20 October 2023

New England captain Jack Welsby keen to banish World Cup heartache against Tonga

20 October 2023

Jack Welsby is determined to banish the memory of last year’s Rugby League World Cup semi-final defeat to Samoa when he leads out England for the first of three Test matches against Tonga in St Helens on Sunday.

The 22-year-old said he was “surprised and humbled” to be handed the captaincy in the absence of George Williams, who failed in his appeal against a two-match ban he picked up in Warrington’s play-off defeat earlier this month.

It continues a steep career trajectory for the Saints star, who made his international debut in the crushing opening World Cup win over the Samoans, before suffering with his team-mates as they slid to their agonising loss to the same team in the last four.

“I’m very excited and humbled,” said Welsby. “When Waney (England coach Shaun Wane) came up and told me I was surprised, especially with some of the senior blokes we’ve got in that dressing room.

“To be leading them out on Sunday afternoon is going to be a big thing for myself and my family. Nothing really trumps being England captain, no matter where it is, but there is also the added bonus of it being in St Helens.”

With the exception of a routine 64-0 win over France in April, Sunday represents Welsby and England’s first opportunity to right the wrongs against top-level opposition, whose squad includes two current Saints team-mates in Will Hopoate and Konrad Hurrell.

Welsby told to the PA news agency: “If we’re completely honest with ourselves, maybe there was a bit of complacency in the semi-final because we’d been putting some big scores on teams and we thought we were better than we were.

“It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had on a rugby field, and if you don’t learn lessons from days like that, you never will. I’m pretty sure after what happened last year, you’re not going to see the same mistakes against Tonga.”

Despite a stellar personal season which culminated in him being shortlisted for the Man of Steel award, Welsby endured another painful blow when his hopes of helping Saints to a fifth straight Grand Final triumph ended abruptly against Catalans Dragons in France.

Nothing really trumps being England captain, no matter where it is, but there is also the added bonus of it being in St Helens

Instead, he admits he forced himself to watch through his fingers as Wigan wrested the title against the French club, confirming that the domestic dominance he had experienced since becoming a first-team regular at the Totally Wicked Stadium in 2019 was at an end.

Welsby grimaced: “I did watch it, reluctantly. It was a tough watch, but I had friends and England team-mates involved in the match. Obviously we were very disappointed how it ended with Saints, but Wigan deserved it on the whole this year.

“I’m glad the England call-up meant my season wouldn’t end in France. Anywhere you get to pull on an England shirt it makes you immensely proud, and obviously being in St Helens in front of hometown fans will make it even more special.”

It is a mark of the importance placed by Wane in the series – which continues with subsequent matches at Leeds and Huddersfield – that five players currently based in Australia’s NRL have been flown over for the games.

Tom Burgess, John Bateman, Elliott Whitehead, Victor Radley and Dom Young could all feature in a line-up balanced between experience and youth, as Wane looks to begin the long build towards a prospective re-arranged 2026 World Cup in the Southern Hemisphere.

However, Wane must work without Williams for at least the first two games of the three-match series, as well as a number of high-profile injury withdrawals, including Welsby’s Saints team-mate Jonny Lomax and Wigan centre Jake Wardle.

“When you see the NRL players over here and the quality in the Tonga squad, you realise it’s time to get started,” added Welsby. “After everything that’s happened, I just can’t wait to pull the England shirt on again and rip right in.”

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