Carney in their 17 man squad due to a calf injury; and Laurent Frayssinous will be sweating on the condition of another new signing, Willie Tonga, for next week’s game with Castleford.
Tonga’s Super League debut was over almost as soon as it had begun. The centre attempted to tackle Alex Walmsley on the very first play of the match but was in an awkward position when the big forward ran through him. The game was held up for around ten minutes whilst the Australian international was treated before being stretchered off the field.
The Dragons start went from bad to worse when Thomas Bosc was hit late by Joe Greenwood close to the Saints line. With the French medical staff predisposed treating Tonga, Saints doctor Simon Perritt tended to the stand-off. Bosc was off the field for near 15 minutes, and in that time the defending champions took the lead.
Offseason signing Atelea Vea grabbed a debut try after makeshift half-back pairing Jon Wilkin and Travis Burns combined to send the big Tongan crashing over the line from five metres out.
The home side were playing with great intensity and speed, a Wilkin chip into the corner turned Dragon’s full-back Morgan Escare around and he was pinned in goal by an enthusiastic chase from Alex Swift and Jordan Turner.
Just after the 15 minute mark Saints thought they had scored again, Burns’ kick in goal bounced awkwardly and Escare missed his clearing kick, leaving Swift to just about ground the ball. The winger’s leg was in touch but, at the time of touching the ball down, appeared to be raised up above the whitewash, however, the video referees ruled ‘No Try.’
The French side would have been relieved to be only six points behind five minutes from half-time, before referee Phil Bentham awarded them seven consecutive penalties which led to Eloi Pellissier’s score. Greg Richards was sin binned for a ball steal after the official had placed Saints on a team warning for persistent offending. The Catalan hooker scored straight from the tap re-start, despite the attentions of Vea and James Roby. Bosc’s conversion levelled the scores before he slotted over a drop goal on the half-time hooter to send the visitors into the lead.
Cunningham’s charges managed to shut out Catalan in the second half, and never really looked like losing the game once they retook the lead. After Escare had been adjudged to have shoulder charged Makinson into touch, Bentham awarded a penalty from which Turner touched down. Jonny Lomax’s run at Ben Pomeroy created space on the Dragons right edge, and the 26 year-old duly scored to put the hosts back in front.
More errors followed from both sides, but Catalan, who were without playmakers Carney and Scott Dureau, never really threatened the champions. Saints nearly extended their lead when Swift went over in the corner, only for it to be ruled out for a foot in touch, although on second look it appeared very close.
Centre Michael Oldfield was sin binned on 57 minutes for a professional foul. The big Aussie prevented Lomax from making a quick play the ball close to the posts, after a Mose Masoe offload had set Saints on their way down field. From the tap restart close to the line youngster Andre Savelio thundered his way through Escare and Ian Henderson to give the six time Grand Final winners some breathing space. However, Makinson was unable to convert so the lead was just seven points.
Lance Hohaia came on off the bench for his first appearance since being punched two minutes into last year’s Grand Final. He, along with Wilkin and Burns kept the Dragons on the back foot with their kicking game, while James Roby got through more than 60 tackles in the game.
Makinson touched down in the right hand corner to secure the win with five minutes to go.
In the final minute, Olivier Elima and Masoe almost came to blows following an incident involving Henderson and the big Samoan at the play the play the ball.
Overall, Saints deserved their win, although Roby called the display a ‘poor performance.’