St Helens showed glimpses of their class as they got their Betfred Super League title defence off to a successful start with a convincing 29-6 victory over Salford.
The 2021 season kicked off behind closed doors with a double-header at Headingley with a repeat of the 2019 Grand Final and the same outcome as Saints condemned their former assistant coach Richard Marshall to defeat in his first match as Red Devils boss.
Salford, who had five players making their debuts, trailed only 13-6 until the champions cut loose with three tries in the final quarter.
St Helens began the season without Lachlan Coote as well as Morgan Knowles, but 20-year-old Jack Welsby – hero of their Grand Final triumph – demonstrated his versatility by slotting effortlessly into Coote’s full-back role.
Saints coach Kristian Woolf handed debuts to all three of his overseas signings, Joel Thompson, Sione Mata’utia and Agnatius Paasi, although the latter’s involvement was curtained by a head knock.
St Helens made the perfect start with right winger Tom Makinson outjumping Krisnan Inu to collect Theo Fages’ precise kick to the corner to score the first try of Super League XXVI just two minutes into the season.
Taking on the goalkicking duties in the absence of Coote, Makinson landed the touchline conversion to make it 6-0.
With Fages and Jonny Lomax orchestrating to great effect, the champions posed threats throughout the first half and had tries from Mark Percival and Lomax disallowed by the video referee.
Makinson stretched the lead with a penalty and Saints’ pressure finally paid off six minutes before the break when Lomax swooped on a loose ball after Kallum Watkins lost possession inside his own 20-metre area and got left winger Regan Grace over for his side’s second try.
Makinson could not add the goal this time but Welsby nudged St Helens further ahead on the stroke of half-time with a first Super League drop goal.
Salford had their moments, with evergreen Kevin Brown probing and prompting, but they lacked composure near the line and made too many handling errors to subject the Saints defence to sustained pressure.
St Helens lost Paasi within a minute of the restart after he knocked himself out attempting to stop Salford powerhouse Pauli Pauli and their grip on the game was threatened when the Red Devils grabbed their only try.
Salford pulled the Saints defenders into the middle and stand-off Tui Lolohea’s long, looping pass enabled Ken Sio to cross unopposed for a try that Inu converted.
However, Saints were never seriously threatened and, after Thompson had been held up over the line for the second time in the second half, Percival leapt high into the air to collect another Fages kick and scored his first try since the 2019 Grand Final.
Percival’s celebrations were short-lived as he hobbled off the field shortly afterwards but Makinson’s third goal restored his side’s two-score advantage and – as Marshall’s men tired – Saints turned on the style.
Centre Kevin Naiqama pounced on a handling error by Inu to scored a fourth try and prop Alex Walmsley charged through for a solo score to round off the scoring, with Makinson taking his goal tally to four from six attempts.