Saturday interview: Dewsbury boys hold key to World Club Challenge final

IT is dubbed Super League versus the NRL, England against Australia, yet St Helens’ World Club Challenge with South Sydney could essentially boil down to the battle between three huge forwards from ... Dewsbury.

Alex Walmsley in action.

Everyone knows about the famous Burgess twins – 22-year-olds George and Tom – who swapped Bradford Bulls for Souths and now are not only integral to the Australian club’s championship-winning team but the England national side, too.

However, Saints front-row Alex Walmsley, a similarly robust specimen once described by John Kear as an awkward “sack of elbows and knees”, also hails from the erstwhile mill town in West Yorkshire.

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Given all three stand around the 6ft 5ins mark, weigh in at 18st-plus and generally make a living bashing opponents, it makes you wonder just what the secret is with Dewsbury’s genetics.

Sam Burgess, the twins’ elder brother who was man of the match in their NRL Grand Final win but is now trying his hand in union with Bath, is hardly on the small side either.

Nor the fourth brother, Luke, so what do they feed them there?

Walmsley, 24, jokes: “There is no secret – I think we’re the only tall lads in Dewsbury.!

“I know when I was at (amateur club) Dewsbury Celtic I was the only big lad like that.

“It is great, though. Dewsbury is very much a rugby league town with all the clubs like Celtic, Dewsbury Moor, Thornhill and Shaw Cross around the place.

“I never actually played against Tom or George as they were younger than me.

“But it was quite clear when Sam was coming through that he was going to do great things.

“The twins just followed in his footsteps and obviously Luke’s done great for himself, too, having all played together at Souths.

“Burgess has always been a big name in Dewsbury and they are all top lads.

“I’m looking forward to going up against two of them as they are two of the best in the world.

“The twins played with Dewsbury Moor and our (Celtic’s) rivalry with them is probably the biggest.

“I’m sure there’ll be plenty of Moor fans wearing their Souths shirts on Sunday night. And maybe the odd one or two Saints fans from Celtic.

“It is great for the town, though, that it’s got three lads all playing in such a big game as the World Club Challenge.”

This is true. But Walmsley quickly explodes the myth about them being the only big lads in Dewsbury.

Asked about his nickname “Engy” and it emerges it stems from his likeness to Anthony England, the Warrington player who is a prop, standing 6ft 4ins, at over 17st and, you guessed it, hails from Dewsbury.

“I used to play with Anthony at Celtic before he signed for Cas Tigers,” recalls Walmsley.

“I crept up as an 18-year-old so played a few games for the senior team and everyone said I looked like his little brother.

“I got nicknamed ‘Engy’ then and it’s stuck. I do look like him. I have asked my dad a couple of times about the whole thing.”

Anyway, back to the actual rugby.

The fact that Walmsley is appearing in such a showpiece at all is a remarkable story in its own right given that just three years ago he was still playing for those amateurs at Celtic and 
also Leeds Metropolitan University.

Kear heard about his marauding carries and gave him a shot with Batley Bulldogs in the Championship.

Defenders there could not contain him either and after claiming the competition’s Young Player of the Year award, Saints decided to take a punt, too.

Battered Super League opponents had few answers either and only his second season in the elite ended with glory last October and victory over Wigan Warriors in the Grand Final.

“To be able to go out and play in front of 80,000 people and win that trophy in the fashion we did after being written off by so many was a very proud moment for myself and the team,” says Walmsley, Saints having been shorn of any genuine half-backs for most of the season.

“I was absolutely made up for that win, but we’ve come to this season as champions and we’ve now put that title on hold.

“We achieved what we did last year but now it’s all about 2015. And improvement.”

They have started in positive fashion, picking up wins over Catalan Dragons and Salford Red Devils to build nicely towards tomorrow’s greater challenge.

“We’ve recruited two outstanding players in Travis Burns and Atelea Vea, who have fitted straight into the squad and who have started the season on fire,” adds Walmsley, about the Australian stand-off from Hull KR and London Broncos forward.

“We’ve got Jon Wilkin and Jonny Lomax back from injury while Lukey Walsh will be back soon, too.

“It’s a sell-out at Langtree Park on Sunday and the whole town of St Helens is now really looking forward to this. We’re so lucky to have such a great fan-base who follow us home and away all over and in their numbers.

“There’ll be 18,000 there on Sunday night and 99.9 per cent will be Saints fans. It’ll be a great atmosphere.

“Souths have replaced Sam and Luke from last year and they still have a big, formidable pack.

“I’m sure whoever wins that battle up front will go on and win the title so it’s an important job trying to gain control in there and slow them down.

“They’ve got some pace and skill out wide, too, but as a pack I know we’re looking forward to what lies ahead.”

There has, rightfully, been talk about Walmsley forcing his way into the England squad next.

He was a member of Steve McNamara’s training squad ahead of the 2014 Four Nations without making the final cut.

However, getting on top of the Burgess twins – who did tour – would offer further evidence that he is ready for yet another step up in his meteoric rise.

“If something like that came along then great – I’d love to represent my country – but at the moment I’m just trying to improve myself as a player,” he explains as he attempts to regain full match fitness after some off-season surgery.

“But also, as a nation, we’re lucky enough to have the best front-rows in the world so it’s probably the hardest position to try to break into at the moment.

“It’s always been a goal and if it happens it’d be unbelievable, but mainly I want to keep learning here off Keiron (Cunningham), Longy (Sean Long) and Jamma (Jamahl Lolesi).”

The first two Saints coaches named there have been involved in World Club Challenge classics in their time, notably famous Saints wins over Brisbane Broncos in 2001 and 2007.

Walmsley gets his own chance now. With Souths film-star owner Russell Crowe watching from the stands, it would be no surprise if this lad from Dewsbury wrote yet another Hollywood line.