AT the start of the season, before the first ball was kicked off, Alex Walmsley recalls sitting in the Saints dressing room putting his boots on with one simple objective ­— to be taking them off two hours later having come through unscathed.

A sickening broken neck injury had not simply terminated his 2018 season prematurely, but had understandably left him with psychological as well as physical challenges to overcome.

But after leading the Saints pack back to Old Trafford, Walmsley has come through those battles with flying colours and is now aiming to cap it with a second Grand Final winners ring that he says would be the pinnacle of his career.

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Talking about his return this year, Walmsley said: “It has gone better than I expected.

“When I broke my neck, the stigma that goes with that sort of injury was a tough battle.

“The toughest part of the rehab was the psychological battle in my own head, because there are stigmas associated with injuries like that.

“Am I going to be the father I would like to be, am I going to be the partner I would like to be and am I going to play rugby again?

“They were tough questions I went through. But I have come through and got the right answers and back playing.

“To get back to where I was and put my boots back on was tough.

“As much as there was bravado I wanted to give out, it was very challenging sitting in the changing rooms, putting my boots on and going back out on to that pitch.

“It was a very hard thing to go through.

“One thing I can honestly remember before the first game of the season was looking forward to be sitting in the changing room again afterwards, knowing that I had got through the game again.

“I had those feelings for a while, but thankfully not so much any more.”

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To even the closest of observers, even from those early games, there has not been even faintest flicker of half-heartedness going into the challenge.

And working in tandem with Luke Thompson the Saints front row have laid a fine platform in a stellar season that has seen the team finished 16 points clear.

Walmsley explains: “The beauty of this game, especially in my position, is that when you are out there you don’t get much chance to think about it.

“You are very much in the thick of the action of a tough game.

“To have come back and not just be playing, not just be going to places like Wembley and Old Trafford, and then potentially be in line for a Great Britain tour – but to be in such a good side that is really playing well has helped me get back to playing well again.

“I am really happy.

“And being one of the leaders in the pack now is easy because we have a pack full of leaders.

"We have experience and youth, and youth with experience.

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We have Morgan Knowles, Matty Lees - although he won't be playing - kids who are playing like 29-year-old seasoned players with the way they perform.

"It is a wonderful pack to be part of and we do work hard for each other and test ourselves against the best and we face another big job on Saturday night.

"If we are going to win this game then us as a pack are going to have to make sure we are on our game because we saw what Salford’s pack did against Wigan."

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Having dusted Wigan so comprehensively to earn a week off playing ahead of Saturday's final, Saints took part in an opposed game against the reserves to try and replicate a game.

Walmsley said it did the job of providing a good physical session.

"We really got stuck into each other and that will put us in a good spot this week, preparing for the biggest game of the year.

"We have got very good reserves, Danny Rich, Luke Douglas and Adam Swift – players who would get in Super League teams and then we had the interchange forwards Louie and Kyle facing us.

"It replicated a game and it is important that you keep the intensity up. You don’t want to be dropping now – if anything they are going to go through the roof.

"As much as we would have liked to have kept playing last weekend to keep the momentum going after Wigan we have been able to put some good training in and will hopefully see some rewards off the back of that," he said.

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After four semi final defeats, Walmsley reckons Saints' last Grand Final appearance in 2014 feels like an age away.

And this time he feels a win this time would mean more than that triumph over Wigan.

"I am relieved to be back here to be honest.

"When I came here in 2014 I was relatively new to the professional game.

"In the space of 18 months I had gone from playing for Underbank against teams who played on a cows field to winning a Grand Final and don’t think I had earned my stripes.

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"I look at how many legends who have played all their careers and missed out on this.

"And within 18 months I was in a good side that won the comp.

"Winning on Saturday would mean much more than that first win.

"My role in the team is much different to what it was back then.

"To walk out there at Old Trafford on Saturday as a starting front rower and win would mean so much more.

It would be the pinnacle of my career," he said.

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