Saints talismanic halfback, Sean Long, 33, made 331 total appearances (all games including subs) in a controversial and glittering twelve year stay at the club.
Long joined the Saints for £80,000 from the Widnes Vikings in June 1997. After debuting in a 40-8 pummelling at the hands of the Cronulla Sharks in the ill-fated World Club Challenge the fleet-footed half back marked his first Super League appearance for the club with the first of his 156 tries in a 38-20 defeat to the Bradford Bulls (6 July 1997).
Electrifying pace and an eye for the gap ensured Long was a fan favourite from the start but his flamboyant style ensured he was never far from controversy; as anyone who has browsed his newly published autobiography will attest.
Nonetheless he went on to compile a glittering rugby league career that included a record three Lance Todd trophies four Grand Final winners medals and two World Club Trophy winners medals. His move to Hull FC for Super League XV will see another of Saints ‘golden’ generation slip from the club as they enter slide inexorably closer to what is likely to be a turbulent period of transition.
Long’s departure means that only Keiron Cunningham (now entering his final season) and Paul Wellens remain from Saints’ 1999 Grand Final winning team.
Speaking after his team’s devastating 18-10 defeat to Leeds Rhinos in the 2009 engage Super League Grand Final, St Helens’ coach, Mick Potter, said:
“Of course we’ll miss him (Sean Long); but as he moves on someone else will come forward and we’ve a couple of options there.”
But anyone who really watched Long in that final will know the truth; the Saints already miss Long, in fact they’ve missed him for at least a season.
The Long of the swashbuckling swagger, who took on the line and challenged them with his step and incisive pace. That Long is long gone and Saints sorely miss that speed of thought and action.
Oh, the kicking game is still there and he can turn a pass too; but too often now those ducking darts through the line – that once would have been half breaks, creating chances for colleagues – they turn in to easy tackles.
Age, as it does with us all, has dulled his great talents and Saints third successive Old Trafford loss has ushered out his era at the the club.
His successor remains to be seen. Kyle Eastmond certainly has the explosive speed of that early Long, and the confidence too; yet his tactical kicking game is light years behind/ As is his ability to drive a team around the field; his generalship.
And if there’s one thing that Saints miss more than they miss Long — it’s leadership; real on-field in-your-grill wise-head leadership.
Leadership packed its suitcase and put it in the hallway when Chris Joynt retired. It left home entirely when Paul Sculthorpe was forced out of the game through injury and it’s never been back to visit the now newly named GPW Recruitment Stadium.
It’s the reason Saints are one and three in their last four Grand Final visits.
There’s no shortage of people who can do a half decent job; Long for one, Graham’s another, as is Cunningham; but decent leaders can only take you so far, it takes great leaders to get over that final hurdle.
That’s why Rhinos coach, Brian McClennan, lauded his skipper, Kevin Sinfield, after the Grand Final, claiming:
“It’s huge (his leadership) he’s become the winningest (sic) captain in Super League, all the players look up to Kevin and good leadership is when you share and give other people the trust to come in (and contribute).”
The loss of Long and Lee Gilmour for Super League XV exacerbates Saints leadership deficit and you can’t buy it. They need someone to step up to the mark; a Wilkin or Graham or Pryce to look around and suddenly realise … they are it. Paul Sculthorpe isn’t walking through that door, Chris Joynt isn’t walking through that door, it’s on me.
Or can the prodigal Scott Moore step in and deliver the on-field generalship so sorely lacking. It’s a big ask, but there were glimpses at Huddersfield that he can mature into that character.
As for Long, it’s time for Saints fans to bid adieu, farewell. It’s been great, really it has. Thanks for the memories, now go have fun at Hull. We’re busy looking for Super Man.