St Helens head coach Kristian Woolf hailed Jack Welsby as a future England international after he made the winning contribution in a dramatic 8-4 Betfred Super League Grand Final victory against Wigan.
The centre grabbed a last-gasp try, chasing the ball down after Tommy Makinson’s drop-goal attempt hit the post and bounced into the in-goal area.
“You obviously don’t expect the game to quite finish like that,” Woolf said.
“To chase that down and compete on every set – they’re the things that you preach about all the time, play until the last minute and all that stuff.
“But to actually do that and get the result off the back of it like we did, Jack Welsby deserves an enormous amount of credit. That was an outstanding play, I’m really proud of the kid to get that result at a Grand Final, at this level.
“It’s not going to be the last time in his career (to play in a Grand Final), he’s a terrific player, Jack. I think he is a real player of the future.
“He’s going to play a lot of footy for this club and I have no doubt that he goes on to become an international as well, he’s a really talented kid. I’m really proud and happy for him tonight.”
It was a war of attrition for 79 minutes before the incredible finale at Hull’s KCOM Stadium.
The scores were locked at 4-4 courtesy of two Lachlan Coote penalties and Jake Bibby grabbing the only try in the 66th minute for Wigan.
Zak Hardaker had the chance to win it for Adrian Lam’s side with a penalty from 45 metres but the centre dragged his effort wide with 50 seconds remaining. St Helens aimed to work their way downfield for a late drop-goal attempt, managing to gain territory in the Warriors’ half.
Makinson was lined up for the effort and, as the ball landed in the winger’s hands, the full-time hooter sounded. His attempt looked to have the distance, but the drama did not end there.
The ball rattled the right-hand post and landed on the turf before bouncing towards the in-goal area, with Wigan full-back Bevan French attempting to shield the loose ball to safety.
However, Welsby’s valiant chase proved valuable as he dived for the ball, grounded inches short of the dead-ball line and – after a lengthy look by video referee Ben Thaler – scored the winning try to jubilant on-field celebrations from Woolf’s side.
— St.Helens R.F.C. (@Saints1890) November 27, 2020
Woolf added: “I don’t think you will get a better game of footy, in terms of quality.
“Both teams were defending well and we had to keep going and plug away and wait for our opportunity. Defence wins big games.
“I’m extremely proud of the boys. It’s a great achievement. What a good group they are and how hard-working they are. They deserve every accolade as a group.
“I am really confident in the boys. We have the majority of the squad coming back. There are a number of young lads ready to come into the squad.”
James Graham was left in tears on the sidelines after Welsby’s late score as he signed off his illustrious career with a Grand Final ring, and Woolf paid tribute to the veteran prop.
Congratulations to massive Blue James Graham on a superb career in rugby league. 🏉
The perfect ending. Enjoy retirement, James! 💙 https://t.co/0RHP3DazrA
— Everton (@Everton) November 27, 2020
“I’m really happy for him. He has been just such a good servant of the game for such a long time,” Woolf said.
“I know he has done big stints in Australia, but if you are going to associate him with any club it’s this club and I’m really, really happy for him. He deserves everything tonight, he deserves every accolade.”
Lam admitted his side were “heartbroken and devastated” but vowed they will bounce back stronger in 2021.
He said: “Obviously heartbroken for everyone involved, the players, the staff at our club. It was surreal.
“Even now, I feel I just want to rewind that last couple of minutes and have another go at it.
“I was really proud of the braveness of our guys. I guess we just needed a bit more luck.
“I think there is a couple of really important things to get out of tonight. One is that we are heartbroken and devastated. But I think since lockdown, we have been a complete beast as a rugby league team.
“I feel you will see a completely different Wigan outfit over the next 12 months. You will see a team that can dominate Super League.
“I think we can get ourselves back in this position next year and change that result.”