BARELY two years ago, Alex Walmsley was playing a final in front of a few “drunk students” contemplating life as a quantity surveyor.
Tonight, though, the St Helens prop will feature in a Super League Grand Final in front of more than 60,000 people while admitting he is slightly “disappointed” at not heading out with England to Australia next week.
To say the Yorkshireman’s progress has been rapid would be as big an understatement as his hulking 6ft 5in frame.
Indeed, it is certainly not just those Burgess boys who hold a monopoly on the tag of freakishly giant forwards hailing from Dewsbury.
Walmsley’s tale – the mighty Wigan Warriors are the opponents this evening – is a reminder to all that it is never too late to make a mark.
It was May 2012 when he was marauding around Headingley’s famous pitch with Leeds Metropolitan University, charging to victory over rivals Loughborough.
“There wasn’t too many there, to be honest,” Walmsley recalled to The Yorkshire Post.
“A few drunk students watching it, maybe a couple of hundred or so. It’ll be a drastic change come Saturday at Old Trafford in all fairness and it has been a great two years for myself.
“It’s been strange. Hard to describe really. If someone had said when I was playing for Dewsbury Celtic and Leeds Met that I’d be playing in a Super League Grand Final in a couple of years’ time I’d have called them barking mad.”
Yet that is exactly what has happened.
Walmsley did not even start playing with his student mates until the final year of his degree but he specialises in taking swift strides, incredibly advancing through all three tiers of British rugby league inside 12 months.
“I played in a friendly for Dewsbury Celtic against England Students and Paul Fletcher, the Leeds Met coach, asked me to go down and play,” he said.
“Credit to the uni game; it gave me a bit of a footing. Batley Bulldogs’ John Kear watched a couple of times and offered a trial.
“I managed to get a contract but I’ve been really lucky to play under some great coaches like Keary and, before that, Paul Heaton down at Celtic who really got stuck into me when I needed it.”
Walmsley – with Kear allowing him to simultaneously finish off his season with Leeds Met –was named 2012 Championship Young Player of the Year in his first season at Mount Pleasant, his sheer physique and raw power causing carnage for defences.
St Helens coach Nathan Brown was one of many Super League coaches to take note.
He duly acted, signing the robust forward on a three-year professional deal, meaning Walmsley had to tell the surveyors firm he had just agreed to work with that he would have to renege.
“I had to think about it,” he confessed. “But, while I could have had a very successful career in that field, I didn’t want to be looking back in 10 years thinking ‘What if I’d gone full-time?’
“It was quite simple in the end and all about getting down and signing the contract. Now, more than ever, there’s no regrets.”
Walmsley, 24, was expected to be loaned back to Batley last year as his development began under Brown’s tutelage but he got an early opportunity in Super League and grasped it.
In the end, he played all but two of their league fixtures, coming off the bench on 24 occasions to generally knock lumps out of often bemused, gnarled veterans.
He was no one-season wonder as this campaign has clearly proved.
While Saints may have been cruelly shorn of half-backs at every turn, they have always been able to rely upon dominant forwards like Walmsley who, along with the not inconsiderable bulk of Mose Masoe, Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook and Kyle Amor, has helped form a formidable pack.
They won the League Leaders’ Shield – all be it limping in as Castleford squandered a golden chance to pip them – despite that lack of orthodox creativity, yet, still, champions Wigan, who finished second, are deemed clear favourites tonight.
“Let’s be honest, it’s not going to be an easy game,” admitted Walmsley, with their fierce rivals looking ominously sharp.
“Wigan are the form team, their performances in the play-offs have been impeccable and they’ll arrive full of confidence.
“But this is a one-off final and we’re quietly confident.
“It’s been a strange year. We had a great start but then circumstances changed and we lost some key players.
“Credit to the rest of the squad, though, as some players had to adapt their game to get us through. We got there in the end.
“It should be a great spectacle, a real physical battle and, as good as Wigan are, we know we can come out on top.”
Little is being said – in the Saints camp, at least – of their wretched record in this event.
Since winning the last of their five Super League titles in 2006, they went on to lose five successive Grand Finals, Leeds proving their nemesis four times and Wigan in 2010.
“It’s an incredible record really but they are there to broken,” he said. “And there’s no football in St Helens, no rugby union or anything like that; it’s just all league.
“The fans have stuck by us and we want to pay them back. People shouldn’t write us off.”
What of those England chances? Walmsley was named in Steve McNamara’s 34-man training squad in June but, like fellow prop Amor, missed out when the final call came a week ago.
“Naturally, I did feel disappointed getting so close but I can’t be too bitter when you look at the competition at prop,” he said.
“Steve did offer me encouragement and congratulated me on making the Grand Final. He said hard lines on missing England but that I’m still young and quite new to the professional set-up.
“There’s still a path for me to get there. But I have to work hard and keep improving.”
Reassuringly, on this evidence, that is clearly the Walmsley way.