The impressive journey of Joe Philbin’s decade at Warrington Wolves: From imposter syndrome to elder statesman

Drew Darbyshire
Joe Philbin Warrington Wolves Alamy

Joe Philbin in action for Warrington Wolves - Alamy

Joe Philbin’s road to the top hasn’t been an easy one, overcoming many obstacles to make his mark with his hometown club Warrington Wolves.

The hulking forward, who came through the ranks at his boyhood club, is celebrating his testimonial year in 2024, with the Wolves facing neighbours Leigh Leopards at the Halliwell Jones Stadium this Saturday (February 3) in a celebratory game of Philbin’s career.

Philbin was picked up by Warrington scouts when he was 15 after just a handful of games in to his junior rugby career with Culcheth Eagles and Latchford Albion – after primarily playing football in his youth.

“I used to play football at Culcheth Athletic, but I got dropped down to the ‘B’ team because I put a bit of weight on,” Philbin told the media, including Love Rugby League, at Warrington’s 2024 media day.

“I used to be pretty decent and was playing to a decent level, but I got a bit chunky and the manager said I wasn’t being the box-to-box player he wanted, so I got dropped.

“From there, I thought I wanted to go and play rugby as I didn’t really want to play for the ‘B’ team. My mum is pretty over-protective so she didn’t want me to go, so I had to go on my own. I cycled down there on my own and that was it – I only played three or four games and then I got picked up pretty quickly.”

The 29-year-old fell in love with rugby league as soon as he started playing with his local community clubs.

However, after arriving at the Wire just a few months in to his rugby journey, he admitted he was suffering from imposter syndrome, playing alongside his team-mates who had been playing the game for more than a decade.

“I always loved watching the game but my mum didn’t want me getting my teeth knocked out!” Philbin laughed.

“I did feel a bit out of place when I got picked up. All the lads I was joining had been playing rugby for years. I remember my first training session for the scholarship team and they were putting moves on. I didn’t know what a move was! Where I was playing, you just took the ball and ran it in.

“I did feel out of place for a while but when I got to the academy days, I started to understand the game more and realised I had a bit of raw ability.”

2016 was when Joe Philbin grew from a boy in to a man: ‘That year was one of so many lessons for me’

Philbin came through the academy at Wire as a back-rower – but was soon turned into a no-nonsense prop following a kick up the backside from then head coach Tony Smith.

“I always played back-row growing up, but it got to 2016 and the year wasn’t going too well for me,” said Philbin, who made his first team debut in 2014.

“I played in a Challenge Cup game at Oldham in the back-row, and I got hooked off pretty early. At half-time, Tony Smith gave me one of the biggest sprays I think I’ve ever had. He was saying I wasn’t good enough to be in the other changing room, let alone ours!

“In the second half, he put me on at prop for 20 minutes – I’d never played in the middle before then, but I was really angry about what he’d said so I went out and did alright. I don’t think I’ve played back-row since!

“When I was playing back-row I had sloppy habits. That year was one of so many lessons for me as I thought I was going to get flicked by the club. I wasn’t doing the right things off the field that I needed to change. When I did change them, it made me realise what I had. Maybe I could have played back-row if I’d changed earlier, but the middle is the best place for me.”

Becoming a mainstay at Warrington Wolves

Joe Philbin Warrington Wolves 2019 Alamy Joe Philbin scoring a try in the 2019 Challenge Cup final (Alamy)

Despite a challenging start to his professional career, Philbin soon became a fan favourite on the terraces at the Halliwell Jones Stadium thanks to his barnstorming drives and his explosive carries from the back fence.

He made his international debut for Ireland in 2016 before going on to represent his Irish heritage the following year in the Rugby League World Cup.

Philbin was selected by then Great Britain head coach Wayne Bennett for the Lions tour of the southern hemisphere in 2019 before making his debut for birth nation England in 2021.

With 196 appearances for his beloved hometown club under his belt, which included a Challenge Cup triumph in 2019, Philbin is proud to have achieved so much in his 10-year career so far.

“I’ve been lucky enough to have plenty of good memories,” he said. “My debut is up there – if you’d have told me years before that I’d get to play a game for Warrington Wolves, that would have been everything for me. I’d have been happy with that, but once that gets done you want to move on to the next thing.

“The Challenge Cup final in 2019 was obviously very special and then getting Great Britain, England and Ireland caps. I appreciate every time I get to pull on the shirt.”

A new era under Sam Burgess

Philbin, now in his 14th year with the Wolves, says he is beaming with pride over celebrating his testimonial year – and is keen to show everyone what they are made of in the club’s new era under Sam Burgess.

“To do 10 years at any club is something to be proud of but to do it at the club that you love, you should celebrate it and I will,” Philbin added. “I do like to stay out of the spotlight as much as I can, but I’m really proud of the achievement.

“I’m just excited for it all, but I’m excited just to play again. This is the longest pre-season I’ve done for six or seven years. We’re at that back end stage of pre-season now where everyone is just ready to play a game.

“Obviously, I want to go and win a competition but I think there’s been enough talk over the past few years. Now it’s time for action. We don’t want to be a hype team – we want to let our rugby do the talking.”

READ NEXT: Warrington Wolves boss Sam Burgess highlights parallels with South Sydney Rabbitohs, picks out England’s ‘future captain’ and talks Wire’s cohesion