THERE was a time not long ago when England prop Alex Walmsley wondered if he would ever be able to play rugby league again let alone feature at Wembley in a Challenge Cup final.
The giant St Helens forward will do just that when he takes on Warrington Wolves today in the sport’s oldest knockout competition – just 18 months after breaking his neck.
The popular Yorkshireman suffered the injury ironically against the same opponents and missed all but five games of last term. However, Dewsbury-born Walmsley has made a brilliant return, playing as well as ever this time around to help Saints to the League Leaders’ Shield and eyeing up a treble to emulate their great side of 2006.
“It was a bad injury,” recalled the former Batley Bulldogs player.
“To go through a broken neck and find myself not just back playing again but able to walk out at Wembley 18 months later, it makes the hard work of last year and disappointment of not being able to play in some big games worthwhile.
“We lost in both semis in 2018 and I did think ‘will I get back to playing in these big games again?’ Thankfully I have and it’s made those hard, lonely days in rehab’ worthwhile. It’s really nice.”
As is Walmsley’s famous story of how he ended up reaching such heights in the sport and playing in the 2017 World Cup final.
He was still playing for amateurs Dewsbury Celtic at the age of 21 – “knocking about in front of 200 people at Crow Nest Park” – when he signed for Batley Bulldogs in 2012.
But just one season with them saw the fearsome prop, who Brian Noble this week described as “like a Transformer robot when you’re trying to tackle him”, earn Championship Young Player of the Year and a dream move to Saints. It has been a meteoric rise; Walmsley went on to win the Grand Final in 2014 and was courted by NRL teams before deciding to commit to the Merseyside club until the end of 2022.
On the prospect of playing at Wembley for the first time, the 29-year-old said: “I’ve been down a few times as a fan for a few jolly boys outings.
“The last time I was there was 2013 when it peed it down for Wigan v Hull. That was my first year at Saints and my first experience of missing out on a Challenge Cup final as a fully-fledged Super League player.
“I’d never been to Wembley and thinking back to that occasion, and how Wigan were winning it, I was filled with jealousy.
“I wished there and then that I could emulate it one day.”
Did that desire provide telling in his decision to turn down the advances of those Australian clubs last year?
“It was certainly a factor and had a big bearing on it,” he said.
“I’d won the Grand Final in 2014 but I felt that Wembley trip and having not got to experience it did get me thinking.
“If I’d have gone to Australia and come back later in my career, there was no guarantee that I’d ever experience it.
“But I knew if I stayed at a club like St Helens I’d have a good chance and it’s working in my favour. I’m thankful that I did now.”
Saints are overwhelming odds-on favourites to prosper today which seems strange given the final – in its 118th year – pits together Super League’s first and second-placed sides.
However, Justin Holbrook’s rampant team are fully 16 points clear of Warrington who arrive in dire form having lost all of their last five league outings.
Wolves did not name Blake Austin in their 19-man squad, their stellar Australian stand-off who has missed the last few games due to injury.
Speculation is rife that the Steve Prescott Man of Steel contender will still appear but coach Steve Price was unequivocal at yesterday’s Captain’s Run at Wembley saying he “definitely” will not.
Regardless of whether Austin plays or not, Walmsley insisted: “It’s a new competition. League form goes out of the window.
“They’ll have a few boys back on Saturday. They are an outstanding team and a tough side to play against. They are similar to us; work really hard and put teams under pressure. I’d disregard the form and I’m expecting a really close game, hopefully in our favour. I’m sure it will be a final to remember.”
Saints, of course, have not won the Challenge Cup since 2008 while, remarkably, this is the first time they have faced Warrington in a major final.
Since last lifting the Super League title five years ago, Saints had lost six successive semi-finals before at last beating Championship Halifax to reach today’s event. There is, then, some question marks about their ability to handle the big occasion.
However, Walmsley remains adamant they will be able to rise to it this afternoon and said: “When you sign for St Helens you are faced with the history and culture of the club.
“It’s everywhere in the stadium, you’re reminded of it every day and then you walk into the town centre and fans tell you about the 2006 season and all these big accolades.”
Meanwhile, there will be a minute’s applause before kick-off for Archie Bruce, the 20-year-old Dewsbury Moor player who tragically died on Sunday just hours after making his debut for Batley in Toulouse the previous night.
Tries from Vila Halafihi, Tom Ashton, Adam Robinson, Mike Emmett, Callum Lancaster and Gareth Potts saw Hunslet win 34-30 at London Skolars in League One last night. Joe Sanderson kicked five conversions.