Few know James Saltonstall, Joe Philbin and Tom Walker better than the man who has spent the past five years nurturing them in the youth ranks at Warrington.
Ben Lazenby is the Wolves’ head of youth, junior recruitment and development and played a key role in overseeing their moves to Bradford on four-week loan deals.
Utility back Saltonstall and second-rower Philbin are set to feature in Sunday’s opening pre-season friendly at home to Hull FC, although prop Walker is carrying a knock and will miss out.
“This is my sixth year at Warrington and I’ve worked with all three lads since they came into the system there,” said 32-year-old Lazenby, who hails from Keighley and was promoted into his current role when John Bastian moved to Featherstone Rovers as head coach.
“Philbin came on board as a 14-year-old, while Saltonstall and Tom Walker were 15, so I’ve known them for a long time.
“A big part of our philosophy at Warrington is that you’ve got to be good people as well as good rugby league players.
“We focus on values such as honesty, trust and responsibility, which all three lads have demonstrated. James, Joe and Tom are good role models for other young people in the game.”
Saltonstall toured Australia with the England Academy squad in 2012 and has since represented Italy but has yet to make his Super League debut and was left out of Warrington’s pre-season trip Down Under.
Lazenby, who plans to attend at least two of the Bulls’ three friendlies to keep tabs on the young trio, said: “We got Saltonstall from Leeds on his last year of scholarship when he was 15, so he’s been on board at Warrington ever since.
“As an under-16s player, he could play loose forward, centre, in the halves if you needed him to, as well as full back or wing.
“He was a really talented utility player over the years but I would say he’s very much a back now and can play in different positions there.
“Personally, I think he’s exciting at full back when he’s bringing the ball out of defence. I’d probably say he’s a little bit unorthodox – similar to the way Sam Tomkins is really elusive and wiry.
“Saltonstall is similarly unorthodox in the way he returns the ball but he runs it back hard, gets quick play-the-balls and gets the team on the front foot on that first tackle. He’s an exciting player and a good prospect going forward.”
At 20, Halifax-based Saltonstall needs to start playing regular first-team rugby as he is no longer eligible for the under-19s competition.
Lazenby said: “Being a Halifax lad, I think Salty will look forward to staking a claim to play first-team football at Bradford.
“To miss out on the Australia trip, he will be gutted about that. But it might actually set him up with an opportunity to get some Super League experience.”
Warrington lad Philbin and Cumbrian Walker are imposing forwards who both turned 19 towards the end of last year, with Walker having represented England Academy last year.
Walker’s desire to make the grade became clear when he played against Warrington for Workington several years ago.
Lazenby explained: “We went up to Workington and played a scholarship game against them when Tom was in the under-15s.
“He was that impressed with how our lads acted off the field as much the way they performed on it, he contacted Warrington himself and sent us videos of himself playing.
“He really wanted to put himself in the window and have a go at a higher level, despite all the travelling that he would have to do.
“We saw his videos and the potential in him, so we invited him into the under-16s as a scholarship player.
“He travelled down every week and really got stuck in to his training and putting it into practice at Cockermouth Titans back in Cumbria.
“At the end of that year, after a really good under-16s season for us, he got a contract.”
After initially spending one or two nights a week with Philbin’s family, Walker now lives with them in Warrington.
“Tom began staying over with Joe’s family to help him out with training, so he was down a few nights of the week and spending the rest of his time back up to college in Cumbria,” said Lazenby.
“The college were very good, letting him do his work around his rugby, to the point where he now lives down in Warrington full-time with Joe Philbin’s family. They have taken him under their wing as an additional family member and have really looked after him.
“Tom has gone from strength to strength, which was reflected in his call-up to England under-18s last year. I expect big things from Tom in the next few years.”
Philbin was the only player in Warrington’s under-19s to play in every one of their 28 games in 2013 – he was also third in the team’s try-scorer list with 18.
Lazenby likens him to a young Ben Westwood, saying: “Joe’s a local lad who started off playing at Culcheth Eagles and then Latchford.
“In some ways he carries the ball like Ben Westwood does and I’m happy to make the comparison.
“He’s one of those uncompromising carriers of the football. He’s a tough kid and has worked really hard off the field as well as on the field at his education.
“He’s one of those players who has never found it easy – he’s always had to work hard at his game – and that’s probably the reason why he’s full-time now.
“He’s always looked to improve himself, whether it be his footwork, his defensive tackling technique or even just how he gets involved in the game.
“He has a nice little offload game, so hopefully with the players Bradford have you will see these aspects of his game in the friendlies.”
It remains to be seen whether any of the three will remain at Bradford beyond the agreed four-week loan period.
Lazenby reasoned: “I think Saltonstall has the best chance of getting a longer-term loan and the other two lads are still eligible to play in the under-19s competition.
“If they were going to be playing regularly in the Bradford first team, and it was right for them, then I would definitely support that.
“If they were going to play the odd game, and spend most of the time in the under-19s, then would it make sense for them to be over there?
“We would have to weigh that up. At the end of the day, Francis Cummins has to look at his squad and see what he needs.
“But it’s down to the players first and foremost. They’re the ones who need to perform during these friendlies.”