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18th January 2021, 12:19 | StHelens
It is now almost nine years since Tom van Vollenhoven led out St Helens for the first game at what was then Langtree Park, against Salford on February 10, 2012.
Who could ever have imagined then that in its first decade the new stadium, in which the Saints invested so heavily and which they always envisaged holding the key to their future, would take such a high-profile role in the national fight against a global pandemic?
The Totally Wicked Stadium, which has now become such a focal point for the town of St Helens – as well as home to the current Betfred Super League champions – is a hive of activity again today, as Merseyside’s first mass Covid-19 Vaccination Centre, and one of a handful spread around the country.
That is a source of considerable pride to Eamonn McManus, Saints’ long-serving Chairman, and everyone else at the club.
“The first thing to stress is that these are awful times, and clearly this is not something we would ever have envisaged or desired,” said McManus.
“But I think we should thank all those who played their part in establishing a modern new stadium in and for St Helens, after so many glorious years at Knowsley Road.
“This exemplifies the club at the heart of our community, and serving the community. It is also a testament to the very considerable long-term investment which the Board of Directors of St Helens RFLC have made into their club and its infrastructure.”
The Merseyside region has seen some of the country’s fastest growth rates in Covid-19 in recent weeks, making the establishment of a mass vaccination centre essential.
McManus joined St Helens MPs Conor McGinn and Marie Rimmer, and Council Leader David Baines, in praising the work of St Helens and Knowsley Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, and the NHS more generally.
The vaccination drive represents the continuation of a long-running partnership Saints have had with the local Clinical Commission Group. The stadium facility has previously been used for flu vaccines.
“We’re just happy to help out,” said the Saints Chief Executive Mike Rush.
“I think everyone has helped out in different ways, but we’ve had a long-standing relationship with our CCG, who have used the facility for various reasons. It’s a continuation of a partnership that has previously seen it used for conferencing, blood donations and a variety of other things.”
Prof Kevin Hardy, the centre’s medical director, said it would be used to vaccinate thousands of people every week once it is fully operational.
The centre will use the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine – and people should not attend the stadium unless they receive an appointment.
All Rugby League clubs have risen to the challenges presented by the pandemic over the last 11 months, as recognised in the update to the Rugby League Dividend Report published this month - Praise for Rugby League's pandemic response (rugby-league.com)
Simon Johnson, the Chair of the Rugby Football League, said: “We should always want Rugby League to be a force for good in society. This is further, tangible evidence of that.”