2022-07-29 00:58:00

On the surface, it looked like a miracle play that had sealed a fairytale ending for James Graham.

But the man himself tells a different story. It was just under two years ago in the 2020 Super League grand final when, with the scores level at 4-all, St Helens halfback Tommy Makinson attempted a drop goal.

Saints and Wigan appeared destined for history, seconds away from becoming the first teams to send a Super League decider to golden point.

But the youngest player on the field, Jack Welsby, had other ideas.

Kristian Woolf, Head Coach of St Helens (L), try-scorer Jack Welsby and James Roby of St Helens pose with the trophy. (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
James Graham (left) played under Woolf. (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

The drop goal hit the upright, bouncing into the in-goal area with Wigan fullback Bevan French in cover.

Welsby though came out of nowhere to pounce on the ball, planting it down within inches of the touch line and sealing a memorable title for St Helens.

It was their second-straight but the first under new coach Kristian Woolf, brought in to replace Justin Holbrook, who had accepted a new role back in Australia with the Gold Coast Titans.

Welsby may have made all the headlines that night but Woolf was the unsung hero, as Graham explained to foxsports.com.au.

“He was one that always practised training for chaos,” Graham said.

“Obviously the game of rugby league can produce chaotic moments where multiple variables happen all at the same time, some you can control, some you can’t.

“All I would say is if you were to go back and look at the 2020 Grand Final and see Jack Welsby’s try, if there is one thing I can say about that it was no coincidence he was there.

“If you watch St Helens play that year and watch it closely, you’ll see that wasn’t just fortune or being in the right place at the right time. There was more to it than that.”

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Kristian Woolf is a man in demand. (Photo by Lewis Storey/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

The NRL’s newest franchise, the Dolphins, are reportedly set to offer Woolf a multi-year deal to join the club next season before replacing Wayne Bennett as head coach in 2025.

“They are high on my list of priorities,” Bennett told Graham’s ‘The Bye Round Podcast’ this week.

“I’ve got great raps on Kristian, I think he’s done a great job.”

While not wanting to comment on any links to the Dolphins, Graham provided a fascinating insight into why Woolf is one of the most in-demand names in NRL circles.

After all, it was only earlier this year that the Warriors went after Woolf, with the 47-year-old knocking back that job since he and his family were keen to return to Australia.

“I don’t want to speak about hypotheticals,” Graham said of the links to the Dolphins, “[but] I think it is a matter of when not if Kristian Woolf will take over a head coaching job in the NRL.”

“It doesn’t matter who it is or what the circumstances are,” Graham added.

“I believe he’ll have a great impact on a club and he’ll go a long way to providing a successful environment.”

Woolf has a proven track record overseas, having steered St Helens to back-to-back Super League titles as well as a Challenge Cup crown since taking over for Holbrook. That in itself comes with its own challenges, in particular the expectations of sustaining success.

Now St Helens is looking at the possibility of becoming the first team to win four-straight titles in the Super League era.

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“He took over a championship-winning team, which is an incredibly difficult thing to do,” Graham said.

“Since then they’ve gone back-to-back and they won a Challenge Cup as well and [now] they’ve got the chance to win a fourth-straight title, which would I believe would make history.

“They’ve got the opportunity to do that, obviously with water to run under the bridge and football to be played but that’s never been done before. There are many Australian coaches who have gone over there and been nowhere near as successful as Kristian Woolf has been and come back and been successful over here as well.

“When you throw that in with the added benefit of the success he’s had with the Tongan national team, it’s just not a surprise why multiple clubs would be looking at him. What he’s accomplished speaks for itself.”

Woolf has plenty of experience in and out of the NRL. (Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

Some people can be quick to dismiss achievements in the Super League, although it is hard to ignore just how dominant St Helens has been under Woolf’s watch.

Then you add in his experience in NRL systems, having coached the North Queensland Cowboys to their first-ever grand final at NYC level in 2011.

Two years later Woolf was assistant coach of the Brisbane Broncos before returning to North Queensland, where he was the inaugural coach of the new Intrust Super Cup side — the Townsville Blackhawks.

In his first season at the helm Woolf took the Blackhawks all the way to the top of the table and eventually to the grand final.

Three years later he was again an assistant coach in the NRL, this time at the Newcastle Knights, before making the move overseas to St Helens.

In between all of that, he has transformed Tonga into an international powerhouse, with Graham describing his work with that team as “phenomenal”.

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“He had some handy players at his disposal but he pushed them, he galvanised them, he got them together,” Graham said.

“Over the past couple of seasons they’ve beaten Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain. He was instrumental in that. If you can get a group together that are talented and manage them to perform at their best, it speaks volumes.”

Woolf also led from the front in calling for pay parity in international rugby league while paying tribute to the “sacrifices” his players make every time they take to the field for Tonga.

“It doesn’t matter where you’re from, it’s about him getting the trust of his players which he’s proven he can do,” Graham added.

That opinion is shared by former NRL playmaker Jamie Soward, who told ‘The Love Rugby League Podcast’ earlier this year that Woolf has “huge raps” for his work with Mate Ma’a.

“What he’s done not only for St Helens, but the Polynesian connection is such a huge responsibility to be able to handle,” Soward said.

“If the Tongan squad love him so much, and they do; that’s a huge wrap to him and his personable skills. He’s got a huge wrap over here not only from the players, but I’m a massive Kristian Woolf supporter.”

Woolf has played a big role in Tonga’s success. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

Building a roster is one thing but forging an identity and collective vision for the playing group to buy into is another entirely.

Fortunately by the sounds of it, the Dolphins would have the perfect candidate in Woolf to help the players do just that.

Recent reports suggest Woolf is closing in on an agreement with the Dolphins, although the man himself denied that any deal is done while speaking to UK media this week.

“There’s no update, I’m sorry,” Woolf said.

“Nothing’s changed there at all from my situation. It’s the same as when I was asked last week and the week before.

“My situation hasn’t changed at all, so any reports saying things are confirmed are not correct at the moment.”

Whether it is with the Dolphins or another NRL team, Graham said it will be a bittersweet feeling when his former coach lands a top job in Australia.

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“I believe Kristian has an ambition to coach here in the NRL but as a St Helens fan I’d be gutted to see him go,” he said.

“I’m a bit torn. I guess as a Saints fan I just have to wish him all the best. My experience with Kristian was first-class.

“I appreciated his honesty, his clarity at training and his intensity as well. He’s certainly a man who knows how to lead a group of men and he’s a top-line coach in some very difficult circumstances, he got the best out of the group at St Helens.”

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Source by [graycupnews.com]

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