Inside the Deal: How St Helens fended off the NRL to secure Jack Welsby long-term

Ben Olawumi
Jack Welsby St Helens

It hasn’t always been this way, but 2024 sees Jack Welsby reach the milestone of a decade as a Saint, and after penning a new long-term deal this off-season, that’s the way it will stay for at least another four seasons.

Wigan-born Welsby grew up a die-hard Warriors fan, cheering the Cherry & Whites on in many a Good Friday clash between the two bitter rivals.

But that changed in 2014 when – as a fresh-faced teenager – the starlet joined the Red V’s youth ranks having played junior rugby league for both Shevington and Blackbrook.

At 17, Welsby made his senior bow for the Merseyside outfit, and still only 22, he’s now won three Super League Grand Finals, a World Club Challenge, a Challenge Cup and lifted three League Leaders’ Shields amongst scooping a host of individual accolades.

Emerging like a bolt from the blue, Welsby is undeniably one of Super League’s most entertaining players, hence images of him being heavily used to advertise the game to the world as part of IMG’s ‘reimagining rugby league’ project.

But for how quality Welsby is as a player, and how much of an asset he is to the competition, we may not have seen him for much longer had it not been for the contract he recently signed.

NRL interest was rife, and the a move Down Under could have been on the cards, but the 22-year-old instead opted to stick around.

Now, with insights from the player himself as well as Saints boss Paul Wellens, we take you inside the deal.

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Inside the Deal: How St Helens fended off the NRL to secure Jack Welsby long-term

Boss Wellens has been there every step of the way in Welsby’s career so far. Having retired from playing midway through the 2015 season, he began building his coaching credentials in the club’s youth ranks, before assisting both Justin Holbrook and Kristian Woolf.

The 43-year-old also assisted Woolf as Tonga’s number two last autumn, falling to a 3-0 test series defeat against an England squad which included star boy Welsby, shining on the international stage.

It comes as no surprise that Wellens didn’t want to lose his #1, and made it a priority to tie him down this off-season.

The Red V’s chief told Love Rugby League: “Obviously pretty much straight after the end of the season, Jack went into international camp, but we were very much clear – and he was of the same opinion – that at the conclusion of that series conversations needed to begin so we could come to a decision one way or another about where Jack’s future lay.

“He was very keen and we were very keen that we didn’t go into 2024 with ‘what will Jack Welsby do?‘ rumbling on for nine or 10 months.

“Once Jack’s management team sat down with the club, it became very clear to us that Jack wanted to be here and we wanted that to happen as well.

“It was just about ‘could we come to an agreement?‘, which we did, and we were delighted to get that signed off.

“Obviously Jack has committed his future to us until 2027, which is only great for us as a club, but I think it’s phenomenal for Super League as well.”

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Welsby: ‘There was only ever going to be one decision in my mind, and that was to stay at St Helens’

Welsby – who against Tonga became England’s youngest-ever captain – echoed the same sentiments, admitting the interest from Down Under was there, but saying there was only going to be one place for him.

Having made 117 competitive senior Saints appearances, and won everything there is to win, his next goal – barring more silverware – is to become a club legend at the Totally Wicked Stadium.

The 22-year-old said: “The NRL sort of act before your contract is up, so they know what’s going on at the club beforehand, which is slightly different than to what it’s like over here.

“If there’s no interest, you just ride out your contract until it’s done, so it was sort of sprung upon me and it was like, ‘right, we’ve got to make a decision now’.

“I made that decision and to be honest, there was only ever going to be one decision in my mind, and that was to stay at St Helens and carry on playing with legends of the club like Jonny (Lomax) and start helping younger kids come through.

“There was a lot of factors that went into it with my family, my girlfriend and stuff like that.

“Ultimately, it was about where I wanted to be and where I saw best for my family, and that was in St Helens.

“Once I got through all the ins and outs of the contract, it was only ever going to be Saints, and I’m glad I’m there (with the new deal) now.”

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Saints star reflects on ‘pretty mad’ moment of being given vice-captaincy as he admits younger self wouldn’t believe how far he’s come

After putting pen to paper on his new contract, Welsby was handed the role of co-vice-captain by head coach Wellens for the 2024 season.

The youngster will be second-in-command, along with fellow homegrown talent Morgan Knowles, backing up newly-appointed captain Jonny Lomax, born in Billinge but another of Saints’ adopted sons.

Welsby told us his new vice-captain title won’t change much on a day-to-day basis, but acknowledged it’s another ‘pretty mad’ accolade he couldn’t have imagined as a young lad that just loved rugby league and everything that went with it.

He continued: “I don’t think my role particularly changes, I think I’ve just got to carry on being the best version of myself on the field and just being a support network for Jonny, who is a first-time captain, and for Wello.

“I’ve got such a good relationship with both that I feel I can be brutally honest with both and hopefully they take that onboard, we can move forward with it and become the best version of ourselves.

“It’s mad, sometimes you forget that eight-year-old me would be screaming now doing what I’m doing sat here at a Super League launch, never mind training with Jonny Lomax.

“Obviously I wouldn’t say I admired him (growing up) because he was on the opposite team. I was a Wigan fan as a kid, so I probably wanted him to see him lose more than I do nowadays!

“It’s pretty mad though, I love every minute and every day of my job, so I’m very fortunate.”

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Wellens sings praises of new vice-captain Welsby: ‘Jack is an unbelievable player and a great person with great leadership qualities’

Playing for his hometown – and boyhood – club, now-Saints head coach Wellens spent the entirety of his career donning the Red V, never lured away by any other side.

It obviously remains to be seen whether that will be the case for Welsby, even after this new deal.

But Wellens says the best thing about the 22-year-old superstar is that he still strives for more every single day, seeking improvement consistently, and that’s why he handed him the vice-captaincy.

The boss added: “I think that’s the challenge for Jack in the next stage of his career. When you’ve won Super League Grand Finals, you’ve won a Challenge Cup, you’ve won a World Club Challenge and you’ve captained your country and you’re only 22 – people would say maybe there’s not much more to achieve in your career.

“That is a scary thought at 22, but what I see in Jack is an unbelievable player and a great person with great leadership qualities, but a player who – despite his young age – has got plenty of improvement in him still.

“My challenge as a coach is to get those improvements out of him, but I know having had those conversations with Jack, he is keen to strive for that as well.

“That excites me as a coach, because I’ve got players like Jack Welsby who want to continue to improve, regardless of what they’ve achieved so far.”

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