Every National Rugby League side needs a Christian Welch. That hard-working, tough prop forward, prepared to do all the little things his side needs to win. Whether it’s kick pressure, inside pressure, the extra hit-up or the late offload, Christian Welch is always in the action.
He’s very much the archetypal Melbourne prop forward Craig Bellamy loves. While the Storm have, in recent years, looked to the impact-style forwards of Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Tui Kamikamica, Welch’s type of play has been a fixture at Melbourne for nearly two decades.
The likes of Jason Ryles, Michael Crocker, Ryan Hoffman, and recently Jesse Bromwich and Welch himself have all played that reliable role.
The Storm prop is now one of the premier forwards in the game, sorely missed when he’s unavailable and he’s done it all after overcoming two anterior cruciate ligament tears, suffered barely two years apart and impacting both knees.
The Rehab Room
“The second time (tear), you’re really facing a fair bit of reality. The first time I did it, I think I was 22, missed out on a grand final which turned out to be a premiership, but at the end of the day I was only a young fella with a long career (ahead of me). Then I think I did it when I was 26, my right and you kind of think that’s two ACLs now, if I do another one I could be in a bit of trouble here with my career. I think the second time was pretty tough because you’re really aware of the journey as well,” says Welch.
The average return to play time from an ACL tear is around nine months. The recovery process sees players having to spend weeks in the gym and on the physiotherapist’s table working to strengthen the leg that has been injured.
Due to the nature of the injury and the time spent without putting weight on the injured leg, the player’s muscles weaken and shrink (known as atrophy). For a successful return to sport, they need to strengthen the injured leg so it is as powerful and strong as the non-injured leg. And anecdotally, players can take up to a full year following their return to sport to reach their previous level of performance, not just physically but alos mentally.
It’s a process Welch knows all too well, although he didn’t allow it to get him down, instead reflecting on the benefits he has as an elite athlete.
“You’re not going in blind and you’re really aware of how long it takes but I think you’ve got to use a bit of perspective on the trouble and issue I’m facing, compared to what every other bloke in society is going through.
“I went down to see my surgeon who works out of Richmond and you see people in wheelchairs, with permanent disabilities and life threatening illness, cancer, and it gives you a real reality check on, “I’ve got a bung knee at the moment, but it’s going to get better. I’m lucky that I still get paid the same, I’ve got a full time health and conditioning staff who are going to rehab me. I don’t have to work on the tools eight hours a day.” So that certainly helped my mindset and obviously having interests outside of sport.”
Speaking of those outside interests, the Storm prop used his time off to both continue his studies and travel to Uganda in 2019 alongside Melbourne teammate Ryan Papenhuyzen, and now-retired Parramatta Eels forward Tim Mannah.
“I’ve finished my commerce degree, I’m doing my MBA, doing my masters. So that’s been nice to not have all my eggs in one basket. I think mentally it keeps you fresh and then a bit of travel as well and a bit of charity work keeps you grounded, gives you perspective on your issues.
“I was lucky to go to Uganda with Ryan Papenhuyzen and Tim Mannah, and see the work Tim’s foundation is doing over there and how cheerful and positive the people over there are when they’re in some really tough situations. Real poverty there. Just seeing how positive and resilient they are, it rubs off on you.”
Hockey to League
Welch’s journey to the NRL was not traditional in any sense of the word. There were no junior development contracts, no high school carnivals or junior Kangaroos appearances. And why would there be? He started his sporting career as a hockey player before briefly playing league then shifting into rugby union.
One of his earliest sporting goals was to wear the green and gold of the Wallabies instead of the Kangaroos.
“I played a lot of hockey growing up, as a kid and only played my first game of rugby league at 13 in Gladstone, central Queensland. Then moved to Brisbane in grade 9 and actually went to Villanova College which only played rugby union. So I basically played rugby union all throughout high school and had a real desire to try and make it professionally as a rugby union player but didn’t make it.”
Welch’s time in rugby union saw him develop aspirations of one day playing in the green and gold of the Wallabies. While he was playing the game in Queensland, the Queensland Reds Super Rugby side went through a purple patch, winning the Super Rugby Championship while having a host of internationals.
“I had a real desire and obviously I was in grade 12 in 2011 when the Queensland Reds won the Super Rugby Championship and I used to love going to Suncorp with all of my mates and cheering on the Reds.
“It was such an attractive team. Quade Cooper, Will Genia, Digby Ioane. The brand of football they played was ridiculous so I was a massive union man. That was my goal, to try and make it in union but just didn’t get far.”
It was while trialling for a Queensland schoolboy rugby union side that he was scouted by the Brisbane Broncos.
“I was playing for the second team of the AIC (Associated Independent Colleges) which is like the group of schools that compete in schoolboys. So I didn’t make the first team and then Paul Bunn who was actually working for the Broncos, who is now the Storm recruitment manager, was there doing some scouting came up and approached dad and I as we were walking out of Ballymore in Brisbane and asked if I’d thought of giving league a shot, come into the Brisbane Broncos for a bit of a training session.
“It wasn’t one of these elite squads or the scholarship kids, or anything. Just went in for a few sessions and then I went down and played at my local Easts Tigers rugby league club which happened to be the Storm feeder and then Paul Bunn moved to the Storm,” Welch recalls.
However Welch wasn’t the bruising middle forward you see today, carting the ball into opponents’ defensive lines. Instead, he was out in the backline trying to do what the likes of Matt Giteau and Stirling Mortlock had done before him.
“I actually used to be an inside centre and play a bit of fly half at high school and that’s what Paul Bunn kind of experimented a bit with. He saw some guys with a big body frame but not really built out and had reasonable leg speed he thought he could turn into middle forwards,” Welch remembers.
He wasn’t the only one Bunn was scouting from within the rugby union system. Current St George Illawarra Dragons forward Josh Kerr was also lured across to rugby league.
“Josh Kerr was one of the others, he’s a former winger who came down into the Storm system. Similar approach from “Bunny”, trying to turn him into a middle forward. So we share a bit of a unique thing, me and him are both former outside backs who have been turned into front rowers even if he is a back rower now.”
In 2013, the fresh Melbourne recruit headed down from his home in Queensland to rugby league’s isolated, Victorian outpost where careers either come to be reignited or, like Welch, born.
The Storm system has become synonymous with hard work, determination, attention to detail, pain and a concentration on developing talent rather than buying it.
Welch was another one of those blank canvases Melbourne looks for. A hard working player still raw enough to fashion into the rugby league machine that is the Storm.
“I went into the Under 20s program which was amazing for me. I was playing in the centres so I had so much physical development to do to be able to play through the middle. So going down as a part timer, but it’s a full time load, it was really tough.
“I still say that first pre-season was tougher than any NRL pre-season I’ve had. We had a guy called Adrian Jimenez, his nickname is “Cholo”, and if you could get to first grade from 20s at the Storm when he was in charge, you knew you were tough enough to make it.”
During the days of the Under 20s or the National Youth Competition as it was officially known, players were asked to both train and either work or study during the day. For Welch that meant 5 a.m. wakeups in the cold Victorian air in the middle of winter, heading to training, then to work, then more training.
For a Queensland boy accustomed to mild winters, the change was tough but worth it.
“That was pretty tough when you’re waking up at five to do gym, then go off and work, then come back and train at night. Particularly in winter when it’s bloody cold. So it was a really good grounding, those two years coming in and then moving into the first grade side. “
Helping to uphold Melbourne’s standards and bring through the next generation were three players by the names of Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk.
By 2013 they had won a premiership, multiple State of Origin titles, had represented Australia and were gearing up to win the 2013 Rugby League World Cup later that year.
As Welch remembers, having those three players was a key factor in the development of not just himself but also many of the other young players who came through the Storm system.
“Coming into the first grade squad, to see how hard these guys have worked to have golden boots, Origins, premierships, Kangaroos reps, and yet they’re still the last player out there trying to improve their game 200-300 games into their careers.
“It really sets a good trend I think for the club and the culture of always trying to improve and I think it’s a big thing at the Storm, if your best players are also the hardest working players in terms of trying to keep developing, it sets a really good focus. I certainly know when I came in I saw how hard they were working after sessions and before sessions; “I’m just some rookie who is 20 years old, who hasn’t played a single game, I need to work twice as hard as that.””
Hard Work and Luck
As any NRL player will tell you. Hard work only gets you so far. Sometimes to make it at the top level, a little luck needs to fall your way.
Maybe it’s avoiding serious injuries at the start of your career, or perhaps it’s hitting form just as the player being selected ahead of you hits a form slump.
Or sometimes, as was the case for Christian Welch, the many players ahead of you are hit by injuries and suspension all at once.
“I did two years in the Storm Thunderbolt system then I had a bit of a taste of Queensland Cup, played a couple NRL trial games for pre-season and was lucky to be offered a three year deal. My debut was actually pretty crazy and I say to any young kid, you never know how far away you are, you need a little bit of luck in your career as well.
“It was one of those stand-alone rep rounds and Nelson (Asofa-Solomona) got suspended, Felise (Kaufusi) got suspended, then on the Monday Jordan McLean hurt his hamstring, so three front rowers that were ahead of me, they got knocked out of selection. Then on the captain’s run Tom Learoyd-Lahrs had a bit of a niggling knee injury and he failed a fitness test the day before the game.”
Welch’s debut was the product of his hard work alongside a bit of luck and the very thorough player development system put in place by the Storm.
If you’re wondering why Melbourne can churn out what seem to be first grade-ready juniors on such a consistent basis, the secret appears to be in their recruitment. While plenty of clubs have strong junior programs, the Storm are in the curious position of having to source the majority of their talent from interstate.
While the club did recruit big name stars early on, it has survived mostly on a diet of junior players scouted from Queensland, brought into the system and then sent back to Queensland Cup before being handed their debut.
The odd established player has been brought in like Michael Crocker, Brett Finch and Blake Green to fill a role, but often the Storm is looking to promote heavily from within.
It’s something Welch says gives the Storm an advantage as the coaching staff aren’t working with players who have already developed bad habits. Instead, they’re given a plain block of marble to carve their masterpiece out of.
“Generally speaking they’ll get a young kid who is almost a clean slate, who knows a bit about footy, but doesn’t know a whole lot and it’s almost as though they’ve got two, three, four pre-seasons of continually trying to upskill and develop physically and skillfully on the footy field before they might get an opportunity. Whereas if you bring in a 25 or 26 year old who already has habits, already plays footy in a certain style, I think it’s hard to change that,” explains Welch.
Perhaps no player is a better example of this than young hooker Harry Grant. He spent five years training with the NRL squad in the pre-season plus a season on loan with the Wests Tigers in 2020 before getting his shot with the Storm.
Melbourne were patient with his development, and Grant bided his time behind Cameron and Brandon Smith. Not only did the Storm get an NRL-ready hooker, they got an Origin winning hooker immediately after their Origin-dominating number nine retired.
A Winning Culture
You could have excused the Storm if they took a few weeks off after their premiership triumph last year to celebrate. They had, after all, just completed the longest season on record due to the COVID lockdown.
But Welch says no stone has been left unturned in pursuit of going back-to-back. Something the Storm has never managed to do despite their nearly two decades of excellence.
As the 2021 season continues to tick by, Melbourne is once again the benchmark and a meeting only three days after the grand final triumph probably has something to do with it.
“We celebrated the win but there was also, I think three days after, we were sitting down in a room looking at areas we can improve for the following year. So I just think there’s a constant focus on being the best player you can be at the Storm.”
A key driver in Melbourne’s success is their ability to perform without their Origin stars. Even without the now retired big three, the Storm contributed six players to the series. Had injury not intervened with Ryan Papenhuyzen it would have been seven, while replacement fullback Nicho Hynes spent time in the NSW squad in the lead up to game three.
Despite contributing so heavily to the representative arena this year, the Storm didn’t lose a game and head coach Craig Bellamy rarely discusses the impact Origin has on his squad. As Welch says, the coach likes his players in Origin camp.
“Some people look at Origin as a negative, I certainly know Craig wants his Storm players playing Origin, going away mixing with the best, different coaches. Craig is all about mixing with the best players, picking up some trends and maybe some new stuff that might come back and help our team.”
Not only are the camps and matches a chance for the players to work on their skills in an even more elite environment, it gives opportunities to the fringe players just outside the top 17 a chance to show their worth.
After all, it was a rep period that gave Welch his first shot, and this season, it gave opportunities to the likes of Dean Ieremia, Chris Lewis, Trent Loiero and Tyson Smoothy. In a regular season, the players outside the matchday 19 often fly out to play in Queensland Cup, a situation no other club’s squad players regularly have to face.
“I think it’s a really good reward for the guys in our top 30 squad who get an opportunity to come in and play because they work so hard and it’s a pretty tough grind for our reserve grade players who have to fly into Queensland every week.
“It’s a good chance for them to come in and get a taste of it and maintain their hunger and I suppose feeling a part of the NRL side’s push towards the end of the year.”
Do Your Job
If there’s another team in another sport that you could look at as a brother club of the Storm, it would be the Bill Belichick coached New England Patriots of the NFL. They have been a dominant force in the game for most of the 21st century and operate in a similar way to the Storm when it comes to identifying and developing talent.
A key theme of the Patriots’ Super Bowl win in 2018 was “Do Your Job”. From the backroom staff, to the coaches, to the players, every single person in the organisation did their job to the best of their ability and it’s something the Storm also seems to embrace.
While experts and commentators look up running metres and post contact metres, Welch says the real focus for Melbourne’s middle forwards are their effort areas and pressure acts. They’re harder to measure, and harder to pick up on watching at home, but he says they are more crucial to a win than just simply carting the ball forward.
“We’re just obsessed with running metres these days and I don’t know if it’s lazy from broadcasters, just looking at a guy, “oh he’s had 180 metres, he must be playing well”. To a degree that’s important but there’s so much more to the role in the middle. Like pressure acts, pressuring halves and spine players who are running shape on the edges to give our defensive edges more time to get a read or pressuring a kicker, or being really active in defence.
“The effort plays off the ball I think, it’s probably harder to read and evaluate, but I think that’s the real crunch time. It’s a really good system to be in because there’s no real egos. No one’s pushing each other out of the road just to get their stats up in Melbourne because we all, I think, have a fair understanding of what contributes to a win.”
It’s something former coach Roy Masters picked up on during the 2020 State of Origin series, highlighting Welch’s inside pressure on New South Wales halfback Nathan Cleary.
“I’ve cut Roy in on my next contract after that article. It’s nice he’s noticing that stuff and putting it out there,” laughs Welch.
Life After Footy
Like all good things, a sporting career must come to its inevitable end. The average NRL career is 43 games or just under two full seasons. With more than 100 NRL games to his name, Welch has played nearly the equivalent of three average careers.
It’s a sobering statistic for many players, and in the cutthroat world of modern sport, they can quickly find themselves left on the scrap heap through injury or unfortunate circumstances.
The Storm prop has always had one eye on life after professional sport while simultaneously dispelling the myth about middle forwards and their lack of intelligence.
Welch holds a commerce degree and is currently completing his MBA.
“I always had a focus on what I wanted to do in life because NRL was never a reality. It’s something I’m really passionate about. I really want to use it post footy. The NRL is getting a lot better but players need to understand that if you get to 30 that’s a great career and if you earn decent money you can set yourself up, but you’re still going to need to work.
“The money isn’t like the NFL or the NBA. It is a very good salary to be living on, but you need to work and I think it’s important to have that focus.”