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Jack Welsby is the NRL’s next big star - if there’s a club with the cojones to stump up the cash and go get him

23rd October, 2023
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23rd October, 2023
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If there’s one thing NRL clubs don’t lack, it’s cash. The salary cap stops them from spending as much as they like, but there’s always a couple of bucks spare for all the other stuff.

For the many, many teams that would be improved by adding one of the world’s best young playmakers, then this might be the time to find at a couple of hundred thousand dollars and get it to St Helens for Jack Welsby.

The new England captain – he’s captain of his country aged 22, making him the youngest ever – produced the game-breaking play against Tonga at the weekend with a pass that, to use the local parlance, was filthier than a miner’s shoelace.

He is contracted up until 2026, but where there is a will, there’s a way and, with Welsby, there certainly is a way.

His deal might have years to run, but if an NRL club were to sign him for 2026, they could almost certainly negotiate a transfer fee with Saints to get their man a year early rather than let him leave the UK for nothing.

The Bulldogs, for example, spent $500,000 to poach Karl Oloapu, a player with undoubted promise but very much one for the future. He might be great, but he might also be the biggest bust in NRL history.

Welsby, on the other hand, is about as sure a shot as you get in a transfer. The Warriors paid $700,000 for Sam Tomkins in 2013 and Welsby is easily the most accomplished player since then, and indeed, probably more so while also being younger than his fellow Wiganer.

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He’s on 117 senior appearances and, across that, has played around half as a fullback, a third at five eighth and a fair amount at centre. Versatility? You got it.

He debuted at 17, became a regular at 18, scored the most dramatic winner in the history of the Super League Grand Final at 19, won a third Premiership at 20, an international debut at 21 and now captains England at 22. Experience? Yep.

He’s got three Premierships, a Challenge Cup, a World Club Challenge, a 75% winning record and a one-in-two tryscoring record, and was Young Player of the Year twice, as well as being nominated for Man of Steel, the Super League equivalent of the Dally M, in the last two years.

Jack Welsby is the Alexander the Great of British rugby league, weeping with no worlds left to conquer. It’s why he need to be in the NRL and soon.

There’s a bit of a myth that English backs don’t fare too well in the NRL, and the snickers saying ‘so what, Super League is rubbish’ are probably already forming in the comments section.

That doesn’t always stand up to much, however. The last properly rated English playmaker to come to Australia was George Williams, who went great, and the current Dally M Centre of the Year and NRL top tryscorer are both English.

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Even Tomkins, who is remembered as a bit of a bust, was one of the Warriors best in 2014 before missing most of 2015 injured, only playing the back half of the year when the club were badly struggling. His career before and since would suggest that it was the Wahs, not him, that was the problem.

Furthermore, Welsby is not the average back, he’s by far the biggest talent of his generation in Super League and, in truth, the best player of his age anywhere in the world. 

In 2023, he topped the comp in tackle breaks and offloads, made 140m per game in yardage, while also being the second best fullback for line break assists and try assists – both behind Bevan French, who won Man of Steel – and fifth overall for line breaks, the best non-winger, and, for good measure, the second best fullback under the high ball. He is, as the kids say, a baller.

He doesn’t have the pace of Walsh – then again, who does? – but more than makes up for that with strength, as evidenced by the tackle bust stats, and a huge range of passing, with an exceptional right to left cutout and a well-disguised short ball.

The NRL is full of 22-year-olds – there’s about 50 of them, depending on what you class as a first grader, making them a prime asset for clubs, especially with regards to future planning.

Ask a recruitment manager and they’ll point this out: the key age of development for most players is between 18-21, when they have to be playing men’s footy, and most make the NRL by the age of 22 at the latest.

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We love the Cody Walkers, the against-the-odds stories of late bloomers who go on to be greats, and we love guys like Scott Sorensen, reggies battlers who finally come good as they near their 30th birthday.

But there’s a reason that they’re outliers. It doesn’t happen often. 

For most who end up having prolonged careers in the NRL, they are elevated from under-18s ahead of time, because they’re already among the best at age group, then have the same thing happen at under-20s, ending up in reserve grade while still eligible. The best then debut young, and start accumulating NRL appearances fast.

Ask that same recruitment manager and they might well quote the 50-75 game figure, which is the point at which you can tell whether someone is going to be rep level or NRL level. Anyone below that tends not to make it as far as the half century.

If we look at our current crop of 22-year-olds, there are a few rep names and a few real superstars, but not as many as you might think. 

There’s Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, Dom Young, Bradman Best, Tom Dearden and Xavier Coates in the real top tier, then guys like Trent Loiero, Rocco Berry, Christian Tuipulotu, Jacob Preston and Taylan May in the still-up-and-coming category.

For pivots, Dearden is the standout with Toby Sexton and Jayden Sullivan the only others, unless you still count Josh Schuster as a half.

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Realistically, there’s Reece Walsh, Jack Welsby and then clean fresh air in terms of first grade experience, rep experience, big game experience and anything else you might want to throw in. 

As a direct comparison, you get the Hammer, Sam Walker (21) and Ezra Mam (20) who have been regulars at big clubs, plus Isaiya Katoa (19) who is a rep half with Tonga. It’s decent company to be in, and none have done it for so long and at such a level.

On the NRL side, there would need to be a landing spot for a player like Welsby. Let’s assume that it’s 2025 that he arrives, putting him in the same boat as all the other November 1 players.

For fullbacks with decent minutes in 2023, that includes Jordan Rapana, Tyrell Sloan and for five eighths, you get Mam and Dearden, Jarome Luai, Kieran Foran, Luke Keary and Aidan Sezer, on a one-year deal with the Wests Tigers.

You’d have to assume that Mam, Dearden and Luai extend, and the Titans might be more concerned about picking one of Jayden Campbell and AJ Brimson work, plus young gun Thomas Weaver. 

There are certainly spots and cap space at the Raiders, Roosters and Dragons – especially if Ben Hunt leaves – that could get very interesting indeed. 

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Canberra would be the most obvious destination given their track record of signing English talent – they’re about to pick up another, lock Morgan Smithies, from Wigan – and their interest in Welsby’s mate Lewis Dodd, a halfback, with current 7 Jamal Fogarty able to test himself on the open market in a week or so’s time. 

They’re flush with cash having lost Jack Wighton to Souths, though might use that on Ethan Sanders, the highly-rated half they have poached from Parramatta, or Ethan Strange, whom they debuted this year as a centre but has mostly played at 6 in NSW Cup.

The Dragons, if they can prove that they can compete in 2024, might be a chance – though new coach Shane Flanagan will back himself to get a tune out of Sloan and, if he doesn’t, to make Zak Lomax into a big-bodied fullback.

Most interesting might be the Chooks. They will have Keary’s money and will know that James Tedesco is only contracted until the end of 2025, by which point he will be almost 33. If Trent Robinson wanted to signal a changing of the guard, he could do a lot worse.

The idea of Welsby at 6 and Walker at 7 would be exciting to say the least, with the English star either able to cement himself there or compete for the fullback role going forwards.

And then, of course, there’s the Tigers. They might point to their addition of Latu Fainu from Manly as their future playmaker, and Jahream Bula’s emergence as their long-term 1. 

Welsby, too, might reflect on the words of Saints CEO Mike Rush, who famously warned Dodd – off contract a year earlier – off the Tigers given their status as the NRL’s permanent basket case.

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Either way, that transfer fee would likely be the best cash that any of them have spent. Not often do you get a talent with better experience at a younger age, and with still development to go.

For the punters, Welsby would be a hell of a lot of fun to watch. For a club, he could be a revelation – if they have the guts to take the plunge.

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