I can’t remember the first time I saw Paul Wellens play. I doubt it will have been in his debut first-team appearance at Halifax in 1998, though it may well have been as I was an obsessive rugby league ground-hopper back then.
But for a couple of reasons, that lack of recall is no great surprise. One: I struggle to recollect my own phone number these days. And two: his first couple of seasons with St Helens provided little to shout about in any case.
Although, come to think of it, he did end the latter by helping to beat Bradford Bulls in the 1999 Super League Grand Final didn’t he … Mick Withers ‘touching’ the ball in flight et al (thought you had a poor memory – Ed).
Until Ian Millward replaced Ellery Hanley in 2000, Wellens was mainly on the bench or jogging around as a less than electrifying stand-off. That or hooker in the World Club Challenge with Melbourne. Basil, though, saw something no one else presumably had in a quiet baby-faced kid who looked as if he’d arrived at Knowsley Road for bob-a-job week.
Wellens the half-back was reinvented as the side’s rear admiral, an uncanny ability to step any first-up defender and turn field position on its head helping to confirm his coach’s hunch that speed of thought and reaction would turn out to be far more valuable there than the pace critics said he lacked.
It was an inspired switch that only in hindsight looks inevitable. It won over many a Doubting Thomas on the terraces for one thing, and set a player who no less a figure than Jamie Peacock in the Daily Mirror yesterday called “the best full-back in Super League history” on the road to sporting greatness.
And so it must have been around then, I suppose, that I and everyone else began to cotton on to the fact that star-packed Saints had found the good ‘un they needed to replace the late Steve Prescott who, after a couple of barnstorming Challenge Cup final victories over Bradford, had left for Hull in November 1997.
But then that’s the thing with full-backs, isn’t it? When they do their job well – and few have filled the custodial role with greater aplomb than Wellens in the modern era – we do tend to take them for granted.
Traditionally, the best ones have been lauded as safe pairs of hands, a reliable last line of defence, dependable cleaner-uppers.
An ability to hit the line at blistering speed will catch the eye, of course, along with the ability to wrong-foot and then leave on-rushing defenders stranded. In an era of positional inter-changeability, such attacking qualities are what most modern coaches and spectators very much look for in their full-backs.
If the first was lacking, Wellens had the second of those skills off pat, along with immaculately-timed support play that brought the Saints number one 199 Super League tries – 229 in all – over the course of a thoroughly impressive 17-year playing career that has now drawn to a close, aged 35.
Generally, though, what you still need most from the man at the back is the ability to make the right decisions calmly and consistently under pressure and if anyone has fitted that bill it is ‘Wello’. Wingers and centres in particular like to play in front of full-backs they can rely on; the kind who have your back when you’ve missed a tackle or fluffed a bomb in the corner.
The sort of player, in other words, who can read a game expertly, make pinpoint judgements with regard to distance and time in a nanosecond, predict future plays before they unfold and then deal with it as Johnny-on-the-spot.
The type, come to think of it, who would make a fine TV or radio analyst – it’s surprising that more of them don’t take that retirement path. Though again I suppose that the reticent sleeves-up-and-get-on-with-it job description hasn’t exactly lent itself to waxing lyrical on a mic or holding forth in front of camera.
Growing up near Odsal, my own favourite player was Keith Mumby – a joiner in his day job and our very own Rock of Gibraltar most Sunday afternoons.
Like Wellens, nuggety Mumby was a quiet hometown boy and pretty much one-club man during his 20-year stint at Northern from 1973-93, service ‘spoiled’ only by a three-match return from retirement with Wakefield in 1995.
His game, though, was very much based around an inspirational amount of often last-ditch defence. Even with my lousy memory banks, I remember with absolute clarity the confidence he instilled in the face of any rampaging up-field break. Don’t fret. Mumby will save the day. Like the Mounties, he always got his man and was called on to do that quite a lot in the late ‘70s and 1980s.
Unlike Wellens, who nevertheless kicked 40 conversions and a drop-goal for Saints, Mumby was also something of a goal-kicking machine. As a raw 16-year-old, he broke the record for the most points scored on a debut appearance for Bradford, adding no less than 12 goals on the day to the first of the 68 tries and 779 goals he could ultimately look back upon two decades later.
In fact, via a record 588 appearances, he went on to be the club’s leading points scorer of all time, before Paul Deacon took that honour from him in 2006.
There are differences with Paul Wellens then, but many more similarities.
Within teams of often quite flamboyant characters and performers, both men earned huge respect for the full-hearted way in which they played the game – not only from those within their own clubs, where they are rightfully worshipped and will go on being so, but also by the wider game in general.
Without harking back to any ‘good old days’ nonsense, it is for that reason I see Wellens as being perhaps the last of the old-style full-backs, a mantel Wigan’s Kris Radlinski may well have worn had his successor in the England and Great Britain shirt indeed been let go for being ‘too slow’ in 1998.
It’s ironic too that the part of the body which has finally forced him to call it a day is the one with which so many retired rugby league players from earlier ages struggle: the hip. That’s sad and you do hope his imminent operation is a complete success so that, as he puts it, he can again kick a ball about with his son.
But when you look at the types of player who have most recently lit up the international scene – the likes of Sam Tomkins, Billy Slater and (look away now Salford fans) *cough* Kevin Locke – the times aren’t changing, but changed.
No, all good things must come to an end and it’s best simply to appreciate a wonderful career that epitomised the best of rugby league, on and off the field: face of a choirboy … eyes wide as saucers … a competitive streak as fierce as any.
In an age when players can deliberately try to break or at least damage the leg of a fallen opponent – and all but get away with it, but that’s another story – it is impossible to imagine Paul Wellens engaging in such skulduggery. The man was about sportsmanship in the proper sense, rather than the cynical variety.
I’m reminded of a terrific interview Sky’s Angela Powers did with Wellens for Forty20 in April 2014, during which she put his level-headed approach down to being the youngest child of, shall we say, more mature parents.
“My dad is 83 and my mum is 76,” Wellens told her. “I have kind of had an old-fashioned upbringing, but it has served me well. I had older brothers and sisters who would pull you into line where needed. I think I just grew up being respectful to people and treating people well.”
One of the great things about writing pieces like this is that, as you reflect, the great moments do indeed come flooding back, helped no end by all the online coverage and video clips that emerged in the wake of the announcement.
Along with Dapper Laughs and Glasto, Wello was even trending nationally on Twitter, a rare honour for a retiring league player, in both senses of the word.
The good wishes from friends, admirers and old foes from far and wide were also as sincere as they were deservedly gushing.
It’s good to know that Wellens will be joining former team-mates Keiron Cunningham and Sean Long on the coaching staff at Langtree Park and there’s absolutely no doubt he has the leadership chops for it.
The last few seasons have been tricky for Saints – what with stadium moves, injury crises and the break-up of one of the great rugby league sides of all time to contend with. That they were able to come into this season as champions was a remarkable achievement that owed much to a certain someone’s role as captain during quite a large chunk of that period.
His reaction at the end of last year’s Old Trafford victory over Wigan – shattered and ecstatic in equal measure – spoke volumes about what that win and the club as a whole meant to a lad who has supported Saints in one way or another since being an actual boy rather than just a man who looks like one.
He will surely find success in a tracksuit just as reliably as he has in the famous red and white vee, yet his exit is another reminder – and they seem to be coming ever thicker and faster – that time won’t be stopped for anyone. Even, I suspect, Keith Mumby.
Most immediately, Saints now appear to have another mini injury crisis: namely a shortage of recognised full-backs, although last season they lacked a stand-off for much of the campaign and that didn’t do them any harm, did it?
No doubt Forty20’s own Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook is out on Billinge Lump catching high balls as we speak.
So, yes, we are sometimes guilty of taking our full-backs for granted – even great ones like Paul Wellens. And while few at St Helens have been guilty of that I’m sure, they – and the rest of Super League – will miss him now he’s gone.