Wellens ready to escape Radlinski's shadow

St Helens full-back is looking to get the better of his friend and rival in Saturday's Challenge Cup final against Wigan
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Paul Wellens could be excused if he occasionally wished that Kris Radlinski would just disappear for a while.

In most other eras, the St Helens player would be the regular full-back in the Great Britain side, his specialist position. But Radlinski is in the way.

He also threatens to block his path when Saints play Wigan in the Challenge Cup final at Murrayfield on Saturday, but Wellens is still hoping that his opposite number has recovered from a blood infection in time to continue their rivalry.

"It would be a shame for him and I honestly hope he's fit," Wellens said. "He's a great friend and he's been waiting to win a Challenge Cup final for a few years now. I wouldn't want him to miss the chance."

Not that Wellens will be doing him any favours on the day because the last two years have seen him emerge as a major figure in Saints' all-conquering side.

Wellens goes back a long way with St Helens and the Challenge Cup. As a nine-year-old fan he watched them lose the 1989 final to Wigan by the vast margin of 27-0, with Gary Connolly – now with Wigan – ruthlessly exposed at full-back. "I remember going down by coach. It was a very long day and it was ruined by the score."

Wellens' road to becoming Connolly's successor was something of a circuitous one. Although he was brought up in rugby league, he dabbled with union in his teens and, despite his father, Harry, being a Saints scout, he appeared to have escaped their notice.

"He wouldn't recommend me because he thought that would make it very awkward for me," Wellens recalls. "He didn't say anything about me, but fortunately someone else came and had a look."

Wellens has one thing going for him that Radlinski does not possess to the same degree; versatility. Apart from full-back, the role for which he now looks ideally suited, he has played for Great Britain on the wing and for Saints at half-back and even as an emergency hooker.

"I was a half-back until Paul Atcheson got injured, although I'd filled in everywhere. I fitted in well at full-back and it's gone well for me ever since."

Wellens thrives on the philosophy of his coach, Ian Millward, that rugby league is no longer a game for specialists. Although he has the No 1 on his back, he crops up in all sorts of unlikely positions, not merely overlapping in traditional full-back style, but getting involved in moves all over the field.

When it works at its best, as in the 42-16 semi-final victory over Leeds, it is hard to imagine any other full-back fitting as comfortably into the St Helens' way of doing things.

"It's a good rivalry we have," he says of Radlinski. "It keeps me on my toes and I think it might do the same for him. We get on very well together when we're with the Great Britain squad, but that's typical of rugby league. The players all respect each other, because they know how tough it is out there."

Wellens, who has proved his toughness in the past by playing on despite a fracture eye-socket, was given a rare and partial rest in Saints' controversial match with Bradford at the weekend. One of the few first-team regulars who played that day, he was given most of the second-half off with Millward choosing to play the last 24 minutes with 12 men.

Wellens admits that it was strange watching, "but the game was probably lost by then, and, like a lot of players, I needed a break." Having had one, Wellens should be fresh and straining at the leash at Murrayfield. Indeed, it is a mark of his quiet confidence that he wants the one man many people regard as even more accomplished than him on the field as well.

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