From St Helens to France via Widnes and back again: Matt Whitley’s career comes full circle

Drew Darbyshire
Matt Whitley St Helens Alamy

Matt Whitley through the years

When Matt Whitley was released by hometown club St Helens as a teenager, his career could have gone one or two ways.

He could have given up on his rugby league dream and walked away from the game, or he could have believed in himself and pushed even harder to make that dream of being a professional rugby league player become a reality.

Whitley did the latter.

It would’ve been a kick in the guts when Whitley was initially told that he wouldn’t be kept on by his boyhood club Saints at scholarship level.

And although it was tough for Whitley to take at the time, he was snapped up by then Super League club Widnes.

It was at the Vikings where he really found his feet, making his first team debut in 2015 after progressing through the academy.

The Billinge-born back-rower would spent four seasons in the Widnes first team, scoring 20 tries in 101 appearances, as well as earning international honours with England Knights on their tour of Papua New Guinea.

After Widnes suffered relegation from Super League in 2018, Whitley made the move to Catalans Dragons, who were Challenge Cup winners at the time.

The 28-year-old enjoyed five seasons in the south of France, scoring 35 tries in 103 games for Steve McNamara’s side.

And after appearing in two Grand Finals for Les Dracs, Whitley’s career has come full circle, re-joining boyhood club St Helens, the club who released him more than a decade ago.

St Helens have a new local hero

Matt Whitley St Helens Alamy
Matt Whitley scores on his St Helens debut

Whitley, who hails from Newton-le-Willows on the outskirts of St Helens, has penned a two-year contract with Saints, making his debut in the Red V in a 40-4 rout of London Broncos in Super League’s opening round last Friday, scoring two tries.

“Matty Whitley was first class,” said Saints coach Paul Wellens after the game.

“Matty Whitley was a player in our scholarship and didn’t quite make it through, went away to Widnes and ended up at Catalans, and has come full circle back to us and I think it showed what it meant to him to pull on a Saints jersey.

“He’s an example of when things don’t quite go well for you or as well as you’d like as a young player, there’s other avenues you can go down if you want to work your way back.

“Matty going off to Widnes, finding himself in the first team there and then getting the opportunity at Catalans, it just shows that if you get your head down and keep working hard and keep believing in yourself, then you can go down whatever avenue you want.

“Matty has always had an ambition to play for Saints at some point in his career, and we’re delighted that our paths have crossed again. On that evidence, you can see that he’s going to be an effective player for us.”

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‘Super Matty Whitley’

The Saints faithful already have a chant for their new favourite in the tune of Boney M’s Holiday!

“It’ll mean a lot to him, I know it will growing up being a Saints fan,” Wellens smiled.

“He’s pulled on the jersey tonight for his debut and they are already singing his name on the terraces, that’s every Saints fan’s dream.

“I’m delighted for him, he’s shown over the last few years that he is a high-quality player, he understands Super League and he also showed that he is going to be a real asset to us throughout the course of the year.”

Whitley might not be the biggest back-rower in Super League – but he certainly knows where the try-line is, having scored 57 tries in 207 career appearances.

“What I love is when players play to their strengths,” Wellens said after Whitley’s try-scoring debut.

“He’s not what you would call the biggest back-rower but it showed tonight that it works to his advantage.

“He has little, subtle changes to his running lines which are late at the defensive line which trouble teams and he got a couple of tries on the back of that, and he got another try during a pre-season trial doing the same thing. It’s a play he’s run with for a couple of years, he had success with it at Catalans, so as long as he keeps getting joy with that kind of stuff, then we’ll be happy.”

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