INJURIES are one of the occupational hazards of rugby league – the price the players pay for competing in such a tough, gladiatorial sport.

That collision and the heavy muscle and bone on muscle and bone contact can take its toll – but some injuries are more serious and potentially life changing than others.

As part of this week’s #TackleTheToughStuff campaign and a focus on mental and physical wellbeing, Saints Alex Walmsley opened up on the night broke his neck at Warrington in 2018 – and its aftermath.

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An injury of that gravity brought not just a physical battle to overcome, but also a psychological one.

Walmsley, at Warrington for Monday’s #TackleTheToughStuff event, surveyed the part of the Halliwell Jones pitch where the incident occurred four years ago.

He reflects: “When I come out to warm up I always look out at the spot where it happened and have a think about it, acknowledge it and remind myself never to do that ever again, but also give myself a reminder that I am fortunate to be back playing.

“It is a weird thing – but other than that I have put it to the back of my mind and do what I need to do.”

The game was in early March, just five weeks into the 2018 season and Walmsley was admittedly shattered, battered and bruised from a gruelling 2017 World Cup campaign that had impacted on his pre-season fitness.

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That led to him getting his contact wrong when he ran in to put a big shot on Warrington wing Mitch Brown in an attempt to pin the Wires back in their own 40.

He bounced off the challenge, recoiling in some agony before being led off the pitch a bit dazed and with pains to his shoulder.

“I had pains down my left-hand side and waited to see if it would settle down.

“I could not lift my left arm and that is when we realised there was an issue but at no point did anyone know what I had actually done.

“I drove to have my MRI scan – and as I put my kit back on the nurse said, ‘can you just hang about for a minute’.

“I thought that strange because usually you get a phone call in the evening and told what is happening.

“Then Millsy the physio rang and said, ‘Alex, I don’t want you to panic, but you have broken your neck!’

“He reassured you me I would be fine – but when someone tells you have broken your neck the stigma that comes with the injury hits you.”

Walmsley was placed in a neck brace while the questions whizzed around his head.

“You want immediate answers…will I be able to play rugby again? What is the prognosis?

“But you don’t get answers because nobody knows until you get scans and they are investigated by specialists.

“Before you know it, I had gone from being an England international playing the best rugby of my life to a double neck fracture and sitting in the Liverpool Royal A&E for six hours in a neck brace waiting for an emergency CT scan.

“My C6 had totally cracked in half and part of my C7 had broken off and was lying on my nerves, that is why I could not use my arm.

“The specialist said the only reason I was still walking was because I played rugby and had a strong neck and my muscles around it had kept it together and it had not displaced.”

He needed an operation to get the bone off his nerve and to repair it with screws, plates and a cage.

“It was a scary time – particularly with being a new father and having a new-born, it was tough to take.

“John Leach, who performed my surgery, described it as an injury that you would see on a jockey or someone in a motor-cycle accident.

“The impact that had been created was not usually seen in sport. But that shows you how physical our game is by comparing the impact to someone coming off a motorbike at high speed,” he said.

The serious nature of the injury meant that there were not simply physical challenges in front of him, but significant psychological ones.

Both aspects needed to be addressed in his treatment and subsequent recovery.

“There was nerve damage – and some of that has not come back and never will come back.

“I have a weakened left arm and my triceps only works to an extent, but the mental side was always the biggest hurdle to jump.

“It was a tough 12 months,” he said.

In those dark days, his mind worked overtime on bleak, worst-case scenarios on the impact of his injury and how it could limit not just his career but the daily life routines that most folk take for granted.

He said: “It was strange, but I thought about things all the time and there was probably no foundation to it.

“It is how the mind plays. You wait at any point for something to slip and then be in a position where you can’t move.

“It was scary because you think ‘am I going to be able to walk?’, ‘am I going to lift my boy again?’ and what way is my life going to go.

“I am not ashamed to admit it, but I was really, really scared.

“You look at a broken neck and you think of someone in a wheelchair or incapacitated. I had to acknowledge that was the situation I was in even if there was no substance to it.”

During his recovery Walmsley was presented with an outside hope that he would be back for the end of the year, but he suspects that was to keep him mentally focused on coming back.

Repeated visits for CT scans came back with the verdict that the bones had not quite fused – and that created further doubt because on some occasions they don’t fuse.

He described the mechanics of the surgery that was now a feature of his body.

“I was back training and could do weights, but you can’t do contact because you have four plates and four screws at the front of your neck and the same at the back with a cage in the middle that you are hoping will fuse together,” he said.

“The plates and screws are permanent with the cage replacing the disc they took out because it was completely crushed.

“That mesh is fused together and is there for life and is as tough as it ever was – like reinforced concrete.

“I recall driving to my final CT scan of December with the physio and it was like driving to a funeral, but they said it had fused and they were seeing what they wanted to see.

“The bone was healed and strong – and to do something like it again I would have to put myself in the exact same scenario which was obviously a freak injury.”

Nevertheless, Alex was given the green light, and started pre-season ahead of the 2019 campaign.

He admitted to being terrified ahead of his comeback game – the Super League opener against Wigan at the Totally Wicked Stadium.

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Alex Walmsley - heading out ahead of his comeback game against Wigan in 2019. Pic: Bernard Platt

He said: “I remember Louie driving me to the stadium and I felt awful, really scared.

“The best thing that happened was Justo resisted the temptation of putting me on the bench first game back and I was straight into the action.

“As soon I crossed the white line and the game kicked off I didn’t have time to think about it.

“It was a Wigan derby and the first game and we wanted to win.

“But all I can remember before the game was thinking I want to be sat in this changing room after the game and be all right.

“Nothing else was going through my head.

“I had a decent game and we won, but the relief after the game was immense. I was like that for the next six months while I continued to see my specialist.”

For Walmsley, he was not satisfied with simply donning the boots – he did want to tone down the physicality in his game and even spoke with the psychologists about it.

“I said I don’t want to be a different player because there is no secret, my game is based on my carry and the physicality in defence,” he said.

“With my carry I work as hard as I can and do what I do.

“I didn’t want to be running half- hearted and not giving 100 per cent. If I could not give that then I would have retired there and then. “Thankfully I threw myself into everything – there were big shots and crunching tackles and those doubts were at the back of my mind.

“When I was on the pitch it did not affect me as much as off it.

“It was quite a big challenge for myself.”

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Saints - champions 2020. Picture: Bernard Platt

And that is a challenge he has passed with flying colours, with his big carry being one of the key elements of Saints winning three Super League titles in a row.

He welcomed the platform he has been given this week to share his story as part of #TackleTheToughStuff.

“These events are important in our game, a traditional working class sport – played in the north by tough, northern blokes, to appreciate the subtle side to us and the insecurities and the anxieties we do – like every other man or woman – experience.

“And to acknowledge that we are not different – and to help promote the idea that if someone is struggling and in a situation where they are in need to talk to someone it helps and encourages them,” Walmsley said.