Paul Wellens, Saints’ stalwart fullback, did this interview with me for League Express as part of the paper’s ‘My Life In Rugby League’ series in 2007. Wello is one of my favourite interviewees – an absolute gent and, unlike a lot of players, he was a huge fan of his club as a kid.
Chris Joynt wrote in his book that you were such a big supporter of Saints that you would often talk to him about games that even he could no longer remember. How big a Saints supporter were you?
I was really into them, supporting them since I was six or seven, going to games all the time right up to playing for the club. That’s probably true what Chris said and I remember mentioning a game to Sonny Nickle where he’d scored a late try at Naughton Park and a load of kids ran on to the pitch to congratulate him. I was one of them and I think I made Sonny feel old when I told him that!
Who were you favourite players back then?
They weren’t the best of times because Wigan were winning everything. I went to Wembley with Saints when I was younger and saw them lose to Halifax and then Wigan twice. It wasn’t until I was a lot older in 1996 and 1997 that I saw them win there when they beat the Bulls in both finals. In 1997 I was there as part of the club, going down to watch them with the Academy side. I saw some great players when I was younger though, despite the lack of silverware, like Paul Loughlin, Phil Veivers and Shane Cooper.
You made your Saints’ debut in 1998. What had gone before that for you?
I started playing at school. Then I played a bit of rugby union before moving to Orrell St James and then Blackbrook in St Helens. I ended up at Saints in 1997 and made my first team debut the following year when Shaun McRae was the coach, having played Academy and Alliance games. I was on my way out to college one morning in August 1998 when Mike Gregory, Shaun’s assistant, ‘phoned me up and told me not to bother with college and to come to the ground because I was playing at the weekend. I was a scrum-half at the time and came off the bench for Sean Long in a game against Halifax.
Ellery Hanley was your coach after Shaun and he gave opportunities to a lot of the younger players.
Ellery was absolutely fantastic. It’s always difficult for a young lad to come into a side with the likes of Keiron Cunningham, Chris Joynt and Kevin Iro in there but Ellery was keen for young lads to be given a chance and for them to have their say. He wasn’t just interested in us as players but as personalities as well and he brought me out of my shell in the first team environment. He had such an aura about him too. When he walked into a room, you knew he was there and you just wanted to work for him. He was also very loyal. He’d have done anything for the players and that made us respect him even more. He made sure that we were OK, that everything was fine in our personal lives and he took time to talk to us. He endeared himself to the younger players, like myself, who felt they could trust him.
Under Ellery, you won the Grand Final, beating Bradford in 1999. How did you pull that off when almost everybody expected you to lose to the Bulls?
I’d spent most of that season coming off the bench into a number of different positions and that was the season when Bradford put 40 points on us in the play-offs. We had to get up and beat Castleford to get to the final to play Bradford again just two weeks after they’d hammered us at Odsal. No one gave us a cat in hell’s chance of winning but Ellery got the 17 of us and convinced us that we would win the Grand Final. The fact that we did was down to him and what he’d said to us in the week.
You mention playing in a number of positions back then but would it be fair to say you don’t have fond memories of playing at hooker against Melbourne in the 2000 World Club Challenge?
Yes, that’s fair enough. It was a massive learning curve for me and it was the first time I’d ever played hooker. I remember defending in the middle next to guys like Sonny Nickle and Vila Matautia and thinking that it was no wonder that their forwards were choosing to run at me! I made about 40 tackles that night and it wasn’t the best of nights for Saints.
How did you react when Hanley was sacked by the club?
It was the first time I’d experienced anything like because Shaun McRae leaving was already in the pipeline before my debut. The lads liked Ellery and for him to get the sack just two or three games into 2000 shocked a lot of us. We’d never experienced anything like it but Ian Millward came in and not a lot changed at first. It barely took any time at all for us to realise how good a coach he was. He gradually changed a few things and we went on to experience tremendous success under him.
2000 is best known in St Helens for the play-offs. There was Joynt’s famous try against Bradford, the huge win at the JJB and then the Grand Final.
That year just snowballed and got better and better as it went along although we’d even been thrashed at Knowsley Road by Wigan in the last round for them to win the Minor Premiership but went to the JJB in the play-offs after that incredible Bradford match and really turned it on. The final was a lot tougher but we came up with the win and are still the only team to have retained the Super League.
You went on to win more trophies too.
It was pretty surreal at the time. It was brilliant, we just seemed to keep winning trophies and things were going smoothly although the 2002 Grand Final was the one where I fractured my cheekbone in the first couple of minutes. You need a bit of adversity, though, to appreciate the good times even more.
A lot of Saints players describe the 2004 Challenge Cup win as a career highlight. Why is that win regarded so highly when there was so much other success?
For me it was because it was against Wigan and I’d seen us lost to them at Wembley in 1989 and 1991. Also, we’d had a bad 2003 so we hadn’t won anything for a while and it was Wigan who beat us in the 2002 final at Murrayfield.
The following year, Millward was sacked by the club.
It was a weird situation for myself because my girlfriend was pregnant and Ian had told me to take some time off when the team were due to play against York in the Challenge Cup. That was a nice gesture from Ian but when I came back he was gone! I couldn’t believe it. My ‘phone had been switched off while I was lying on a beach and I had no idea at all until I next went into training. Dave Rotherham took over for a couple of weeks until Daniel Anderson took over. The fans weren’t happy with the Millward decision and Eamonn McManus and Sean McGuire got a lot of grief over it but you can’t speak highly enough of Daniel and what he’s achieved.
What are the highlights of your Great Britain career?
It’s been fantastic and hopefully there are some more good moments to come although last year’s Tri-Nations was a huge disappointment especially with the way it finished. Having said that though, Sydney was a massive highlight of course and the best thing I’ve experienced on the international stage. We played really well that night.