Matt Whitley on the long journey from terraces to St Helens star

Matt Whitley stood on the terraces at Knowsley Road watching St Helens as a child, but he has taken a circuitous route to playing for them, via Widnes and Perpignan.

SUPPORTING one of the game’s giants isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.

Matt Whitley saw many of the memorable moments St Helens enjoyed during his childhood, the happy owner of a season ticket alongside his dad and two older brothers.

He recalls: “I was at Knowsley Road when the classic, massive brawl kicked off in the middle of the game (in the 2004 Good Friday derby). The 75-0 (in the following year’s Challenge Cup, also over Wigan) I remember watching. The first Challenge Cup final at the new Wembley (in 2007) which was nice to go to.”

But also: “I remember going to the Grand Finals at Old Trafford, the five years on the spin without a win (between 2007 and 2011). I was at most of them!”

If we’re being cruel, it was perhaps a hint of what was to come – Whitley has lost his two Grand Finals to date as a player too. But it will also have been a useful reminder that things often don’t go your way, most obviously in sport.

Because growing up with a dream of not just supporting your club but playing for them can be tough as well, especially when the door is slammed shut in your face.

That’s what happened when Whitley, who started playing at Haydock Warriors at the age of five and was part of St Helens’ scholarship programme, missed out on selection for the club’s academy at 16.

“I was like any young kid playing scholarship, the goal was to make it into the academy and then from the academy to progress to the first team and have a rugby career out of it. 

“It doesn’t always happen, it doesn’t always go the way you want it to. I had to do that a different route.

“Obviously it was disappointing at the time but I was fortunate enough to get another shot at Widnes. 

“They reached out and it was an easy decision for me to go over to Widnes. It’s where I’ve spent most of my rugby to date, with the academy and then the first team.”

Whitley, already familiar with the surroundings having watched his Saints team at the Halton Stadium for a season between leaving Knowsley Road and moving to Langtree Park, moved quickly on this new path. 

He made his Super League debut in April 2015 while still on an academy contract, making 18 appearances that season aged 19, and was a back-row Vikings regular for the next three.

He says: “I was surrounded by a lot of good lads, especially the older, experienced lads like Kev Brown, Danny Tickle, Eamon O’Carroll, players who have been at big clubs. 

“It was good to learn off them, and players like Chris Houston and Danny Galea who came over from the NRL. We had a lot of experienced players which really helped me develop as a player. 

“Kev Brown and Danny Tickle in particular – I couldn’t drive at the time when I joined the first team at Widnes, so they were giving me lifts to training in the morning. They were my taxi service for the majority of my career at Widnes!”

But he’d need more than a taxi to get to his next place of work, after the Vikings’ relegation in 2018 led him to cross the Channel.

“The rugby was pretty poor all year, for whatever reason,” Whitley says of the Vikings’ drop out of Super League via the Super 8s. 

“It was really disappointing to be a part of a team that got relegated, but we only had ourselves to blame. Only we went on to the pitch every week and performed how we did. It’s not nice to be a part of. Catalans gave me the opportunity to stay in Super League.”

Still only 23 and with partner Georgia expecting their first child, it was a bold move at the time to move his life over to France – but one Whitley is glad he made.

“Steve (McNamara, Catalans coach) came over to England, we had a meeting and he told me about the club, what he thought about me as a player and where he saw me,” he says. 

“It was just me and my partner at the time but she was pregnant, so we made the decision to go over for a new experience, a new challenge. It’s something we just jumped at, and five years later we were still there. 

“It was a good experience for us, something that might not come around again. It was an experience that I’m glad we did and I think we’re better for.”

Whitley certainly developed as a player in that time, and helped the Dragons achieve an unprecedented level of performance. They won the League Leaders’ Shield for the first time in 2021, and went on to reach their first Grand Final that year as well, against St Helens of all teams.

“Again I was surrounded by a lot of experienced players like Sam Tomkins, Mitchell Pearce, James Maloney, those players who have played hundreds of games at the highest level,” adds Whitley.

“It was good for me to be surrounded by them and learn from them a lot. I had great times. We reached two Grand Finals and we got the League Leaders’ one year. We were top four pretty much for the last four years. 

“It was a big change from being at Widnes and fighting down at the bottom of the table, to moving to Catalans and fighting for silverware and reaching those finals.”

Alas, Catalans lost 12-10 to Whitley’s boyhood club at Old Trafford, and two years later were beaten again, this time 10-2 by Wigan, in what turned out to be his final game for the Perpignan club.

Whitley says: “It would have been perfect but it was not meant to be. It’s something I’m still striving for. It’s something I want to do, I was to get my hands on silverware. It’s not something I’ll ever stop trying to get.”

Now that mission is being undertaken back where it all began, in St Helens. His return home was largely for personal reasons, with the family of two that left for France now twice the size – his first daughter Emilia was joined three years later by another baby girl, Elodie.

“I think we made the right decision in moving back to England,” Whitley says. “I still had one year left on my contract at Catalans and an option in my favour if I wanted to take that up, but ever since meeting with Mike Rush (CEO) and Wello (coach Paul Wellens) at Saints my decision was set that I wanted to come back. 

“I feel like I’ve settled in really well and it’s a credit to all the lads at Saints, they’ve helped me settle in.”

It’s been well documented that Whitley’s St Helens debut was a long time coming – at the age of 28, a full 12 years after last pulling on the red vee with their scholarship side.

Whitley scored two tries against London in their opening game of the Super League season, and two months on he already looks a part of the furniture at the club.

“There are a lot of areas to improve on in my game and there are things I’m working on in training but I’m fairly happy with the way I’ve been playing,” he says.

“I don’t think I’ve put in my best performance yet which is good, it’s something I can still strive to do and I will be doing in the coming weeks.”

Whitley has become one of the competition’s best backrowers but there remains plenty he has not achieved. Silverware is one, while an England cap is, perhaps surprisingly, another. He first played for the second-string Knights in 2018, on a post-season tour of Papua New Guinea, and did so again four years later against France B, that time as captain, but full honours have eluded him thus far.

“I won’t put too much pressure on myself,” he says of his next goals. “I just want to play the best I can. Whatever happens will happen. We’ll just see how it goes. I’m just fully focused on playing the best I can for St Helens and staying in the team.”

So far, so good on that front. For the team as a whole, a strong start of six wins from seven in all competitions was tempered by consecutive defeats to Catalans, on Whitley’s first return to Perpignan, and Warrington, who ended their Challenge Cup hopes at the quarter-final stage on their own turf.

“I feel we made a strong start. The loss against Salford (in round four) wasn’t ideal. We felt we could have performed better and still feel we could have got the win, even though we were down to twelve (after Mark Percival’s dismissal).

“Those two (Catalans and Warrington) weren’t good enough. Our standards have dropped and that’s something we’ll be fixing up and looking to improve on. If we want to play in those big games, it’s something we need to do.

“We’ve got really high standards. Every player strives to reach those standards. They want to win everything that they can. That’s the right mindset and attitude to have.

“We’re out of the Challenge Cup now which is disappointing, but it means we can fully focus on the league. We’ll take each week as it comes, keep building and getting better.”

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 496 (May 2024)

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