A year ago, Josh Charnley was still waiting to make his first-team debut for Wigan and was regarded as one for the future. So rapid has been his progress since then that on Saturday he will follow in the footprints of the great wingers, such as Billy Boston, Martin Offiah and Jason Robinson, who have shone for the club at Wembley.
The 19-year-old from Chorley will fill the Warriors' right-wing berth in the Challenge Cup final against Leeds. While nobody is bracketing him yet with that calibre of illustrious predecessor, he has scored tries this season that any of them would have been proud to claim.
"I didn't even think I'd play in the first team this season," he says. Nor did many, not with the reigning Man of Steel, Pat Richards, occupying one wing and Wigan's leading try-scorer last season, Darrell Goulding, on the other. "But I got my chance and it's gone better than I could ever have imagined," says Charnley, who has scored 20 tries in 25 appearances so far. "Now to be going to Wembley, it's like a dream come true."
He arrives at the stadium, for the biggest game of his career so far, by a circuitous route, involving two separate sets of Rovers. Growing up, like the Tomkins brothers, in Chorley, a few miles out of the rugby league mainstream, Charnley was more interested in football in his youth, with a particular penchant for Blackburn.
But his mate, Jamie Ellis, now of Leigh but already tied up by Hull for next season, persuaded him to have a run-out with the local junior club, the Chorley Panthers.
He loved it straightaway, eventually progressing to Wigan St Patricks, the nursery that has produced hundreds of professionals, before being signed on by the Warriors.
His progress was steady rather than spectacular, until last July when he was loaned out to Hull Kingston Rovers. In his time on Humberside, he scored five tries in five games, including a couple of real eye-catchers. "I owe a lot to Justin Morgan at Hull KR," he says. "He had faith in me as a first-team player from the start and I've not really looked back since."
Early this season, Charnley stood in for the injured Richards on the left wing before displacing Goulding on the right. It has not always been easy. One of the most unforgiving aspects of modern wing-play is the ability to deal with high kicks. Teams naturally tend to target him rather than the taller, experienced Richards, and he has had his inevitable shaky moments.
"I suppose they would pick me out, but against Salford the other week they kicked at Pat all the time. I couldn't believe it," he admits.
Perhaps that was an unconscious reaction to the damage Charnley has been doing with his broken-field running from deep, notably in the semi-final against St Helens, when his two clean breaks effectively won the game.
Charnley says he is not a nervous player. "Not until I get in the changing room and I start peeing every five minutes," he says. That does not mean he is immune from the excitement in the town at the prospect of the first Wembley visit for 13 years. "You get a big buzz from it. You think about great players like Jason Robinson and Martin Offiah and, if you win, you go down in history like them."
At his tender age, Charnley has the time and the opportunity to match their achievements one day. Raw and inexperienced he may be, but it would not surprise anyone who has watched him this season if he took a step towards that sort of celebrity with a match-winning performance at Wembley next Saturday.Reuse content