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…

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