SAINTS prop Alex Walmsley says the back-to-back champions must heed the lessons of last year if they are to make it three in a row.

Although he describes last year’s last gasp Grand Final win over Wigan as “his greatest moment on a rugby pitch” it was the scratchy start of the campaign that he is keen not to replicate.

Although there was a heap of mitigation, by Round 6 Saints had lost half their matches – as many games as they had lost in the entirety of the 2019 campaign.

Walmsley believes the 12-week lockdown saw the true Saints emerge invigorated and refreshed – but that stock take is not something they can bank on this year.

The prop explained: “We started last year a bit scratchy, coming off the back of a good grand final win the year before.

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“Woolfy had just come on board and a lot of boys had come off surgery and international breaks and we were not quite there.

“Lockdown allowed us to freshen up and we hit the ground running post lockdown and allowed us to kick on.

“We saw the true Saints post lockdown, as opposed to pre-lockdown, but we can’t rely on another 12-week lockdown to finish the campaign really well this time. We have to make sure we start really well this time.”

Walmsley counts himself as being among those who struggled early on as a result of a draining 2019, which culminated in a bruising tour to New Zealand and Papua New Guinea with Great Britain.

And given Saints build much of what they do from the go-forward Walmsley provides, when he is not tip-top neither are the team.

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Again, the lockdown was a blessing – allowing Big Al to brush up on his fitness and allowing him to get into his stride immediately on the return in late July.

“I had gone on the tour with a few knocks and came back out of it with a few more knocks.

“I was struggling for fitness at the start of last year and not playing to anywhere near my potential.

“The lockdown came and I managed to work on my fitness and come back in a different place altogether.

“I was pretty happy with the way I responded in the second half of the year and it was nice to score a few tries.

“But it was all about the performances.

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“We know if the pack is on then we have a good chance of winning, and if we are not performing then we know we are going to be up against it.

“The cornerstone of any team is the pack, and I look at James Bentley and Morgan Knowles and how they stepped up again and performed well for their years.

“That will be important again this year,” he said.

There was another motivation or challenge ahead of last July’s restart – namely the rule changes brought in to make the game more Covid-safe but with the by-product of speeding it up.

The ditching of the scrums and the six-again restarts instead of penalties threatened the role of Super League’s big, heavy props.

But once again Walmsley took on the challenge to show there was not just a future for the big men – but their role was still key.

“It is no secret but my game is based on the carry and get the team going forward with quick play the balls,” Walmsley said.

“That is why I play the position I do – that is my job.

“As soon as I get my fitness levels back up, it worked hand-in-hand with the way the game sped up with the no scrums and the hand-overs.

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“There was a fear that it was going to be the end of the so called Big Man in the game and I was determined to make sure that wasn’t the case and if anything, I wanted to make sure I performed better under these conditions than under the slower game.

“Once I got my fitness levels back, then I could kick on in those area.”

With Saints’ name up in lights and looking to claim the third title in a row for the first time in their history, that will give the other 11 teams a renewed motivation to take their scalp.

And rival Super League clubs have backed up their desire with recruitment – with neighbours Wigan and Warrington signing high-profile players from Down Under and Leeds beefing up the ranks as well.

“You only have to look at the other clubs, how they have strengthened, and they have come to chase us down.

“Wigan are going to be right up there again and they have gone on record to say they fancy themselves.

“Leeds have strengthened and both Warrington and Catalans look dangerous again. You can go through the full league and it is tougher,” he said.

Saints, too, are a new look outfit with the pack in particular having undergone a rebuild.

Walmsley will have potentially have a new running mate, with Tongan test prop Agnatius Paasi providing another chunk of size.

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In the back row Joel Thompson and Sione Mata’utia have come in to replace Zeb Taia and Dom Peyroux to bring a solid looking unit when complementing the developing stars James Bentley and Morgan Knowles.

Walmsley was impressed with the attitude and approach of the new boys, even before the first ball was kicked.

“The new faces on board have settled in really well.

“Those boys who have come in know what is expected of this group.

“You can see with how good a shape they have come here that they are ready for a tough campaign.”

Walmsley was a relative latecomer to top flight rugby league, aged 22 when signing from Batley at the end of 2012.

Walmsley, who turns 31 in April, is embarking on his ninth season with Saints and intends to play out his career with the club.

“I owe so much to the club and how it’s changed my life,” he said. “There’s no other club in Super League I’d want to play for.

“It is not just the players and the staff, but the whole town has made me so welcome and the fans have always been great.

“I do see myself finishing my career here. I’ll hopefully have a testimonial next year to celebrate 10 years at the club and I’d like to extend beyond that.

“Although I’m on the wrong side of 30, I do feel I’m in very good shape. I’m as fit as I’ve ever been and I don’t think there’s any reason why I can’t do another four or five years at this club.”

He has three Grand Final winners rings, but those past seasons have not been without its hiccups – most notably the broken neck he suffered early on in the 2018 campaign.

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However, as horrendous and terrifying that injury must have been, he sees aspects of that 12 months out as helping preserve him and allowing other parts of his body to recover.

“They are the breaks in life that help keep my body in good shape so hopefully I have got as few more years left in me yet.

“And hopefully be part of a team that has more success and looking at the squad coming up I want to be part of another great few years coming up,” he said.

And the conversation goes back to the end of last November – and that Grand Final win against Wigan at an empty KCOM Stadium.

Tasting success like that is a spur for a pro like the England international front rower.

“Moments like last year’s final are real incentives; it is such an addictive feeling, those games and moments that you chase them time and time again.

“It was such an unbelievable finish to such an unbelievable game.

“I watch the video back quite often with a smile on my face because it was such a tremendous moment and joyful to share with so many departing players.

“For me it was the greatest moment I have had on a rugby league pitch, without a shadow of a doubt.

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“To win it in such a big game after such a troublesome year, with all the adversity we had gone through as a sport and come out with that moment and be on the winning side definitely ranks as number one.”

There was just one disappointment – and that was the fans having to make do with watching that finale at home on their television sets, rather than cheering them on live.

It is one aspect that Walmsley and his teammates are looking forward to most in 2021 after more than 12 months of quiet, empty stadiums.

“The fans are why we do what we do.

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“Last year made us realise how important they are when you go out and experience playing in front of nobody.

“To welcome the fans back in May would be such a boost for us as a team and the whole sport.

“We are desperately looking forward to having them back.

“There’s no greater feeling than walking out at TWS with a packed crowd going off their nuts.

“We have such a loyal fanbase as a sport, such hard working people from working class towns and can’t wait to have them back,” Walmsley said.