St Helens are well renowned as a club that produces top class youngsters. From James Roby and Jonny Lomax to Tommy Makinson and Mark Percival, their squad is littered with international stars who began their careers at the club.
Now, a new crop of talent is emerging. Jack Welsby rose to stardom after his heroics in the dying seconds during last season’s Grand Final. He is now a proven member of a Saints set up that has an embarrassment of riches throughout their squad.
And Welsby isn’t alone. Fellow academy product Lewis Dodd has in recent weeks established himself as another first team mainstay. After injury ruled Theo Fages out for the remainder of the year, Head Coach Kristian Woolf put his faith in Dodd.
That faith has been duly rewarded by Dodd. The Young half has produced two Man of the Match performances in the last three rounds – which included a huge win against rivals Wigan Warriors.
Dodd – who has featured in a Saints Wigan derby prior to last week’s match - admitted that this time, it felt different.
“It was my first derby at the DW with the proper week of it being Wigan away. It was an incredible week. When you play Wigan, the intensity of the week in training goes up and the intensity in the game goes up.
“It’s the game I used to sit down as a kid and couldn’t wait to watch. It definitely didn’t disappoint on Friday.”
Capping off a memorable week, Dodd crossed for a try that evening – an audacious solo effort from the half back saw him strip the ball one-on-one close to the Warriors line, crossing for a crucial score.
Dodd, however, was quick to turn the attention to his teammates - recognising the efforts from the players around him to make his try possible.
He explained: “If you look at what happened, it was a well-run team play. Big Al (Alex Walmsley) was able to get an offload and Regan (Grace) followed with a good catch and kick. It was the players around me - I couldn’t ask for a better team to come in to.
“It’s a very very special team. You don’t realise how special it is until you are in that environment and playing with them week in week out. I’m very lucky to be in this team.”
Dodd was first introduced to the Saints first team as a 16-year-old, whilst still attending secondary school. Getting the chance to train alongside players he idolised from afar cemented his desire to pursue a career in Rugby League.
“I was lucky enough when I was 16 to do a couple of training sessions with the first team. Ever since then, it was in my mind that I wanted to do this as a job and be a Super League player.
“It was one of those surreal feelings. I was 16 at the time and watching Saints on the telly in the weeks before and then I got to do a couple of sessions with them. It was incredible.
“I was still in school at the time. It was a bit of a weird feeling watching these players on TV and then training with them and asking them for a pass. I’d train with the first team on the weekend and be back in school on the Monday. It was a good time.”
Fast forward to 2021 and Dodd is now learning his craft alongside some of his heroes. The youngster is in an enviable position at the Saints – part of a squad dubbed by some as one of the best in the modern era – and with a trophy cabinet to match.
Dodd is taking full advantage of his opportunity to develop his game in such an elite environment. He has been nurtured by international superstars who have taken him under their wing, keen to help the next generation flourish.
“Training with the likes of Jonny (Lomax), Theo (Fages), Cootie (Lachlan Coote) and Robes (James Roby) every day is massive for a young lad when you’re coming through. Everything that I’m going through now they’ve already been through it. They know what works, what doesn’t work, what advice to give you – it’s been massive.
“I can’t thank them enough for how they’ve been with me for the last couple of years. They’re good players but they’re also good blokes as well.”
That support network from inside the St Helens camp is reflected in Dodd’s personal life. Coming through the Saints system, Dodd was widely revered as a hot prospect and a star of the future - something that could have easily unsettled him.
However, with the grounding of his family and friends, Dodd has shrugged off that external noise and refuses to let it influence his development in the sport.
On the outside pressures that have followed him as a young player, Dodd admitted: “I’ve always acknowledged that it’s been there and that maybe there has been a bit more pressure on me than other lads around my age, but I’m lucky enough that I’ve got a very good support network around me with my family and friends.
“They keep me very grounded so no matter what the expectations were, there was never any of that in my family or friendship group. If I was doing good at the time, they would never let me get too high or if I wasn’t going through the best of times, they wouldn’t let me get too low. I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by good people.”
Seemingly wise beyond his years, that outlook has set Dodd up well. Since making his Betfred Super League debut last year, Dodd has slowly been exposed to first team rugby, typically through short stints from the bench.
Like most young players, Dodd just wants to play. But Head Coach Woolf acted cautiously – something the young half back acknowledges as a vital part of his own development.
“At the time, I wasn’t playing full games and only playing a maximum of 30 minutes. It’s just who I am – and I’m sure other players would be the same – I wanted to play. But when you’re a young lad – especially in a team like Saints – you’ve just got to take whatever opportunities you can get.
“It has helped me a lot. That little bit of exposure and just playing a part in those games.
“When I was younger, I always had the confidence that I could play but before I actually did it, you always have a doubt. Am I good enough at this level? Will I stick out? So those bits of game time I’ve had up until now have been massive.”
Dodd’s versatility early on in his first team career has paid dividends. He’s slotted seamlessly into the Saints first team and produced a couple of eye-catching performances during his limited time on the pitch.
His determination to excel has allowed Dodd to quickly settle into life in the first team and find his rhythm alongside his halves partner, Jonny Lomax.
Dodd explained: “Jonny has been massive for me. There’s times when he lets me organise and be the half back, but there’s also times when he knows he has to step in and be the leader of the team. He’s been massive for me on and off the field. It’s been amazing up to now.
“I’m quite lucky that I’ve got the people around me who just give me confidence to go and play my game. They give me a lot of freedom to express myself which is massive for me.
“I knew I was getting the chance to play a string of games and I said to Woolfy that that’s when I feel like I’m at my best, when I can play, learn and improve – and luckily enough I’ve been able to do that.”
Like many young players, Dodd has an innate desire to win. But, unlike others, he has witnessed success at this level.
Dodd watched his teammates win back-to-back Grand Finals last year, before seeing them clinch that elusive Challenge Cup Final win in July.
Saints now sit second in Super League with all eyes on achieving Grand Final glory for a third consecutive year – something Dodd is desperate to be a part of.
“When you get a bit of a taste of it, doing the week of the Grand Final last year and the week for Wembley – it makes you want to do it so much more.
“You see what the players go through on the field, and you want to be out there and helping them, doing the tough stuff for the people around you.
“My goal and the rest of the team’s goal is to be at Old Trafford at the end of the year - one hundred percent.”
Whatever the outcome in 2021, Dodd has proved that he belongs at this level. The sky's the limit for the St Helens youngster who will undoubtedly be a mainstay in the side for years to come.
Lewis Dodd was speaking exclusively to superleague.co.uk.