Jon Whittle: The winger who rejected Wigan’s full-time deal to go to university but starred in a Good Friday derby

Jon Whittle may not be a name that ranks alongside the likes of Ellery Hanley, Andy Farrell and Martin Offiah in Wigan legend – after all Whittle only ever made one appearance in the famous Cherry and White.

But that sole outing was enough to earn him a place in Warriors folklore as he helped the side to a famous Good Friday win over St Helens back in 2003.

Wigan were missing nine injured first-teamers and managed to overturn a ten-point half-time deficit to beat their old rivals 24-22 in what was Whittle’s one and only first-team appearance.

Whittle had been part of the Wigan academy since he was 13, but when the chance to go to Manchester University to study physics came up it meant that he could not commit to training anymore.

Once at university the opportunity came up to cross codes and play for Orrell, who were also owned by Dave Whelan – a chance that he grabbed with both hands.

But a chance encounter with then coach Stuart Raper convinced him to make a one-off return to help his boyhood club in their hour of need.

Whittle said: “I had been at the academy since I was 13 and Wigan wanted me to go full-time. But I was at university studying physics and I would have to have quit that to commit to the club and I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice my education.

“Mr Whelan had just bought Orrell rugby union club and as the training schedules were different I was given the opportunity to play for them while I was at university.

“I was captain of the Wigan academy and we finished our season in October and went straight into the first-team at Orrell.

“They were in Division One at the time and were pushing for the Premiership and had good players like Simon Haughton and Nick Easter.

“We trained at the same gym as Wigan and shared the facilities and Stuart (Raper) saw me and just said ‘fancy a game Friday?’ and I laughed but he said he was being serious.

“At the time I had not played rugby league for seven months, but I thought there was no harm in it, I’d make one appearance and then go back.

“I had one-week training with them and that was it. There was an injury crisis at the club and a lot of players were out and it was just a short-term thing to help the club out.”

Of their 17-man squad that day, 10 were 21 or younger, and their four teenage debutants included a 19-year-old Whittle.

Wigan were trailing by ten points at the break, a score that many thought was good considering the team they had put out.

But what happened in the second half will live long in the memory of the 15,607 fans in the stadium.

Shaun Briscoe scored early in the second half and it was game on.

When Terry Newton went over to give them the lead few could believe what they were seeing.

Whittle still looks back on the game fondly and is proud to have played a small part in Wigan’s win and earn his own cult-hero status at the club.

He added: “We had some good young players in that team, people like Kevin Brown made his debut, Shaun Briscoe was playing, and he was a family friend, and there were some good players who were coming through.

“The attitude on the day was that we had nothing to lose and we were confident.

“It was an amazing feeling to win the game, it means so much to win a local derby like that.

“But I did not have much time to celebrate as I was playing for Orrell the next day, so I went from starting for Wigan on the Friday to being on the bench for Orrell on the Saturday.

“But it was nice to do my bit for the club, I had been there for a long time and it was nice to be able to play one game for them and help them win.”

Whittle – who graduated from Manchester with 2:1 degree in physics – stopped playing all forms of rugby in 2007 when a snapped Achilles ended his career.

But he still looks out for his former club and will be cheering them on against the top of the table Saints.

He added: “Rugby League is an honest sport and it means a lot to the people. I know quite a few people at the club so I’ll be watching and supporting them on Friday.”

Wigan Warriors take on St Helens in the fiercest rivalry in rugby league at the DW Stadium on Friday April 19th, kick-off 3pm. Secure your seat today by calling the DW Stadium ticket office on 01942 311111 or by visiting https://wiganwarriors.com/tickets.

By James Andrew

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