Justin Holbrook and Steve Price have been friends for nearly four decades but will put their friendship on hold for 80 minutes when their two clubs lock horns in Saturday's Challenge Cup final.
The St Helens and Warrington Wolves coaches both hail from the same part of south-western Sydney and were teammates in the Under-7s junior side of the Milperra Colts in the 1980s. The pair then attended the same high school in East Hills Boys together, before going on to both break into the NRL as playmakers in the 1990s and then serve as assistant coaches with Sydney clubs.
For the past 18 months the two Australians have been rivals in charge of top clubs in England’s Super League. Close away from rugby league, now that friendship gets put to the ultimate test at Wembley.
“I think our relationship goes back 36 years,” Price says. “I was five when I started playing and he was seven. He was scoring all the tries and I was on the sideline in the sandpit drawing up all the gameplans for him to execute. There’s really good mutual respect between both parties and both families, and that’s carried on for a long time.
“We went to the same high school in Easts Hills Boys. Who would have thought some 36, 37 years later we’d be coaching at Wembley on the other side of the world.”
Holbrook took over at Saints in mid-2017 and will return to Australia at the end of this season to take charge of the Gold Coast Titans. But first the 43-year-old wants to bring some silverware back to the Totally Wicked Stadium.
Holbrook admits it is somewhat surreal to be coaching in the Cup final against his old friend.
“We go back a long way and it’s great to be up against him on Saturday,” he says. “It’s weird to think we played our first-ever game of rugby league together in Under-7s and now we’re coaching against each other at Wembley. It’s great. It’s a proud moment for our upbringing. I like him, he’s a good fella."
Holbrook and Price only live 10 miles apart in northern England and their two families meet up for barbecues and games of football in the park regularly.
“We catch up, our families get on great,” Price explains. “My wife and Justin’s wife get on great and all of the kids are roughly the same age. My girls are active and so are his boys. They all run around and they’re just like all kids, they play.
“Even though we’re coaching opposite teams, there’s a lot of mutual respect there. I think it’s important it should be carried out like that. There’s got to be one loser and hopefully it’s Justin on Saturday.”
Warrington go into the final as clear underdogs, missing star stand-off Blake Austin and against a full-strength Saints. While the Wolves’ league form has been poor recently, and they have also lost Wembley finals in both 2016 and 2018, St Helens are top of Super League and are on a run of eight victories from their past nine matches.
Price insists all the pressure and expectation is on Holbrook and his players.
“There’s no pressure on us – none whatsoever,” he says.
“People have written us off already, which is fine by us. All the pressure’s on Saints, they’ve been the best team all season, like last season. We’re going to have to be really sound defensively. They’ve got a lot of speed across the park.
“They execute well, they don’t go away from the plan. We’re going to have to be at our best, and for all 17 to contribute to give our best performance on Saturday afternoon.”
Main image: Paul Currie/SWpix.com