Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Our Number One

It feels a bit like a death in the family. Not a shocking, sudden death in the family that might be the result of a grotesque accident or massive and sudden organ failure. More like the death of an ageing relative who had been suffering from ill health for years but who you never thought would actually pass on in to the next world. Paul Wellens has announced his retirement from professional rugby league with immediate effect.

It follows months of uncertainty about his future as a result of a serious hip injury to which he finally succumbed during a 12-4 defeat at Wigan on Good Friday. That he took to that field that day at all said everything about this modern great of a man and gem of a player. He was in no fit state really, but with seven or eight team-mates similarly crocked his home town club, the only club he ever played for in a 17-year career, needed him badly. It was just one example of how Paul Wellens put St.Helens Rugby Football Club and its fans before his own interests.

Yet amid all the glowing tributes on social media and on the forums which seem to focus on his commitment, bravery and inspirational leadership qualities, few have done justice to the standard of his performances. Wellens was easily the best British fullback of his generation and quite possibly the best in either hemisphere during that time. Those of us who wrote him off as a halfback suggesting he was too slow were left looking very silly indeed and with no option but to just marvel at his brilliance from the fullback position. The positional switch was a masterstroke from Ian Millward and changed the course of Wellens' career forever. He never did get much quicker, but any coach who thought this might be a good enough reason to target him with raking territorial kicks downfield soon discovered that having the first defender bring Wellens to a halt was an impossible dream. He was too deceptively elusive and he could make the best of defenders look very average indeed. Go aerial against Wellens and you got the ultimate in bomb disposal, a man so calm under pressure that he often gave the impression that opponents on the field were hardly a factor in his thinking. A minor inconvenience only slightly complicating the task in hand. Just go up and catch the ball, no fuss. Everything from the timing of his leap to his handling technique was just about perfect. If you were at a game where you saw him drop a high ball you got a t-shirt printed as a memento.

Wellens was an excellent support player from fullback also. He scored over 230 tries during his career, 199 of which came in Super League. He used that same deception and elusiveness employed when returning kicks to find gaps in the league’s tightest defences close to the line, and was always on the shoulder of the man in possession when the opposition’s defensive line was broken. In some ways it is cruel that he has been denied the opportunity to get that 200th try, and the five appearances he needed to hit 500 for his boyhood club. Yet these are minor irritations in a career which has taken in a record 10 Grand Final appearances, 5 Super League title wins (including winning the Harry Sunderland Trophy for Man Of The Match in the 2006 final against Hull FC), 5 Challenge Cup wins (winning the Lance Todd Trophy as Man Of The Match in both 2007 and 2008) and 2 World Club Championship titles. There are many, many rugby league clubs who have not and will never win that amount of silverware in their entire histories. He was also named Man Of Steel in 2006, a year in which Saints won everything in their path if you include the World Club Challenge which was played early in 2007.

Wellens’ leadership qualities earned him a chance at the club captaincy in 2011 when he was appointed joint skipper alongside James Graham. It was a very difficult time to be handed the role with greats like Keiron Cunningham, Sean Long and Paul Sculthorpe recently departing the playing scene. All of that added to the temporary move to Widnes that season as Langtree Park had its finishing touches applied meant that Wellens was charged with helping to lead the team through a transitional period. Wellens still managed to help his team to the Grand Final that year, losing narrowly to a Leeds Rhinos side which had won three of the previous four Grand Finals, all against Saints who had managed to stay competitive almost despite themselves and the events conspiring against them. By the time Graham headed to Canterbury in the NRL Wellens was left to lead the team in his own right as they entered a new era in a new home in 2012. The first two seasons there continued to be turbulent on the field but as the team improved under Nathan Brown, so Wellens' influence on it grew and grew. His performance (ironically in the halves in the midst of yet another injury crisis) in the 14-6 Grand Final success over Wigan last year was heroic, and his emotional, exhausted reaction to it remains an iconic image for the thousands who were at Old Trafford that night or who saw it on the television.

If we are talking about Wellens the man aswell as Wellens the rugby league player, then perhaps the greatest compliment you can pay him comes from the reaction to his retirement from outside the Saints bubble. Fans of other clubs on social media have been unanimous in their praise and respect for one of the modern era’s greatest players, while former team-mates and opponents alike have followed suit in paying tribute to his achievements and wishing him the best of luck as he enters a new chapter in his life. BBC Sport are reporting that he has already been welcomed on to the Saints coaching staff alongside former team-mates Cunningham, Long and Ade Gardner. If so it is a shrewd if rather obvious move by the club’s hierarchy. Players with Wellens’ level of game intelligence seem the best placed to make the transition from player to coach and if he can pass on half of what he knows to the next generation then the club will be developing home-grown stars for years to come.

Paul Wellens should never have to buy another pint in his home town again. So many of us are indebted to him for the great entertainment, the glory and the wonderful memories that he has provided us with for more than a decade and a half. Wello, we salute you…

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

5 Talking Points From Saints' Loss To Castleford Tigers

5 Talking Points From Saints’ Loss At Castleford Tigers

If You Live By The Sword……

Ben Roberts’ last gasp drop-goal was a perfectly wretched way for Saints to lose a match they had been in full control of. Particularly in view of the fact that they had a scrum feed deep inside the Tigers’ half of the field with barely a minute and a half on the clock. You could argue that a professional rugby league team should never lose a game from that position. But a sneaky glance into the history, indeed the very DNA of Saints reveals that they have been doing exactly this sort of thing to others for years. Who can forget Sean Long’s winning one-pointer in the 2002 Grand Final against Bradford Bulls, or a similar effort which put paid to Warrington’s hopes of ending their losing streak against Saints in Ian Millward’s last game in charge? Warrington were a serial victim as Saints mastered the art of winning games that they had barely bothered to turn up for. It was almost a sport within a sport. The Castleford defeat just shows that if you live by the sword you are occasionally going to die by it. Best get it out of the way now than have it happen when the pots are on offer in August and October. So let’s cheer up just a little bit, eh?

The Humanity Of James Roby

Not to labour a point, but Keiron Cunningham has declared twice recently that in his opinion James Roby is a better hooker than Cunningham himself used to be. Now this might be false modesty on the part of the head coach. He’s probably not going to come out after a game and say ‘yeah, he’s alright but have you seen who’s on that statue outside the stadium?’ However, it is nevertheless an indication of just how brilliant Roby is that a legend such as Cunningham is prepared to concede ground even if it is politeness combined perhaps with a desire to boost his star man’s confidence. Whatever the truth of the Cunningham-Roby debate there is no doubting that the latter is a freak of a player in his own right. All of which makes it all the more shocking to note that the normally robotic Roby broke down a little at The Jungle. His 40-20 attempt sailed out on the full at a crucial time for Saints, and the winning drop-goal was only made possible after Roby failed to pick the ball up cleanly from the base of the scrum. In mitigation he did have Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook doing his level best to confuse the situation by plodding around clumsily in the vicinity of the ball as it lay on the ground, but the fact of the matter is still that Roby should have picked the ball up and that, had he done so, Saints would likely have run down a fair proportion of the clock and not conceded the possession and territory which allowed Cas to set up for Roberts’ winning effort.

So that’s his two errors for the season out of the way, then. You wouldn’t want to be Widnes Vikings…..

Does Anyone Have A Spare Fullback Lying Around?

I really had hoped to avoid banging on about injuries AGAIN in this column but fate has again conspired against me. Shannon McDonnell is the latest to join Saints’ long-term injury list and in so doing becomes the fourth fullback to be forced out of action this season. Jonny Lomax’s season ended early amid fears for his future in the sport, before time finally caught up with and overtook Paul Wellens. Tommy Makinson filled in ably before McDonnell returned to the club, and now both face months on the sidelines in any case. Adam Swift has been mooted as a possible candidate to take over the role but he suffered a nasty bang on the head at Castleford and will presumably need to pass all of the concussion tests during the week if he is to make the starting line-up for this weekend’s cup quarter-final with Widnes. There are no more cabs left on the rank and everyone is getting very angry about it indeed. It’s like town on a Saturday night before the advent of 24-hour drinking. Step forward Mark Percival who, it has been suggested, will be the last line of defence against Dennis Betts’ side on Sunday. If he can handle the defensive side of the role it could work out wonderfully well. Percival needs to get his hands on the ball more and where better to do that than at fullback which often affords players with his sort of gifts all the time and space they need to prosper. It might just work…… Or if not it has also been suggested that Saints could move for former New Zealand international Kevin Locke, whose resignation from Salford Red Devils has been accepted by Marwan Koukash at a press conference this week.

And So To The Good News……

Just as Saints were out losing fullbacks, they also acquired one of the best scrum halves in the Super League and one of its emerging back row talents as both Luke Walsh and Joe Greenwood made try-scoring returns to action against Daryl Powell’s side. Ok so it was in vain, but it was still uplifting to see Walsh scheming in tandem with Travis Burns, even if the latter is still too fond of a step back on the inside and a drop ball to a barely moving front rower. With Walsh now committed to the club for 2016 what we would really like to see is him enjoying a lengthy spell without injuries. It’s abundantly clear that the men in the red vee are a transformed outfit in attack with Walsh out there directing traffic, while Greenwood’s form before his broken leg was impressive also. If he can reach those heights again at the back end of the season then there is every reason to be optimistic for the Super 8’s and the subsequent play-off series. It just doesn’t feel a lot like it when you have just lost to a last minute drop-goal.

Wembley Dreams

Saints are regulars at the Grand Final. We’re still Super League champions in fact, which is something you might want to ponder before you sink into despair watching re-runs of the Tigers game. However, we haven’t been to a Challenge Cup Final since 2008. A full seven years ago. Even if you just miss having the chance to crack open a beer at 6.00 in the morning before the coach leaves you must be as desperate as I am to get back down to the capital for the more traditional of the game’s showpiece events. Opportunity is knocking with a home quarter final against the Widnes Vikings coming up this Sunday (June 28). The Vikings have slipped out of the top eight of Super League in recent weeks following defeats to Hull KR and Huddersfield Giants and come to Langtree Park with confidence somewhat shaken. Yet it was a very competitive struggle when the two teams met there in the league earlier this season, with Saints pulling away in the last quarter to record a 34-16 success. These stakes are higher this time around, with the winner’s Wembley dream alive while the loser goes home to ‘concentrate on the league’ and gaze longingly into the distance with thoughts of another crack at it in 12 months time. Every minute matters in Super League, but none more so than the 80 that will be played in the Challenge Cup between two old local rivals this weekend. Saints have their best chance of reaching Wembley in recent years. They just need one big performance…

And maybe a favourable semi-final draw……….