PAUL Wellens’ love affair with St Helens began in the 1980s when he was a small boy – taking the short walk from his home to Knowsley Road to admire the skills of players like Paul Loughlin, mercurial scrum-half Neil Holding and Kiwi Shane Cooper.
Three decades later, that affinity is still as strong as ever for the 31-year-old former De la Salle pupil who stepped down from the terraces to carve out a glittering trophy-ladened career with his home-town club.
And injuries permitting, one-club-man Wello, as he his known by all and sundry, will reach another magical milestone on Friday night when he leads Saints out on his 400th appearance against Huddersfield Giants at the Stobart Stadium.
“I never imagined for one moment that I would reach such a milestone when I played my first Super League game against Halifax RLFC on August 30, 1998,” said the former Great Britain international.
“Initially, I would have been quite happy just pulling on the famous Saints shirt once, but to be on the brink of making 400 appearances makes me extremely proud, and when I step out against the Giants it will mark a very special moment in my sporting life.”
No one will be more delighted than his closely knit family, who he insists have been a major influence behind his rise to the top of one of the toughest sports in the world.
He said: “I don’t think you can underestimate the part families play in helping players like me pursue their careers.
“When you are making your way in the game, you have to make many sacrifices, but so does your immediate family, especially if you have children.
“They are all inconvenienced to some extent when I’m away on a club tour or abroad on international duty. It can’t be easy for them, but they have backed me all the way and I cannot tell you how much I appreciate it.”
When he retires from the game – and he isn’t thinking about that at this moment in time – Wellens will be able to look back on some unforgettable moments in one of the club’s greatest eras.
Top of his list is the 2004 Challenge Cup Final against deadly rivals Wigan Warriors at the Millennium Stadium in which he scored one of Saints’ tries in a comprehensive 32-16 victory.
Wellens explained: “I was a boy in the crowd when Wigan beat us in the 1989 and 1991 Wembley Finals, and as a player I finished on the losing side against them at Murrayfield in 2002, so to turn the table in Cardiff gave me the biggest buzz of my career.”
He also has fond memories of the 2001 World Club Challenge victory over Brisbane Broncos at the Reebok Stadium, Bolton, and, in particular, the words of wisdom he received from skipper Chris Joynt at the end of the game.
“We were all celebrating when Joynty came over to me and said, ‘Paul no amount of money will buy this moment,’ and they are words that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
During a career spanning 13 years, the ex-Blackbrook ARLC junior played along side and against some of the finest players of his generation, including: Jamie Lyon, Kevin Iro, Sean Long, David Farleigh, Paul Sculthorpe, Keiron Cunningham, Jamie Peacock, Andy Farrell, Darren Lockyer, Wendell Sailor and Gordon Tallis.
“It would be virtually impossible to single out any player and say he was the greatest I have played with or faced, but I must admit that on the domestic scene I have never come across better and more competitive individual opponents than Farrell and Peacock,” he said.
Wellens has 12 months left on his existing contract which will take in the 2012 season – Saints’ first at their new stadium.
“I am really excited about the prospects of playing at our new home,” he said.
“It is already rising rapidly and looks set to be a fantastic venue.
“Moving will be yet another part of our history and I just can’t wait to play there.”