At 22 years of age, Jack Welsby is already one of Super League’s most talented individuals, and he’s been at the heart of the St Helens dominance the game has seen over the last few years.
The full-back – who made his Saints senior debut in 2018 – has tasted unprecedented highs, playing in three of his club’s four consecutive Grand Final victories.
For all the dominance enjoyed by the Red Vee however, the Challenge Cup is a competition which more often than not they’ve come unstuck in. A 2021 triumph at Wembley over Castleford Tigers, in which Welsby played a huge part in a crucial try for Tommy Makinson, is somewhat of an anomaly.
That brought an end to a 13-year wait for a Challenge Cup lift, but in recent times there’s been a devastating final loss to Warrington Wolves and a semi-final exit last year to Wigan Warriors. Perhaps the struggle for success in the domestic cup competition is why Welsby and co. are going down a different path ahead of this weekend’s last-four clash against Leigh Leopards.
Jack Welsby: “It’s different to any other week”
“”As a club, we do [approach semi-finals differently]. You can really sense when there’s a big game coming, and luckily in recent times we’ve had our fair share of semi-finals,” said Welsby.
“It’s different to any other week… Last year we came out on the wrong side of it against Wigan, a great occasion at Elland Road, and I’m sure this weekend is going to be no different against Leigh.
“I’ve been there on the losing end in 2019 [at Wembley] watching the lads, and been there on the winning end. I know which one I’d rather have, so hopefully we get there first, and then we can make some more special memories as a group.”
St Helens know what to expect from Leigh
Almost no one would have predicted at the start of the year that these two sides were going to meet in the Challenge Cup semi-final, largely due to the fact of Leigh being Super League newcomers oncemore.
Before this season, the Leythers had never survived a Super League season, trying three times before but being relegated on each occasion.
Saints are one of a number of clubs to have been stung by them already this year though, beaten in the ‘Leopards Den’ in Round 4. Heading into Saturday’s clash at the Halliwell Jones Stadium, no stone is being left unturned by the ‘four-peaters’.
The young full-back added: “You never get an easy semi-final against anyone, and Leigh have been absolutely outstanding this year. They sit second in the league for a reason, and we know we’ll have to be at our best on Saturday to come away with a win.
“They’ve got a really potent left side, with the way John [Asiata] heads up the attack. He’s been outstanding, and then you have a half-back like Lachlan Lam picking his passes, he’s been brilliant as well.
“You look at their form, and Josh Charnley has been going well, Ricky Leutele too. The other edge of Zak Hardaker and Tom Briscoe bringing the ball out, it’s really hard to deal with.”
Welsby expecting a huge atmosphere
Through the Leopards’ success this term, on and off the field, their fanbase has been steadily growing. From getting two or three thousand in attendance for a Championship game, they’re now regularly hitting upwards of five thousand per game on home turf.
Travelling fans have also increased in numbers, with almost 2000 making the trip to Salford to see their 12th win in 13 on Sunday. Both they and Saints are close to selling out their semi-final tie, and Welsby is relishing it.
He said: “It’s going to be a real tough battle, one I’m really looking forward to getting out there in and playing in front of all the fans.
“There’s always a real atmosphere during the week coming into things like this, and obviously playing at a neutral venue, you know there’s a big game coming.
“Usually you’re thinking about going to Leigh’s place, or them coming to you, but with all our fans that have bought tickets I’m sure the atmosphere will live up to it.”