21 July 2023

Paul Wellens wants St Helens to use past disappointments as fuel against Leigh

21 July 2023

Paul Wellens has urged his all-conquering St Helens squad to draw on the memory of recent heartbreaks if they wish to avoid adding an unwanted chapter to Challenge Cup history when they face Leigh in Saturday’s first semi-final.

Wellens’ men might have amassed a glittering pile of silverware but remarkably they will barely start favourites against Adrian Lam’s side, who only last season were celebrating lifting the 1895 Cup for second and third-tier sides at Wembley.

A revolution led by owner Derek Beaumont has catapulted the club to second place in their first season back in Super League – four points and two places above Saints – and within 80 minutes of a first Challenge Cup final appearance since they sunk Leeds at Wembley in 1971.

With the sport’s established order increasingly being stood on its head, it is perhaps no surprise that Wellens wants his players to forget their recent prize haul and focus on rare setbacks, such as their stunning semi-final defeat to Catalans Dragons in 2018.

Seven members of Saints’ current squad were involved in that game, which the French side won after blazing into a 27-0 half-time lead, and Wellens stressed: “A lot of of our group have won big matches but they have experienced a fair bit of heartbreak as well.

“Losing in the Cup semi-final to Catalans was an experience they have learned from, and has shaped them in terms of the way they approach big games. Sometimes out of those negative experiences, you can draw a lot of positives.”

Saints, who head into the game on the back of a gruelling Super League defeat to the French side which robbed them of influential duo James Roby and Mark Percival due to failed head injury assessments, certainly hold no fear for Lam’s buoyant side.

Lam’s men hit back from a 12-point half-time deficit to sink Saints 20-12 in their previous meeting in March, and have since forged a remarkable run of 12 wins in 13 games which has seemingly cemented their improbable place in the end-of-season play-offs.

For the Leigh-born former Saints hero Tommy Martyn, Lam and Beaumont have breathed new life into a club and a town for so long considered a “laughing stock” in rugby league circles for their inability to hold down a regular top-flight place.

For so long the club was seen as a laughing stock. What Derek and Adrian have achieved is remarkable

Martyn, who played in Saints’ victorious 1996 and 1997 Challenge Cup final wins and also won Grand Finals and the World Club Challenge before ending his career with his home-town club, told the PA news agency: “It is the only thing anyone in Leigh is talking about.

“When I was growing up it was a golden era, winning the First Division title in 1982, and the town was booming then like it’s booming now. For so long the club was seen as a laughing stock. What Derek and Adrian have achieved is remarkable.”

Leigh’s stunning rise has been built on solid foundations, from a front row featuring stand-out prop John Asiata and mercurial hooker Edwin Ipape, to the flair in their three-quarters including the current joint-top Super League try-scorer, Josh Charnley.

But in a warning to Saints and the other clubs whom they must still face in their unlikely quest for silverware this season, Lam believes his side are still searching for their best.

“We pride ourselves on our identity but there are also one or two more levels we can keep improving on, and everyone agrees about that, so that’s the exciting part,” said Lam.

“We know the challenge ahead of us, we know it’s a massive mountain to climb, but the way this season has been rolling, if we can turn up and give our absolute best and be that same consistent side, I know we will give ourselves a chance.”

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