By STEVE MASCORD
PAUL Wellens’ appointment as part of England coach Steve McNamara’s support staff for the World Cup may well have prompted some of his long-term St Helens team-mates to offer a wry smile.
“People always say ‘you’d love to be Australian, you would’,” the decorated 33-year-old tells A-List in a coffee room across the road from Saints’ training base, late in the Super League season.
“,,,because I’d always be knocking round with the Aussie fellas.
“What I always do – I’ve always taken it upon myself because I’m a local lad – is when Australians come over, try to make an effort to make them feel welcome.
“It was a lot easier for me when I was young and I didn’t have kids and I had a lot more time, going down the pub with them for a few beers was great. I’ve always liked to make that effort
“It’s not Sydney. It’s not. It’s not golden beaches but they come here and enjoy it for what it is. St Helens is what it is, a working class town, but the people here are great and very honest people who work hard. I think people like that.”
Wellens and McNamara, of course, will be attempting to make life as uncomfortable as possible in Europe this month and next for a certain group of visiting Australians. After reaching 450 games for his club and 46 Test caps, the fullback-cum-utility believes his best contribution these days can be with the aid of a clipboard.
A faultlessly polite and helpful interviewee, Wellens has seen it all in British rugby league. But once upon a time, he could have been looking over the equator in the other direction.
“There’s a time when I was 24, 25 when I was thinking ‘should I go play in Australia?’,” he says over a strong coffee.
“But at that time I was here playing with my best mates, who I’d played with for years – your Keirons, (Cunningham) your (Sean) Longys, Paul Sculthorpe … Jon Wilkin .. we were being successful, we were going to finals every year and I just didn’t want to pass all that up.”
What followed was a long period of success for Saints – which in recent years has tailed off alarmingly. Under new coach Nathan Brown, they were flogged 40-4 by his former club Huddersfield at the start of the 2013 season.
Brown and St Helens got their act together late in the year – to such an extent that they were knocked out by a point on the penultimate game of the season.
For those of you who follow the British game closely, Wellens’ comments on the competitive arc of his club over the past half-decade will appear especially stark.
“From my perspective, for four or five years now, they’ve been saying the club’s in transition. But in many ways, we’ve been kidding ourselves. We’ve really been treading water, more than anything.
“But with Nathan coming in, he’s really started what I feel has been a transition process. He’s altered the way we play, there’s been a positional change with Johnny (Lomax) playing halfback. “Year on year, we’ve lost big players. We’ve lost your Sean Longs, your Keiron Cunninghams, your James Grahams. People probably underestimated how big a loss that was. We’ve not had that stability there. For years, we’ve never been settled enough to make genuine progress.
“The exchange rate makes it hard to bring over those hardcore internationals. If you look at next year, we’ve done fantastically well to bring over Luke Walsh and Mose Masoe.”
But the World Cup is what we’re all worried about right now. We ask Wellens the furthest away from the world no.1 ranking Great Britain or England have been in his time, and when they’ve been closest.
No prizes for the answer to the first question. A scoreline of 64-10 doesn’t exactly indicate competitive parity.
“At the time, it was really exciting – we got to play in Australia and it was my first time in Australia,” he says of the one-off mid-season international in 2002.
“We flew in, didn’t have much time to settled, and at the end of the day we were just outplayed. I think it was probably a real dose of reality we needed over here in the competition.
“We were just falling further and further behind if we didn’t redress that in our ways of doing things, the gap was only going to get wider. In terms of it being …. It was obviously a terrible experience, losing by that many points with a lot of eyes on you.
“It was embarrassing. But in terms of what we learned from it, it might not have been a bad thing.”
Just two years later, in the 2004 Tri-Nations, Wellens thought Britain had cracked it.
“We actually finished top of the group that year,” he recalled. “We’d been beaten at the City Of Manchester Stadium 12-8 by a last-minute Luke Rooney try, but we were in my opinion the better team for an hour. We should have won that game.
“We beat the Kiwis twice and we beat the Australians at Wigan a few weeks later. We were going, then, into the Tri-Nations final soaring with our confidence – and then we got absolutely blow away by a Darren Lockyer-inspired performance. It was frustrating.”
One of England and Great Britain’s biggest problems throughout that time, Paul seems to believe, has been inconsistent selections.
“Selection’s always been something where … you want consistency,” he says.
“Keiron Cunningham, if he could have played a lot more for Great Britain alongside Sean Long … remember in the 2006 Tri-Nations when we beat the Aussies in Sydney? We’d had a fantastic year at St Helens that year and won everything. I was the one, Leon was the six, Sean was the seven, James Roby was the nine … I don’t think that was any co-incidence that the form team throughout the year had the spine of the national side. We won the game and the four of us never played together in that team again. For me it was frustrating. I thought: ‘we’ve just got to run with that now’.”
Ah, but whose fault was that? Long misbehaved on a trans-Tasman flight, was reprimanded by coach Brian Noble and promptly went home.
Wellens mulls this over. “Looking back, I’m sure both Sean and Brian would probably have regrets about the way the situation was handled. Maybe, maybe not. I don’t want to put words in their mouths but it was frustrating because Longy had shown a couple of weeks before in that win in Sydney that when he’s on his game, he’s good enough to boss the team around the field and win you a game.
“Probably, I think, it just wasn’t good that he ended up going home and if Longy is honest with himself he’d probably do some things a little different and the whole scenario wouldn’t have happened.”
Two years later – at the last World Cup – division between Leeds and Saints players in the England squad was purported to be the reason for a risible campaign. Wellens says that’s sort of true – and sort of not.
“I can understand where people were coming from because St Helens and Leeds had played in that many grand finals. They’ve won most of them,” he muses.
“On the field, we didn’t like each other.
“Now for me personally, I get on with all the Leeds players great and I know all the other lads did – personally, one-on-one. You are friends with them and you mix with them. But I think there was something about Saints and Leeds – not individual players not getting on but the rivalry … at the time … it should never have got in the way. I don’t think it really did.
“I just think we had too many players in key positions, myself included, who just didn’t perform well enough.
“I held my hands up after that because my performances weren’t good enough. It wasn’t through lack of effort. It just didn’t go well for me on the trip.”
Welens was five when Mal Meninga graced Knowsley Road. In all his time as a fan and player, the biggest controversy was the 2004 betting scandal. Long and centre Martin Gleeson backed against their team when a host of players was stood down for a game against Bradford.
Long and Gleeson were suspended for three and four months respectively, and fined.
“Quite a few of us knew we weren’t playing. I said to Longy, ‘are you playing’ and he said ‘not playing, not playing’ and obviously they decided to stick a few quid on it and have a bet. I’ll be honest, the thought crossed my mind, I thought ‘I could make a few quid here’ .
“I don’t know of any other players who had a bet but I’m quite certain there would have been quite a few people who made a quid off that game who perhaps never came out.
“That never came out but if I was a betting man …”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK