Joe Philbin is a Great Britain international and first team regular at his hometown club Warrington – and his journey to the top is pretty unique.
The 26-year-old only picked up a rugby ball when he was 15 after spending his younger years playing for local football club Culcheth Athletic.
Philbin made the move to rugby league with Culcheth Eagles, where he was scouted by Warrington after playing just three games of rugby.
“I had a bit of a different start compared to a lot of people,” Philbin explained. “I always played football growing up but had always been told that I’d be good at rugby because I was a bit fat as a kid but I was quite fast.
“When I was 15 I got dropped down to the ‘B’ team in football because I had put a bit of weight on so I thought that’s it, I’m going playing rugby. I had to bike it to my first rugby training session because my mum wasn’t supportive of me playing rugby! She comes to the games now but I just thinks she gets worried because obviously it is a physical game.
“I joined Culcheth Eagles and I had only ever played three games of rugby ever before I got the call that Warrington were keen on me.
“I was in the bottom division in Under-15s so not many scouts go to those games but we played against Westhoughton and they had a lad who a few scouts were watching and luckily enough they were playing against us at Culcheth. I was a raw player who ran hard but Warrington obviously saw enough in me to take a chance on me.
“I did my first year in scholarship at Warrington and got kept on for the Under-16s. I’m so happy that my career started at Culcheth but there were a few Warrington players at Latchford Albion and I just made the decision that I wanted to do everything I possibly could to progress. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make in leaving Culcheth for Latchford but it has worked out well.”
First team debut
Philbin made his first team debut for the Wolves against Hull KR under then head coach Tony Smith.
“I remember we played Hull KR for the academy the week before my first team debut and I think I scored four tries and we went to Blackpool for a team do,” Philbin recalled.
“A few days later I woke up to a few missed calls from Tony Smith and Lee Briers. Briersy said ‘get to training, you’re playing’ so that was a really good moment for myself.
“We played against Hull KR and there were so many senior players in the Warrington team at that time. We had a really good squad. I had like Simon Grix, Joel Monaghan and Michael Monaghan saying to me all week ‘don’t do anything too flashy, just do your job’ and they made me feel at ease so it was good experience.”
Wake up calls
Philbin found himself in and out of the Warrington side between 2014-16 – and spent time gaining first team action on loan at lower league clubs Swinton, North Wales, Rochdale and Bradford.
The Great Britain, Ireland and England Knights international believes his loan at the Bulls was a big wake up call for himself.
“Between 2014-16, I think I played for Swinton, North Wales, Rochdale and Bradford so I did a lot of minutes in the lower leagues and looking at it with the attitude I’ve got now, I kind of feel like I wasted the years between 18 and 22,” Philbin reflected.
“When I started playing rugby at 15 and had joined Warrington straight away I probably just thought I was going to get everything handed to me and wouldn’t really have to work for anything.
“I was probably just making a few wrong choices diet-wise and maybe going out one too many times.
“I remember Warrington had a really good season in 2016, we won the League Leaders’ Shield and got to the Grand Final and Challenge Cup final. I weren’t playing and I just remember thinking ‘I should be playing here’ but it was down to me.
“I got a loan move to Bradford and I remember driving home down the M62 one day thinking to myself ‘what are you doing? You are at a great club, it is your hometown club and you aren’t working very hard’ so that meant I got my diet sorted and everything changed attitude-wise.
“I returned to Warrington from my loan at Bradford and I had started playing towards the back end of 2016 and then I got dropped for the Grand Final and that was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
“I can’t express how much it hurt me that day but I said to myself that I’ll take that decision out of the coach’s hands next time and I would push myself so hard that the coach would want me playing in the Grand Final rather than seeing me as a weak spot in a team.
“I really got into my fitness and diet in 2017 and that’s why I kind of wish I knew the things I know now but you’ve got to learn from your mistakes. I’m glad the penny finally did drop for me when I was 22 rather than it dropping when its too late.”
A positive mindset
As well as getting massively into his fitness and diet in 2017, Philbin started to work on himself off the field. He is constantly looking at ways to improve himself and be a better person in all areas of life.
“I have a little journal called the six-minute diary that I do and it is just talking about things you are grateful for, things you want to do better,” he continued.
“I just do a few minutes in the morning and a few minutes at night, and it sets you up for a good day.
“I’m massively into self improvement and I know rugby is a short career so I want to put everything that I can into these years and become better everyday whether that be by practicing different skills, working on weaknesses, bettering strengths or improving my mindset.
“A tiny change in your lifestyle each day adds up and it makes you a better person overall.”
Representing his Irish heritage
Philbin earned a call up to the Ireland national team at the end of the 2016 campaign to make his international debut against Russia in a World Cup qualifier, with the tournament taking place Down Under the following year.
Philbin was born and raised in England but has Irish heritage on his father’s side of the family, and representing his family and culture is something he holds very close to his heart.
“Me and Toby King played for Ireland in Bray at the end of 2016 against Russia and it was a crazy game,” Philbin said.
“Growing up as a kid, my favourite times were going over to Ireland and seeing all my Irish family. We used to go over every year and when I got the opportunity to represent them and my heritage I was so excited.
“I was just as proud singing the Ireland national anthem just as proud as I would sing an England one. It was a great experience.”
The former St Aelred’s Catholic Technology College pupil represented Ireland at the 2017 World Cup, with the Wolfhounds beating Italy and Wales in the group stages.
“I had a great time playing for Ireland and I think the 2017 World Cup gave me a lot of confidence,” he continued.
“We had a great bunch of lads and Mark Aston coached us really well. We played Italy in our first game who had the likes of Paul Vaughan, James Tedesco and Terry Campese and we beat them so from going toe-to-toe with players like that and winning games put a lot of confidence in me and the other lads in the Irish set up. It was another good experience for me.”
Warrington appointed Australian Steve Price as the club’s new head coach ahead of the 2018 season – and Philbin says Price has had a massive influence on his career.
“Pricey became our new head coach in 2018 and he has been absolutely great for me,” he said.
“He simplified my job role and made it so simple for me. He told me that he loves the energy I play with and he wanted me to continue playing with that energy and run hard – and I think it would be hard for me to have a bad game with simple instructions like that.”
England Knights call up
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Philbin received more international recognition at the end of the 2018 campaign – this time for England Knights on their tour of Papua New Guinea.
“Going to Papua New Guinea was a mad experience and getting the chance to represent England at any level is a massive honour,” he added.
“I was representing my dad’s side of the family with Ireland but I’m also English and I’m proud of that so to pull on an England jersey was a proud moment. I had missed out on all the England junior teams so to finally get the chance to do that was massive.”
Great Britain Lions tour
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The Warrington fan’s favourite was able to represent his Irish and English heritage in 2019 as he was selected on the Great Britain Lions tour of the southern hemisphere.
Philbin made his Lions debut against New Zealand – and says being able to don the golden lion on his chest was one of the proudest moments of his career.
“I remember getting the phone call from Jamie Peacock telling me I had been picked for Great Britain and I had to pinch myself,” Philbin said. “I just didn’t believe it was happening.
“I was just like a sponge in that environment. I was watching watching what everyone was doing and taking it all in because I was with all the best players.
“After experience the Lions tour last year, I feel like I’ve taken that experience into my training with Warrington. I do a lot more extra bits now and that tour was absolutely priceless and I learned so many little things there even though we didn’t get the results we wanted.”
Off-field business venture
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Philbin has spent lockdown by teaming up with his good friend Jack Hodgkiss to launch Gripz, a fresh new activewear clothing brand.
“We are three months into sales now and we are getting into some top quality athletes like footballers, rugby players, boxers, MMA fighters, cricketers and a lot of reality stars are wearing them now as well,” he proudly said.
“I think we are creating a brand that people are proud of wearing and we are hoping to get a few more products out very soon so keep your eyes peeled.
“Social media has been really good for Gripz and I had a celebratory beer the other night when I was watching Neco Williams play for Liverpool in the Champions League wearing our socks. It is going well and we are growing.”
What next for Philbin?
The answer to that question is simple: winning a Super League Grand Final with his hometown club.
Philbin won the Challenge Cup with the Wolves at Wembley in 2019 – and now he wants to win the Grand Final.
“I watched the Saints-Wigan Grand Final the other day and it hurts watching a Grand Final that you aren’t involved in,” Philbin said.
“In the past when we’ve not won it, I thought ‘I’m still young, we’ll win it next year’ but ‘next year’ has not come yet. This time around, I’ve been a lot more philosophical and that is the only goal that I’ve got at the minute.
“I want to win a Grand Final with Warrington next season. It has evaded us for so long now, it is about time that we made it happen. I don’t want to be thinking about anything else other than winning a Grand Final at Warrington.”
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