The very definition of a one-club man, Paul Wellens watched his favourite team lift the Challenge Cup numerous times as a supporter. He then became a club legend himself, lifting the illustrious trophy five times. Now that he’s their head coach, he’s desperate to complete a personal ‘treble’.
Standing in the way of a Saints Wembley trip next month are Leigh Leopards. The pair meet at the Halliwell Jones Stadium on Saturday afternoon and will battle it out for a spot in the competition’s final against either Wigan Warriors or Hull KR.
Last time that Leigh were in a Challenge Cup semi-final, in 1987, it was the Red Vee that knocked them out. Wellens wasn’t around then, but looking ahead to this weekend’s meeting he discussed his best memories of the competition, and just what it would mean to be the man to lead the team out at Wembley in three weeks’ time.
Paul Wellens on fond Challenge Cup memories
In the finals of 2007 and 2008, the former full-back won the Lance Todd Trophy courtesy of two man of the match performances.
The first of those was shared with teammate Leon Pryce, but Wellens is still one of just two players ever to have achieved the accolade back-to-back. Only Marc Sneyd has done it since during his time with Hull FC.
Wellens recalled: “When I first started playing in Challenge Cup finals, the game was on the road as Wembley was getting re-developed then.
“I went to Twickenham [2001 and 2006], Murrayfield , and Cardiff . Cardiff was a wonderful experience, playing Wigan there, but I think going back to Wembley when it re-opened in 2007 for the first time, against Catalans, was a real stand out as well.
“I’ll always remember going to Wembley as a kid watching St Helens in Challenge Cup finals, and to be able to go back there and play there myself was special for me.
“There’s a good team in our way in Leigh, but personally to get the opportunity to lead my hometown club out at Wembley would be phenomenal for me. It’s about the players though, not me, and I’m sure they’re equally as motivated.”
St Helens motivated by prospect of Wembley trip
The five Challenge Cups won by Wellens came in a dominant seven-year spell starting in 2001. Extraordinarily, in the nine finals played from then onwards – inclusive -, the club only failed to make the final twice.
A 2008 triumph over Hull FC at Wembley was to be the last taste of success in the competition for Wellens, with St Helens only once since lifting the trophy, and that came in 2021.
43-year-old Wellens discussed the ‘carrot’ of a trip back to the capital, saying: “It’s a huge motivator and a huge driver for us. As a club, we pride ourselves on being successful, and this is another opportunity for us to go and deliver just that.
“It’s about performance on the day. I’ve been in teams that have won semi-finals, I’ve been in teams that have lost semi-finals, and each occasion is its own individual one.
“Saturday will be no different, we know that we’ve got to got there and go up against a team that’s in form, one that’s playing well and with confidence. We know we’ll have to perform well to get into the final.”
Wellens praises semi-final opponents
Heading into Saturday’s game, St Helens could be deemed as being the ‘underdogs’, much to many people’s surprise.
Leigh’s first season back in the top tier has been well-documented, rising to second in Super League having won 12 of their last 13 in all competitions and in a position where they could set up a first trip to Wembley since 1971.
Saints chief Wellens provided some kind words to Adrian Lam’s side, and admitted the ‘underdogs’ tag is merited. He added: “We have a lot of respect for Leigh as a team and what they’ve achieved, particularly since they’ve come up to Super League.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge for us, but one we’re looking forward to. I was at their game against Salford [on Sunday], and you could see that they’re a team with real momentum behind them which makes then dangerous.
“They are slightly different in the way that they play, and they’ve obviously got a number of attacking threats. The nine, Edwin Ipape, he didn’t play [against Salford], but then they’ve got John Asiata, Lachlan Lam, Ben Reynolds, you can go through [the full team].
“Gareth O’Brien out the back compliments them really well, and then if they move the ball out wide, you’ve got good strike players. Ricky Leutele’s there, and the two old stagers on the wing in [Josh] Charnley and [Tom] Briscoe who seem to have been knocking around forever are still doing the business.
“That’s why they’re a good team, and that’s why they have been picking up results. It’s a credit to them the way they’ve handled the step up to Super League and got results on the back of it.”