St Helens’ Welsby relishes facing idol Tomkins in bid for Grand Final repeat

Jack Welsby has already achieved plenty at the age of 20, more than some players achieve in a career. But the St Helens youngster, who has etched his name into the club’s folklore after his unforgettable match-winning try in last year’s Grand Final, will return to Super League’s grandest occasion on Saturday with more than a second consecutive winner’s ring in his mind.

He may well be committed to the Saints now – “They were the only choice in my head when it came to signing professionally,” he admitted this week – but as a child Welsby was a passionate Wigan supporter. What is more, his earliest Grand Final memories involve being starstruck by the man who will be pivotal in attempting to prevent the reigning champions from securing a third consecutive title this weekend.

“My first proper memory of Old Trafford was St Helens versus Wigan in 2010,” Welsby recalls. “Sam Tomkins was absolutely outstanding, that’s what I remember. That’s where the dream started for me, falling in love with players like that, and falling in love with Wigan and rugby league. I don’t think I could have imagined that when I was watching Sam rip it up 11 years ago, I’d eventually be playing against him in a Grand Final. I guess it’s what dreams are made of. I can’t wait.”

But just as Welsby and St Helens will be preparing to deal with the new Man of Steel, you suspect the attitude in the Catalans camp towards the player who grew up idolising Tomkins will be identical. Whatever happens it is hard to imagine a moment that will define Welsby’s career more than the final act of last year’s showpiece, when he reacted quickest to a kick that bounced off the posts and scored the winning try against the club he grew up supporting.

He has continued to dazzle this year, and is undoubtedly one of the standout players in the Saints side. Last year’s final was played behind closed doors in Hull but the event returns on Saturday to its spiritual home of Old Trafford. “It’ll be a dream come true for me personally,” Welsby admits. “Every young lad growing up around Wigan and St Helens dreams of playing in games like these. It’s what you want to do. It’s what every player wants to experience.”

Welsby certainly has no shortage of big game experience. He has already won all of the sport’s major domestic trophies, but that has not satisfied the desire of a player clearly set for a big future at a club he had no doubts about joining, despite his childhood allegiance to the team across the hill. “When it came down to coming here, it was definitely the right thing,” says Welsby, who played junior rugby in Wigan.

“It’s instant, the impact the club has on you. The fans are amazing, and the people are some of the best you’ll ever meet. The transition of going from a Wigan fan to a St Helens player … some people might find that hard, but for me it was pretty seamless.”

It has been a whirlwind two years for Welsby, whose try last November will almost certainly never be upstaged as the most dramatic moment in Grand Final history. But the future looks bright for a player who has been predominantly used as a utility back. With the long-serving full-back Lachlan Coote departing for Hull KR after Saturday’s final, the No 1 shirt seems tailor-made for Welsby.

“I’m lucky to have played in a few big games at such a young age and that experience is priceless. I probably won’t be able to impact this game in the same way [as last year] but I will still give everything for the team, and hopefully, the outcome is the same.”