From country boy to football king: How an Australian coach led a British rugby league team ‘defeat’ to glory amid pandemic
Locked in his house watching the rain fall over St Helens, England, Kristian Woolf is far from home.
- Kristian Woolf never planned a coaching career
- Now he leads the best team in the British rugby league through back-to-back wins amid COVID-19
- He reflected on the journey so far and the road ahead
But the down-to-earth people who wave at him in the streets and stop to chat in the shopping aisles are fondly reminders of his birthplace in the Australian town of Mount Isa.
The city of red earth is where he started playing football when he was young.
Today, the 49-year-old is nearing the end of his second year as head coach of UK’s most successful rugby union team, St Helens.
Amid the global pandemic, he led the Saints to two Super League grand final wins and a Challenge Cup, achievements that saw him sign for a third season in 2022.
As he looks forward to another year with the club, Woolf reflected on his journey and the string of happy accidents that have led him to where he is now.
‘I just fell in’
“I did a lot of sports as a kid and a bit of rugby union but it was never something I had planned for a career in,” said Woolf, who played for the Souths Logan. Magpies in Brisbane when he was young.
After college, he continued his high school education and landed his first major role at Ignatius Park College in Townsville.
Woolf rose through the ranks at several Queensland clubs, including the North Queensland Cowboys, Brisbane Broncos and Townsville Blackhawks.
Heads were turned internationally when Woolf was named Tonga’s coach in 2014 and led the team to victories against Great Britain, New Zealand and Australia.
In 2018, Woolf held an assistant coaching position with the Newcastle Knights, supportive head coach and former St Helens coach Nathan Brown.
It was his close relationship with Brown and his first-rate resume that helped Woolf land the job of St Helen.
The Woolf, its saints and COVID-19
A year ago, Woolf, his wife and their four children packed their bags in Australia and flew to England.
Four games after the start of the 2020 season, parts of the UK have been stranded for more than three months.
“Kristian had come to England with his family – in a completely foreign environment – and then suddenly we were locked out,” said St Helens President Eamonn McManus.
The pandemic was not the only complication Woolf has faced.
“They were a Grand Final winning team that had gone so well the year before, so the expectations were incredibly high,” said McManus.
Despite these challenges, Woolf has coached the team through back-to-back Grand Final wins in 2020 and 2021.
Under his leadership, the team also won its first Challenge Cup in 13 years.
“He just got it right, through an extremely difficult time, and has earned the respect of all the players who have embraced him,” said McManus.
Worlds apart but not so different
Although “there are no 42 degree summer days,” Woolf said life in St Helens was not that different from home.
“There are actually a lot of similarities to a place like Mount Isa.
“The majority of the rugby league towns here are former mining towns and certainly, hard-working and difficult towns, so we found it very easy to fit in.
“There has been a great influence from Australian coaches and players, especially at a club like St Helens,” he said.
A highlight for Woolf has been the fan culture of the English Rugby League.
“They are exceptional here. You could have a crowd of 10,000 people making the noise of 80,000 people. It’s a great experience to have.”
While he signed a deal for another year with the club, Woolf said it would likely be his last.
“I will definitely be spending another 12 months here and while the family really does enjoy their time here, I know they would like to return home at some point as well.