Justin Holbrook: A retrospective of St Helens' Super League-winning coach
By Marc Bazeley
Last Updated: 15/10/19 6:10am
Barely two weeks after guiding St Helens to their first Super League title for five years, Justin Holbrook will pack his bags and return to Australia.
The 43-year-old is bringing his two-and-a-half-year spell at the Totally Wicked Stadium to a close after agreeing to take over as head coach of NRL side Gold Coast Titans.
Saturday's 23-6 victory over Salford Red Devils in the Grand Final at Old Trafford ensured the perfect end to a journey which began midway through what, up to that point, had been a dismal season for Saints in 2017.
- Saints crowned Super League champions
- Departing Holbrook hails super Saints
- Thompson pleased to play part in Grand Final
Here, we take a look back on Holbrook's time with St Helens and how he steered them from fallen giants to record-breaking champions…
A relative unknown
Given the profile he enjoys now, it probably easy to forget Holbrook was an unfamiliar name outside of his homeland, where he had worked his way up the coaching ranks to being assistant to Trent Robinson at Sydney Roosters following a modest playing career in the NRL.
The former Newcastle Knights, Penrith Panthers and Roosters half-back was not only charged with the task of reviving a stuttering start to the season when he was appointed at St Helens in May 2017, but also replacing one of the club's all-time greats who has his own statue outside the ground.
Keiron Cunningham's 24-year association with Saints as a player and coach had come to an end the previous month following a 14-14 draw with Huddersfield Giants which left them seventh in the Super League table.
Yet despite not having a high profile, Holbrook came highly recommended when chief executive Mike Rush travelled to Australia to source potential candidates, later impressing in his job interview with his knowledge of the game on these shores and his work developing young players.
"St Helens are one of the top teams in the Super League competition with a history of success," Holbrook said at the time of his appointment. "I will be working hard to continue that tradition and I cannot wait to get started."
A 45-0 win at that year's Magic Weekend against Hull FC in his first game in charge, which saw six different players score in the eight-try rout, proved to be a sign of things to come.
Ecstasy and agony
That first season under Holbrook saw St Helens recover from scrapping it out in the lower reaches of the table to finish sixth at the end of the regular season, followed by snatching a place in the play-offs by just one point from Wakefield Trinity at the end of the Super Eights.
A drop goal from Luke Gale in golden point extra-time denied them a return to Old Trafford for a first Grand Final appearance since 2014 as they were edged out 23-22 by League Leaders' Shield winners Castleford Tigers.
Nevertheless, it was a positive start to build on and Holbrook's first full campaign in charge saw St Helens assert themselves once more as a leading side in Super League.
Inspired by that year's Man of Steel Ben Barba, they went on to finish top of the table by 10 points at the end of the regular season to and secured top seeding for the play-offs, along Holbrook's first piece of silverware in charge in the form of the Shield.
But the sport's two major prizes eluded Saints, with a surprise semi-final defeat to eventual winners Catalans Dragons in the Challenge Cup followed by them going down 18-13 at home to Warrington Wolves in the Super League semi-finals
"It could have been so much more, but that's what happens in sport and this game," Holbrook told Sky Sports after the latter.
"Right from the start of the season we played some great rugby league and put ourselves in the best chance to finish the season and weren't good enough when it counted, so we have to accept that as a group."
It was a mistake they would not make this time around.
St Helens' dominance of Super League in 2019 has not just been impressive for how far ahead of the rest of the competition they have been this year, but is so in historical terms as well.
In finishing top of the table by a margin of 16 points from second-placed Wigan Warriors, the club broke a record which stretched all the way back to the Northern Union's inaugural season 124 years ago.
Many pundits wondered how the team would cope without the talismanic Barba following his return to Australia for what turned out to be a short-lived spell with North Queensland Cowboys.
But new recruits from the NRL Lachlan Coote, Kevin Naiqama and Joseph Paulo all made the expected impact, combining with the strong contingent of home-grown talent and established squad members to create an imposing side.
The Challenge Cup may have evaded them after an out-of-sorts display against Warrington in the final at Wembley in August, but there was no stopping them in the league as they blew away Wigan 40-10 in the play-offs followed by seeing off underdogs Salford at Old Trafford to lift the title.
It was no surprise Gold Coast came calling for Holbrook in an effort to revive their flagging fortunes in the NRL and although Saints were eager to extend his contract, the lure of the chance to return to a head coaching role in his homeland proved too great.
Knowing the Grand Final would be the final game in charge for a man they hold great respect for gave the players an extra incentive to ensure they went on to be crowned champions.
"It's driven by Justin and we're all sad to see him leave, but it was good for him to cap it off in that manner," St Helens captain James Roby said.
"It's a chapter in Justin's coaching career and it's brought to a fitting end - but you never know, he might be coming back!
"What he's done for us as a club and the town in general has been fantastic."
Honesty and integrity
A recurring theme among St Helens players when they are asked why Holbrook has made such a profound impact at the club is his ability to break down what he expects from his side and their game-plan in a manner devoid of coaching jargon.
The way emerging talents like Morgan Knowles and Harry Sunderland Trophy winner Luke Thompson have developed during Holbrook's time at the club underline his reputation for being able to bring on young players as well.
A big factor in that his how he conducts himself with his players and Sky Sports rugby league columnist Kevin Brown, who has come up against St Helens as an opponent and watched them from the sidelines, knows from speaking to some of the squad why they responded so well to Holbrook.
"The thing that keeps coming out from a lot of their players is how honest he is and how much integrity he has," Brown told Sky Sports.
"But, also, it's how he makes every individual player really want to get the best out of themselves and how he keeps everything simple.
"Even in the celebrations, he let the players take the credit and you can see he's just a humble person as well as a great coach, and often that's the thing which make good coaches great coaches."
Indeed, Brown draws comparisons with another highly-regarded Australian coach who has been involved on these shores in recent years.
"That was the difference for me with Wayne Bennett," Brown said. "He was a great coach and great technician, but he was an unbelievable person as well and I think Justin is of the same sort of character.
"You could see how much his team really wanted to do it for him [in the Grand Final]."
The Robinson connection
If there is another coach to draw comparisons with though, then perhaps the best one is Holbrook's former mentor Robinson.
Like Holbrook, the 42-year-old had a modest playing career and began his coaching career at semi-professional level - the difference being it was on this side of the world with Toulouse Olympique.
He would progress to coaching in Super League as well, spending two years with Catalans and earning a reputation for keeping his messages to the squad short and simple, while at the same time constantly trying to innovate and stay one step ahead of their rivals.
Robinson was little known when he was handed the reins at the Roosters too after a spell as the club's defence coach, but that is no longer the case after guiding them to back-to-back NRL titles and Holbrook is in no doubt he played a vital role in shaping him as a coach.
"He was absolutely fantastic for my coaching development," Holbrook told NRL.com earlier this year.
"Prior to joining the Roosters staff, I had always been a head coach either with the 20s or in reserve grade.
"But to get an NRL assistant at the Roosters, and learn the details of the game and not worry about everything else, it was a great development and learning experience.
"Robbo is a great guy and a smart man. He challenges you a lot as a coach. It was a perfect coaching career path for me."
A new challenge
There are not too many comparisons to draw between St Helens and Holbrook's new club, Gold Coast Titans, however.
While Saints were one of the pre-eminent sides of the Super League era who had fallen into a slump, the Titans have struggled since being accepted into the NRL as an expansion team in 2007. Indeed, they have only finished the season with a positive win-loss record twice in 12 years.
Just to underline that, a miserable 2019 season saw Gold Coast finish eight points behind St George Illawarra Dragons at the foot of the table with just four wins to their name.
Even so, Holbrook is optimistic about what the future holds for the club, and talks with head of performance and Australian great Mal Meninga convinced him it was an opportunity to test himself he did not want to miss.
"It's a tough position to be in," Holbrook told NRL.com. "But I love coaching and I have a great opportunity on the Gold Coast.
"I had my concerns, of course, as everyone does. But after talking to Mal, they know the same challenges and everyone up there wants it to be successful.
"To get that opportunity and for them to choose me is something I'm quite excited about. There are some great players there, but for one reason or another they are not performing as well as they should be."