For the first time in his rugby league career, Jack Welsby will feel at home on Saturday in the town which is so close to his heart. The 21-year-old, arguably the most mercurial talent to play for the national side for a decade, is as proud a Wiganer as you are likely to find despite the fact he has become a star for their great rivals over the Billinge Hill, St Helens.
He cites the likes of the Wigan Athletic cult hero Ben Watson and current England teammate and former Wigan Warriors star Sam Tomkins as his childhood heroes. But whenever Welsby has returned to Wigan as a player, he has been firmly in enemy territory given the huge rivalry between the two towns of Wigan and St Helens, where Welsby is now adored and adopted as one of their own.
But on Saturday, Welsby will take to the field at the DW Stadium with a home crowd behind him for the first time as England look to book their place in the Rugby League World Cup semi-finals with victory against Papua New Guinea. It is a moment the boyhood Wigan fan has waited some time to experience. “I’ve never hidden away from the fact I’m a Wigan lad,” Welsby says, smiling. “I love my town and I love Wigan. I love playing at the DW with the crowd behind you, so it’s going to be pretty special. I’ve been there so many times, and to be running out there for England is amazing.”
Welsby spent his childhood supporting Wigan before being signed by their great rivals, St Helens, as a teenager. He says his family, who will all be in attendance on Saturday, have shifted their allegiance to the Saints like he has.
His career has been on a remarkable trajectory since his debut as a 17-year-old in 2018. He is still associated with the try that won St Helens the Super League Grand Final in the dying seconds against Wigan in 2020 and now is seen as England’s best hope of delivering success on the international stage in this year’s World Cup with his undoubted natural ability.
Off the field, Welsby is quiet and fairly low-key in the way he speaks. On it, he is the most talented player to pull on an England shirt since his childhood hero – and the man he will share the field with on Saturday afternoon – Tomkins. “I just try to play like I’m playing with my mates,” he says. “I’m pretty relaxed.
“I was nervous for the Samoa game because it was my [Test] debut but ever since then I’ve just relaxed into it. I just enjoy it. It’s something I’ve been doing since I was little, so I don’t really see the point in getting nervous – it’s just a game of rugby at the end of the day. I just love playing rugby, and I always have no matter who it’s for.” Welsby’s relaxed attitude will be tested on Saturday against a physical and imposing Papua New Guinea side who caught the eye in the group stage.
England will still be expected to progress given the way they have acquitted themselves in the tournament thus far, but the Kumuls will cause the hosts one or two problems without question. Welsby, however, is already cautiously casting one eye beyond the quarter-finals and towards a tilt at rugby league history.
“This is definitely the pinnacle of my career so far,” he says. “It has been pretty special and I’ve really enjoyed it, but we’ve got a couple more stepping stones to go and win it. It’s something we’ve all got in the back of our minds and something we are all aiming for.
“I never imagined playing for England at this point in my career. I’ve loved every minute of it. The support has been brilliant and I just want us to keep building and keep getting better. I think there is still more in this group and we’ve got the perfect opportunity on Saturday to prove it.” And for all his happy childhood memories supporting Wigan Warriors and Wigan Athletic, watching England narrowly miss out on success as a youngster is one uncomfortable memory Welsby is desperate to put right over the next few weeks.
“The Shaun Johnson try [that knocked England out of the 2013 World Cup], that’s pretty self-explanatory,” he says.
“I loved watching England as a kid because it never came round a lot. There’s obviously been some near misses and while I remember the Wigan moments from my childhood, we’ve not really had too many big moments as a nation to cheer about, have we? Hopefully we can go on and make one to remember this year.”