Joe Bullock's rise from League 1 to the brink of a Grand Final

When Joe Bullock lifted the League Leaders’ Shield, he could have been forgiven for reflecting on his remarkable progress – having hoisted the League 1 trophy three years earlier.
Joe Bullock models the 2021 away shirtJoe Bullock models the 2021 away shirt
Joe Bullock models the 2021 away shirt

The prop was part of the Barrow side which won promotion to the Championship in 2017.

After a season playing part-time in the second-tier, he was recruited by Wigan – the club which released him as a young winger – and it didn’t take him long to make an impact in Super League.

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His metre-eating charges were instantly appreciated by supporters and he has kicked on this season, cementing a place in the team ahead of tonight’s semi-final against Hull FC at the DW Stadium.

The 27-year-old, who hails from Blackpool, said: “I’ve been happy with how it’s going, getting a place in the side each week and trying to do my bit for the team.

“Getting the league leaders was a nice accolade, one of the reasons you come here is to win trophies and win big games and that’s one small box ticked off.

“But nobody is getting carried away, the important one is the Grand Final and this was a stepping stone to kicking on to that.”

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Bullock is just 80 minutes away from a Super League Grand Final, having followed the path of Alex Walmsley and Chris Hill, two props who also climbed from the Championship into Super League.

And Warriors assistant coach Matty Peet reckons he could emulate those two props and crack into the England side.

Peet, who returned to Wigan early last year after a spell at Sale Sharks, said: “It was clear to me0 the way he carries the ball was right up there with any front-rower in Super League.

“But the major area of development was his defence and I’ve probably spent more time with him, one to one, than anyone else.

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“He always comes to see me after every video review, he’s always doing the little extras.

“The success he has been getting is a testament to his own desire to improve and if he continues he can go on to be one of the best front-rowers in Super League.”

Peet first coached Bullock when he was a member of his St Pats under-18s – as a winger.

He played in Wigan’s second string on the edges before moving to Leigh, where he morphed into a part-time loose forward and then a fully-fledged member of the front-row club.

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So, having played at the coalface and on the edge, which is the tougher position to play?

“Definitely in the middle,” he smiled. “Wingers have the pressure of finishing, catching bombs and trying to stop a fast guy running at you.

“But in the middle it’s a slog from the start, it isn’t fun – the fun comes when you score and the reward of doing your job, but the arm-wrestle itself, it’s a non-stop slog from start to finish.”

Bullock admits he was surprised to break into the Wigan side so quickly last season, having stepped up into a full-time environment.

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“But I was lucky at Barrow, I was full-time with the club, doing some coaching and teaching during the day so it wasn’t as if I went from doing a 40-hour week full-time job into a full-time environment,” he said.

“It was still a step up, but it was more the little things that just take some getting used to, being more accountable, making sure you’re the best you can be because if you’re not you’re soon found out here.

“Last year, I was learning a lot on the job. When Matty Peet when he came in, especially, he helped me with the intricate bits and we’re always working hard to try and have the complete performance. There are a handful of players who have that much talent they don’t have to work hard for it – and unfortunately I’m not one of those – so it’s down to working hard.”

Bullock has faced stronger competition for a place in the side following the signing of Brad Singleton and the return to fitness of George Burgess, Tony Clubb and Ben Flower, as well as the strong form of a clutch of younger forwards.

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“I think the competition has helped us push on as a group,” he said. “The other days we were doing some drills and I looked around and there was an abundance of middles.

“It’s good, because nobody has a spot nailed on. If they think there is someone who gives us a better chance of winning, you’re going to miss out.

“But we’ve got the right blend, there are some young players and we’ve got the experienced blokes as well.”

Their good form propelled them to top spot in the table and a free pass into this week’s semi-finals.

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And now, after a long, interrupted, twisty campaign, their campaign comes down to this.

Beat Hull tonight, and they secure a Grand Final spot. Lose, and their season is over.

“Even though we had a long break in the first lockdown, it’s felt like a really long year,” said Bullock. “We started pre-season on November 4 and so to go more than a year is mad.

“When we got back, everyone was just glad to be back playing and doing the job they love – now we just want to finish it off on a high.

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“It’s been a terrible 2020 for so many people and we want some success, something to put some smiles on faces and something positive to remember the year by.

“People outside the game say you can almost write off this season like nobody will remember it, but I think the other way – I think everyone will remember this year.

“There are no crowds and no atmosphere but this pandemic is not going to be forgotten – and if we can be remembered as the team that did the business in that year, it’d be great. We’ve also got players retiring or moving on and so it’s the last chance for this group to do something special.”

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