In recent years, St Helens have failed to live up to their fans' weighty expectations, with their last major honour coming in the 2014 Grand Final. But, with the end of 2017 being remarkably better than the beginning, hopes for 2018 are high amongst the Saints' faithful. And why shouldn't they be? St Helens are the bookies' joint-favourites (with Castleford Tigers) to finish top and with impressive full-back Ben Barba and exciting young coach Justin Holbrook going into the new season with a full pre-season behind them, Saints are surely going to be one of the teams to beat in 2018.

But, amongst their playing roster, a number of young stars will be fighting for a place in the first-choice 17.

With the likes of Morgan Knowles, Tommy Makinson, Mark Percival, Jonny Lomax and the evergreen James Roby all having progressed through the Saints' academy into the first team, the time is now right for others to make their stamp on the side. 2017 was arguably the breakthrough year of flying winger Regan Grace, but who will this mantle fall to in 2018?

Danny Richardson

Now aged 21, half-back Danny Richardson joined the club as a 16-year-old. However, the move to Saints almost failed to materialise after Richardson had rejected Saints' approaches as a teenager - whilst playing with local Widnes side, Halton Hornets - to sign with hometown side Widnes. After a year in the Vikings' scholarship system, Richardson then switched clubs and scholarship programmes.

It was a decision which both St Helens and Richardson could profit from in the next few years.

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Known for their consistent production of young stars, Saints have a real talent on their hands and one which could - if he reaches his potential - become the Lancashire side's No.7 for a decade or more.

As a 16-year-old, Richardson toured Australia with the Saints Academy in 2013 and has become a vital part of the youth setup ever since, playing a crucial role in the Academy's unbeaten, title-winning season in 2016. Before 2017 however, Richardson had never made it into the first-team. All that was to change at the beginning of Super League XXII; with regular half-back, Matty Smith sidelined through injury, the youngster was thrown into the fray in Round One as the Saints took on Leeds Rhinos. Richardson went on to play two more games before dropping back down to the reserves; his performances had left their mark, however, with the youngster demonstrating a mature, cool head on very young shoulders.

Richardson was handed another opportunity in June - this time against Widnes - and when Matty Smith suffered his terrible eyelid split in the reverse fixture against the Rhinos, the youngster was once more thrown into the fray.

In Saints' home game against Hull FC in early July, Richardson produced an asserted, controlled performance - which included slotting over a drop-goal to take the game out of Hull's reach. By the end of the season - even when Smith had returned - Richardson was making his presence felt within the side, appearing 13 times - twice off the substitutes' bench - and scoring two tries.

It was a meteoric rise for a young star that had no previous first-team experience prior to 2017. Yet, in those 13 games, Richardson displayed a confidence - an almost swagger - that belied his age. Even more impressively, Richardson demonstrated that he could do a little bit of everything that a half-back should be able to do: kick, run, pass, communicate and control the game. And, with Matty Smith showing Richardson the ropes, the latter's game will inevitably improve further. For Richardson, 2017 was undoubtedly a great year; with his ability and potential, 2018 could well be a brilliant one.

Read parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven by following these links