FRIDAY night’s game at Warrington will be a massive test for the league-leading Saints pack ­— but it is a challenge Alex Walmsley believes the big men can rise to.

With Saints six points clear of second-placed Wolves, an away win would put them out of sight with nine games to go.

Walmsley, who along with teammate Luke Thompson will be fronting up to Chris Hill and Mike Cooper, is keen to put a marker down for other big games that may come further down the track.

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And it is a game that is already whetting the appetite of the strong running front rower - who loves the intensity and noise of this clash, now only second to Wigan in rivalry.

Walmsley said: “It has grown and with it being first versus second it does add to the intensity and incentive of the game and you can feel that.

“We have done them over once already this season and I am sure they will be looking to right a few wrongs, so it really does add that extra incentive.

“It is a big enough derby as it is, without adding anything else – Saints v Warrington in front of a packed house.

“It is brilliant and the way the stadium is laid out with terraces on two sides it creates a really good atmosphere.

“Our away fans have always been fantastic – and come in numbers, especially to Warrington and no doubt Friday will be exactly the same.

“They really can create a home feeling for these sort of games and us players do respond to it, when the fans are behind you it gives you that extra push.

“It is not going to be a season defining game, there is a lot of rugby to be played before the end of the year. But this is an opportunity to put a marker down on where we are.

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“We have been the best teams throughout the season – and been better than the rest of the pack and that is why we are sitting where we are. It does add to that mix.

"We are coming up against quality opposition that has strike all over the park, we need to make sure we are at our best to get the job done.

"They have a full international front row in Hill, Clark and Cooper – then they have Jack Hughes and throw on Ben Murdoch Masila off the bench. They have some tough players there in a physical, dominant pack.

"They have a good pack, but we are no pushovers ourselves and are ready for that battle."

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Matty Lees

Walmsley has started the year strongly, so much so that nobody really speaks of the broken neck injury he sustained at Warrington in March 2018 - but it will inevitably be brought up this week on his first trip back to the scene of the injury.

Asked if there will be anything at the back of his mind when he runs out there on Friday, he responded: "No, not really – at the end of the day it is another pitch of grass surrounded by four stands.

"I have played at 20 stadiums so far this year and I don’t think I'll be thinking about that.

"I have been able to put it to bed and I don’t think there’s any reason to dwell on it this week."

What he will be dwelling on is pushing on - using the experience of watching last year unfold from the sidelines to go one better after falling at the semi-final stage in both competitions.

It means they will steadily climb through the league programme, but ensure that they are fit and firing come the knockout games.

"Friday is a great opportunity to pull another two points away from our rivals – and that would put us in a strong position but we saw last year that league position ultimately counts for very little in terms of a campaign.

"Sure, if we finish top that is great and this is another opportunity to cement that.

"We are looking for bigger and better things this year."

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Saints have a run of tough games, with the Warrington clash followed by a trip to a resurgent Hull FC and then a derby date with Wigan.

It shows that - if they are not on their mettle it could soon go back into the mix.

"All games are tough – get Friday out of the way first – but they are coming thick and fast. All games are tough and all teams compete at a high standard.

It comes down to consistency and make sure we perform week-in, week-out, Walmsley said.

And although Saints have plenty of trike out wide, and some craft in the brains trust of Lachlan Coote, Theo Fages and Jonny Lomax, the displays of the pack in laying the platform have not gone unnoticed.

Walmsley has re-asserted himself as one of the leaders, especially when Luke Thompson was absent with injury for the spell after Easter. But it has provided a good mixture of youth and experience, with a combination of grunt, graft, guile, mobility and penetration.

"We have got some great boys in our pack and I've been very proud how we have performed this year," said the England front rower.

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"As a senior boy you have to try and ensure all the boys that come in do well but it is so easy when we have so many good young kids.

"They are leaders in themselves, they may be young in years but they are very experienced heads on their shoulders.

"Morgan Knowles has been great this year and is a GB international in the making.

"As for Luke Thompson - I can speak all day about him – and with older heads like Kyle and Louie we have got some good players in the pack.

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"We have experience and youth and a good mix."

Walmsley is noted for his line-busting carries, hurtling his big frame into the defensive line and eating up the metres.

But he is also developing some subtleties to his game - increasing finding the offload where required.

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Walmsley said: "My offload game has always been in my locker it has always been about when the opportunity arises.

"I have never been a player to force anything and we are all smart enough to know when to pass or not to pass.

"We do a lot on our skills in training and working on mini skills to add subtleties to our game and I have seen dividends to that this year."