This article wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. It wasn’t supposed to be looking at the output of one of the game’s best props and that be his only contribution for the 2022 season.
Christian Welch’s round one performance very quickly faded into the background when, in the 78th minute, he retreated the usual 10 metres, went to push off and slipped over before looking behind him.
It was a telltale sign of a serious injury. No one near him, collapsing to the turf and unable to regain his feet. Welch’s season was done courtesy of a ruptured Achilles tendon.
Many things didn’t follow the script in round one this season.
Upsets seemed more regular than in the past two years, injuries brutally ravaged some teams. Melbourne particularly with George Jennings joining Welch on the bench for the season with a ruptured ACL while Brandon Smith broke his hand in the second minute of play.
Even this correspondent, who was supposed to be perched high in the media box at CommBank Stadium, was left watching this match from his lounge with a notepad and pen after testing positive for COVID.
This article was actually borne out of a somewhat throw away line Welch had told RLM last year.
“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.”
So what does a middle forward do in the modern game?
At the completion of round one, according to Fox Sports Lab, Welch had made 104 metres from 13 runs with 26 post contact metres and also completed 27 tackles.
There is some discrepancy in the number of tackles with the NRL listing him as making 32 tackles. Different stats outfits classify tackles differently. Some count every tackle a player is involved in, while others will only count them when a player is first or second into contact, not as a third man in adding his weight to a tackle already on the ground.
He also managed two offloads and one general play pass. Those are the basics though and don’t paint the full picture.
The 61 minutes of game time were almost certainly not planned for at the start of the match. Welch’s average minutes in 2021 were 49, still the best of Melbourne’s props but well below what he churned out on Saturday night.
An early injury to Brandon Smith forced the introduction of back up hooker Tyran Wishart while George Jennings’ injury forced a backline reshuffle that saw backrower Felise Kaufusi move into the centres and bench backrower Trent Loiero spending more time on the pitch than anticipated.
Due to the forced changes and use of interchange, Welch played the first 48 minutes straight, only getting a rest at half time.
His minutes were definitely at the high end for regular props. Only Payne Haas averaged 60 minutes or more from prop last season.
Welch is known as Melbourne’s pressure man. He’s the forward that tracks a ball player across field and forces them to pass or kick early.
Roy Masters highlighted his impact on Nathan Cleary back in 2020 and, surprise, surprise, when Welch was ruled out early in Melbourne’s preliminary final against Penrith in 2021, Cleary was free to do as he pleased.
Against the Tigers, Melbourne were sloppy early. The joint venture got first use of the ball and Welch was busy from the outset making two tackles in the first set.
He didn’t exactly get Melbourne’s first possession rolling smoothly though, with his initially strong run being undone by a forced offload that resulted in a knock-on and early field position for the Tigers.
In Wests’ next attacking set Welch again made two tackles. At this stage he was ahead of the clock when it came to tackles per minute.
In the Tigers’ third set he showed his workrate. He makes a tackle early on before coming across in cover defence to shut down David Nofoaluma later in the set.
Then, in the fifth minute, he shows a little bit more of what he adds to the Melbourne pack.
He’s in at first receiver, taking the ball to the line before playing out to Jahrome Hughes who uses Reimis Smith to exploit plenty of room on Melbourne’s right edge and pick up a fairly easy 30 metres.
It’s a simple play but one that often flies under the radar and doesn’t happen without effective ball distribution through the middle by Welch.
Nothing ends up coming of Melbourne’s field position and he continues to get through the work throughout the Storm’s sloppy early start.
By the sixth minute the Tigers have scored their first try.
In the first 10 minutes Welch has made eight tackles while Melbourne has only seen 29 percent of possession.
In the 11th minute the Storm have got good field position following a penalty, but their set has stalled on the second tackle after a poor pass from dummy-half hits the dirt and Ryan Papenhuyzen surrenders in the tackle.
Melbourne look to try and get back on the front foot with Kenny Bromwich taking the ball right to the line before hitting Welch who runs at the gap between two defenders, earning a quick play the ball.
The Storm’s first try actually results from that run.
Welch’s quick play the ball compresses the Tigers’ defence, leading to Jahrome Hughes being able to take the line on and earn himself a quick play the ball.
The defenders stack the open side, leaving a two man short side against Melbourne’s four attackers.
Slick ball movement sees an easy try in the corner for George Jennings.
No time to rest for the number 10 though, as he has the first hit up off the kick off. The following set and Joe Ofahengaue gets a taste of the famous Welch inside pressure as he skips towards the line and looks to ball play, the Melbourne prop closes his time down and hammers him as he passes the ball.
In the 16th minute Welch is the second man down the field to tackle Nofoaluma following a Tyran Wishart kick.
He’s then backing up to make the third tackle in the set on Oliver Gildart before he’s pressuring Ofahengaue again, this time on tackle five.
On the last he’s shooting from A defender to close down Luke Brooks to push him into a less accurate, more rushed kick. It’s the type of act often missed but a big part of his job, even if he didn’t quite get to Brooks and put him under a pile of pressure this time.
Melbourne then spend the next couple of minutes defending their line after a penalty against Reimis Smith.
In their exit set Welch is asked to take a tough run on tackle four but you can tell he and most of Melbourne’s middles are tiring.
By the 23rd minute Welch looks gassed, hands on hips and hardly able to jog back onside. He’s gifted a rest and easy metres following a relieving penalty.
He’s still out there though and in amongst it, making two more tackles and pressuring Brooks after Nick Meaney fails to convert a shot at penalty goal.
Despite looking more and more tired as the match winds on he’s getting through his work, tackles every set and still looking to take hit ups.
After the Tigers’ second try Welch is down there, leading the kick chase from the kick off.
By the 37th minute Welch’s legs look like they’re full of cement as he struggles to get back behind the ball. He essentially takes a set off, lurking around behind the play the ball, seemingly trying to recover knowing he’ll be back defending shortly.
And he’s not wrong. An unlucky bounce from a Hughes kick hands the Tigers a seven tackle set and they get up field pretty comfortably with Welch having to make a pair of tackles in the ensuing set before getting up to pressure Jackson Hastings on last tackle.
The Storm see out the half, heading into the sheds down 10-4.
Welch’s stat line reads 40 minutes, 26 tackles (one in cover), five sets making two tackles or more, six runs, 55 metres, 18 post contact metres, one general play pass, one error, 4 pressures (pressures relate to instances when a defender tackles a ball player or kicker as they reach the defensive line while still either passing or kicking the ball).
My stat line reads 2 beers, three COVID-induced coughs and one yell of “nerd” from my wife for taking notes during a football match.
Welch is back out there from the kick off. He racks up the work after freshening up at half time.
He takes a hit up in the first set, he’s pressuring Luke Brooks and then the Tigers score through Ken Maumalo to take a 14-4 lead.
Off the kick off Welch is down there on the chase, making the tackle, he makes a second in the set.
In the 46th minute he’s in the thick of it. Melbourne get good field position and Welch takes a run, attracts two into the tackle before popping a dangerous offload to Wishart who almost slices through. The offload is made by his footwork with a little right foot step allowing him to get his shoulders between defenders and free his hands.
The Storm can’t capitalise on the field position after Justin Olam fails to ground a grubber and the Tigers are back up field.
Melbourne weather the attacking set and by now 48 minutes are gone. Christian Welch is off for a very deserved rest.
While he’s off his Storm teammates click into gear, bagging two tries to level the match at 16-all.
As many coaches will tell you, when they’re looking to close out a tight match, they turn to their best players and Bellamy calls on Welch to return to the fray with 15 minutes left on the clock.
His first involvement is a hit up. The next set he’s busy making another tackle and applying kick pressure on Daine Laurie whose kick is easily fielded by Reimis Smith.
A tackle later and the Storm have sliced apart the Tigers defence with Ryan Papenhuyzen being brought down 10 metres from the line.
From there quick hands see Xavier Coates score in the corner to hand Melbourne the lead for the first time in the game.
While the commentary is focused on the brilliant work from Jahrome Hughes, it was Welch’s kick pressure that gave the Storm good field position to exploit.
In Melbourne’s set following the kick-off, the Storm prop shows why Bellamy trusted him to get the job done.
He takes hit ups on tackle two and five, ensuring Melbourne complete their set and get to the kick.
Welch remains busy through the middle even as the Tigers get more and more desperate.
The Storm are handed good field position with seven minutes to go and Welch is there again to take a run early in the set and get Melbourne rolling forward.
By the end of that set, Melbourne have crossed again, this time through Reimis Smith to effectively seal the game with six minutes remaining.
The Tigers attempt a short kick off which is easily collected by the Storm and Welch takes his final hit up of the night.
With just on three minutes remaining and the Storm defending their line, Welch slips over, suffering what is eventually revealed to be a torn achilles tendon in his right leg.
The Storm wrap the game up 26-16 but Welch and teammate George Jennings are left in the casualty ward with season ending injuries.
Welch’s performance in round one is just about what you’d come to expect from him, even with an extra 12 minutes of game time.
Melbourne played a very conservative game plan against the Tigers, due in part to the early injury to Brandon Smith and the absence of Harry Grant.
Welch only threw the one general play pass as opposed to the average of five per game he threw in 2021.
As usual though, his real impact isn’t measured by stats. While you can measure his metres per run, you’re not able to see how his running at a gap between two defenders earns a fast play the ball which Jahrome Hughes can exploit.
Nor can the stats sheet tell you that his kick pressure on Daine Laurie late in the match allowed Melbourne to start a set virtually on halfway and two plays later they had scored the go ahead try. He actually finishes the match with six instances of pressuring a ball player or general play kicker.
On two of those ensuing sets the Storm either score or gain attacking field position.
The stats sheet also won’t include the fact that in eight separate sets Welch was asked to make multiple tackles.
They’re all the type of acts Welch has built his career on but won’t be on highlight reels or circled as key moments in post match analysis.
It’s just a pity those were his only 61 minutes for the season.
History beckons for the Parramatta Eels as they head into a preliminary final against the heavily favoured North Queensland Cowboys.
Recalling a legendary player or former coach is often tempting for a club trying to recapture former glory. But rarely does it work, and often it tarnishes the coach’s legacy.
Harry Grant has filled the Melbourne Storm boots of Cameron Smith and seems to be taking the hooking position to the next level.