When they were taking their first steps in rugby league as junior team-mates in south-west Sydney, Justin Holbrook and Steve Price could barely have imagined they would one day be facing each other as rival coaches in a Wembley final.
That is exactly what will be the case this Saturday, though, with St Helens boss Holbrook and Warrington Wolves chief Price both bidding to get their hands on the Challenge Cup.
From helping Milperra U7’s win a local competition back home, to their current sides squaring off against each other for one of the sport’s most iconic prizes on the other side of the world, it has been quite a journey for both.
“It’s terrific,” Holbrook said. “It’s great that we’ve grown up together and now we’re coaching against each other on Saturday.”
That sentiment is shared by Price, who finds it hard to believe the pair have been brought together again in these circumstances.
“Thirty-seven years ago, playing in an U7’s Grand Final, to coaching against each other now at Wembley is quite bizarre,” Price said. “Who would have ever thought that would happen?”
Their rugby careers may have diverged following those formative years in Sydney, but Holbrook and Price have followed similar paths through playing in Australia to coaching in Super League.
The pair, who both played as half-backs, were good enough to earn contracts with NRL sides, although it was Price who took up coaching first after three ACL reconstructions forced him to retire from playing in his early 20s.
Ironically, though, it was two people with St Helens associations – ex-forward Barry Ward and former head coach Nathan Brown – who helped the former St George Dragons and Balmain Tigers player with the transition.
“I always felt I wanted to give back to my junior club and I went back into the Canterbury district to Milperra Colts,” Price said. “Barry Ward got me involved in coaching, who I’m very grateful for.
“Then 12 months later Nathan Brown was coaching St George in the U20 competition and invited me to coach, and I spent 14 fantastic years at St George and worked myself up through the grades.
“I’ve had special coaches throughout my career and I owe them a lot. I certainly wouldn’t be here without the knowledge they’ve passed on, and also my mum and dad who shaped me to the person I am today.”
Holbrook enjoyed a longer playing career, featuring for Newcastle Knights, Penrith Panthers and Sydney Roosters at the highest level of Australian rugby league.
It was towards the end of his playing days he discovered the joy of coaching, though, combining the two before starting out on a journey which eventually took him to the head coach role at St Helens.
“Later in my career I started as a captain-coach at a semi-professional level and really enjoyed that,” Holbrook said.
“I really enjoyed dealing with all of the other players and trying to get the best out of them rather than just worrying about myself.
“That was the start for me, then when I retired I went into just coaching and really enjoyed everything about it. I’ve been lucky enough to be enjoying it in charge of St Helens as well.”
Half the world away
Holbrook was the first of the two to arrive on these shores, leaving his post as Trent Robinson’s assistant with the Roosters to take over following the departure of Saints icon Keiron Cunningham midway through the 2017 season.
Taking over a side which had won just three of their first eight games, Holbrook guided the squad to a sixth-place finish at the end of the regular season and fourth in the Super Eights before being edged out 23-22 by Castleford Tigers in the play-off semi-finals.
“It’s obviously never ideal if you’re coming in mid-year over pre-season, but I just got on with it,” Holbrook said.
“I loved it straight away, being back in charge and being head coach. The players were great with their response and as were the rest of the staff, so that made it really easy.
“There were lots of little things rather than anything major – it was getting the players to buy into those changes, which they did, and full credit to the playing group. They’re the reason we’re in the position we are.”
Price had more of an opportunity to bed himself in at Warrington, being announced as compatriot Tony Smith’s successor in October of the same year and getting to spend a whole pre-season with his new charges shaping the team.
But even then the move did not come without its challenges, both on a professional and personal level.
“It’s totally different,” Price said. “You don’t have a lot of a network and support around, and another one who deserves credit is my wife and my three beautiful girls.
“We uplifted everything from Australia to chase our dreams and we’ve got a perfect opportunity on Saturday to do that.”
Their first full seasons in charge in Super League yielded impressive results for both Holbrook’s and Price’s sides as St Helens claimed the League Leaders’ Shield, and Warrington reached both the Challenge Cup final and Super League Grand Final.
However, this country’s major rugby league honours eluded both. Saints suffered semi-final defeats in both competitions – Price’s Wolves getting the better of his old friends’ side in the Super League play-offs – while Catalans Dragons and Wigan Warriors proved too strong for Warrington at Wembley and Old Trafford respectively.
Now they meet as the last two teams standing with the Challenge Cup on the line and even though Saints have beaten the Wolves in all three of their Super League meetings in 2019, Holbrook is not expecting that to have any bearing on this Saturday’s encounter.
0:40 St Helens head coach Justin Holbrook was given a hostile reception from the Wigan fans and Warrington's Steve Price at the DW Stadium on Friday
“We’ve played well against them a few times this year, but we know that won’t affect them,” Holbrook said.
“They’re a confident side and they’ll be confident on Saturday, so it’s up to us to make sure we play well again.”
Price is happy for Warrington to be considered underdogs by most pundits and expects his team to rise to the occasion when the hooter sounds to signal the start of the final at 3pm.
He is planning on being the one who buys the drinks when he and Holbrook reconvene after the match as well.