Jack Welsby is the Wigan fanatic starring for bitter rivals St Helens

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For Jack Welsby, the next Super League superstar, it is pretty simple. ‘I grew up in Wigan, my family are from Wigan,’ he explains.

‘I live there and it’s my hometown. I support Wigan Athletic at football because if I was to pick anyone else I’d be lying to myself. I’m proud to be from Wigan.’

The problem for the town’s famous rugby club is that on Friday, when they make the nine-mile journey to take on St Helens in the latest instalment of the game’s biggest rivalry, the supremely talented 21-year-old will be in the red vee of the home side.

Jack Welsby is a regular at the DW Stadium to watch his beloved Wigan Athletic

Jack Welsby is a regular at the DW Stadium to watch his beloved Wigan Athletic

One of their own has not just impressed in the colours of their bitter foes, he has excelled. They do not call Welsby the King of St Helens for no reason. A slick, nimble-footed back with a freakish eye for a pass and a gap has — less than four years after making his debut — won it all. A Challenge Cup and two Grand Finals.

He has also scored perhaps the most dramatic try the code has seen when, with time expiring and scores level following a brutal contest in 2020’s showpiece, team-mate Tommy Makinson’s drop goal hit a post and Welsby reacted to scoop up the rebound, touch down and break the hearts of thousands of fellow Wiganers.

So how does a boy who heads to the DW Stadium whenever he can to follow his beloved Latics, end up a Saint?

‘I was playing Under 12s for Shevington in Wigan and falling out with rugby,’ he says. ‘I started going to boxing and one of the lads there — his dad was a coach at Blackbrook and that was it. Blackbrook is in Saints’ service area and there were lots of times I thought about going to Wigan but all my mates were going to Saints and it just felt right.’

It may have felt right to him but it took some work to persuade his dad and grandad. ‘They were both Wigan fans,’ Welsby recalls. ‘They took some convincing to come and watch Saints, but they knew my dream from being a kid was to play in Super League and they were right behind me.’

St Helens star Welsby has his sights set on a World Cup on home soil later this year

St Helens star Welsby has his sights set on a World Cup on home soil later this year

To say it has been the right call would be an understatement. In less than four years, Welsby has collected more silverware than many have mustered in their entire careers. But when it comes to remaining grounded, he only has to recall the sacrifices of his parents, mum Jenifer and dad Stephen.

‘The reason we are successful at Saints is hard work,’ he explains. ‘It’s the first thing they tell you when you come through the door. My work ethic comes from home. My mum worked three jobs to get nice things for me. She’d start at six in the morning — cleaning at the Co-Op. Then she’d come home, have a shower and get changed, take me to school and go to work as a teaching assistant.

‘She’d then pick me up from school, take me to training and go on the shop floor. Dad would pick me up from there because Mum would still be working and she would get home at 10pm.

‘My dad is a JCB driver, sitting on a dumper truck throwing stuff about. He lets me know how hard it is.

‘My grandad used to lug me here, there and everywhere. He passed away in the week leading up to the Challenge Cup but he was proud of what I achieved — even if it was for St Helens!’

The talented 21-year-old will be in the red vee of the home side against Wigan on Friday

The talented 21-year-old will be in the red vee of the home side against Wigan on Friday

His grandad John’s great wish was to see Welsby in an England shirt. He was delighted when Welsby was called into a training camp, but he is yet to make his international bow.

After starring in Saints’ Challenge Cup win at Catalans Dragons last Saturday, coach Kristian Woolf said it was only a matter of time until national team boss, ex-Wigan coach Shaun Wane, called him up.

Although his sights are solely on Super League, a World Cup on home soil at the end of the season has not escaped his attention. ‘The only way you get into Waney’s team is by playing as well as you can,’ Welsby says. ‘He’s told us what we need to do to get in the squad. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, there’s a clear pathway now so it’s down to me.’

Although they came close last time out in Brisbane, England (and GB before them) have not won the big prize since 1972, with Australia the relentlessly dominant force. Welsby, however, is part of a new generation who have enjoyed success over the old enemy at youth level.

‘I don’t fear the Australians,’ he says. ‘It’s a challenge. We’ve had challenges at Saints and we’ve done three Grand Finals in a row. I see it more as an opportunity. They’re regarded as the best but I don’t see why we can’t turn them over.

The nimble-footed back with a freakish eye for a pass and a gap has won it all in just four years

The nimble-footed back with a freakish eye for a pass and a gap has won it all in just four years

‘It’s an ongoing facade that they’re superior. It’s 13 humans against 13 humans. One hundred per cent we believe. Expecting anything other than a win is wrong.’

Saints’ Totally Wicked Stadium will be a 17,098 sell-out and the sport — now shown domestically on Channel 4 — is still hoping for a surge in popularity to launch it beyond the M62 corridor.

Welsby believes the World Cup can provide take-off. ‘We have the product,’ he says. ‘It’s the greatest game in the world. I like the Lancashire v Yorkshire rivalry but we need it in the big cities. It needs a bigger stage and the World Cup is perfect for that.’

I ask him what first-time viewers can expect.

‘Seventeen blokes wanting to take each other’s head off, in a gentlemanly sense,’ Welsby says. ‘There’s no other sport where there’s such skill, speed and aggression coming from 17 men at once. These are some of the best athletes in the world.’

First things first. Saturday evening, Wigan Athletic, chasing promotion from League One, host Cambridge United. As much as though he may like to, Welsby will not be there.

‘We’ve got Huddersfield on Monday so it’s a short turnaround,’ he says. ‘St Helens comes first.’

They often do.

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