SAINTS prop Alex Walmsley was an early returnee to training in November ahead of his 12th season in the red vee.

And although he joked about feeling his age in joining the first raft of young squad members, he was determined to maximise his first full pre-season since 2014 that has not been shortened by injury, surgery or internationals.

The 33-year-old prop is excited for the challenge ahead, Saints’ first year without the tag of defending champions since 2019.

Not just that, the new blood in the camp, plus the new rules around the ruck, have all fed into his upbeat mood ahead of Super League’s kick off.

It is also a year in which he wants to draw a line under the semi-final incidents that saw both him and fellow prop Agnatius Paasi suffer significant knee injuries.

Walmsley explained: "I came back that first week because of the what happened with my knee in 2023.

"Once it was fully healed and then able to rest recover in the offseason and I felt like I want to get back going.

"So I came back early with the young boys and what felt like a good idea was pretty tough because I’ve never felt as old in all my life.

"This was especially true when doing the up downs – and they were bouncing up and down because they’re fresh and young but my hips were screaming at me because I'm 33 years old, and I’m obviously a bit heavier than the rest of them.

"But it was good and I enjoyed getting back a bit early and I wanted to make sure I made the most of that full pre-season.

"As someone coming into the game so late anyway, I realise how important the pre-season is and. It’s not just for getting fit and strong, it’s for longevity of your playing game as well.

"So hopefully we’ll see some good rewards this season for that."

On the tackles in the Challenge Cup semi final against Leigh, which sidelined him and Agnatius Paasi the veteran Saints prop now wants to draw a line under it - but he is happy that the law has been changed.

St Helens Star: Agnatius Paasi

Walmsley said: “At the end of the day we play a physical contact sport where unfortunately the injuries happen.

“I think it’s good that the RFL have seen that by changing the rules we can protect from those kind of injuries. Iggy’s in particular was a real disappointment.

“I don’t think anyone goes on to the field purposely you wanting to injure someone - I don’t think that’s in anyone’s nature, but there’s this type of tackles that are not allowed anymore.

“We’ve outlawed the crusher tackle, ninja tackle and the hip drop - techniques that were banned once we realised the danger.

There’s a quite a buzzword at the minute about concussion and rightly so, but I think we need to make sure player well-being protected at all parts at all levels, across the board.

“I’m happy that that rule has changed for that reason and hopefully we can protect players.”

He explained why he jumped through hoops to get back for the play offs at the end last season.

Part of that was fuelled by missing the back end of the previous season, including the Grand Final.

Walmsley said: "I had a 14-16 week injury which unfortunately would have ruled me out for the season, so to speak.

"But I was lucky that I had a really good repair in surgery and one thing I wanted to do was sit down with physios and the conditioning staff and look at it and say ‘is there a way we can take a bit of time off, can we can we can we accelerate stuff?

"And we sat down with surgeon and looked at things and had to jump over some hurdles to get there.

"The disappointment of missing the 2022 Grand Final was a big part of that.

"We had to do stuff differently.

"I was running with a knee brace on for a few weeks, which was different, So that was to make sure that when I was out the knee brace I’d already ticked a few boxes.

"It was an accelerated rehab and I wanted to put myself in that position.

"It was a calculated programme that I wanted to do it. I didn’t want to let the boys down again.

"I wanted to get back for the boys, because we had lost Iggy for the year and there were challenges there.

"We play a team sport because we want to help our team mates out and by being on the field I felt I was helping the team mates out.

"It was a tough challenge, but we play a tough sport and something you do as players you embrace challenges and that was what I embraced and got back playing and unfortunately we didn’t get the finish that we wanted."

St Helens Star:

With Paasi still sidelined and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook retired, Walmsley is the big figurehead among the Saints front rowers, with the middle unit looking lean.

Walmsley does not feel like there is a particular burden on his shoulders on that score - and has a different take on what a modern front rower now constitutes.

He said: “We are lucky that we’ve got some very versatile players who can play a number of positions.

“I think the days of a prop forward being a big pudding who runs in hard and plays the ball have ended.

“Obviously you want your strike, your punch and explosive carries to get your go-forward.

“But there’s more to the middle game than just carrying the ball now and people like Sione, Jake Wingfield, Morgs, Leesy and George Delaney offer plenty.

“There are touches to their game that bring different aspects to our attack and obviously James Bell is amongst that.

“But it’s exciting to play in the middle and like I said those days I’m just carrying the ball and copping a tackle and playing the ball don’t quite cut it an more.

“You’ve got to have more to it, so we’ll look to look those boys to exploit those different areas.”

St Helens Star:

With Delaney now joined by Noah Stephens in graduating from the Academy ranks, Walmsley sees a bright future from the new breed of front rowers.

He said: “I see a lot of me in George from when I came into the first team - he’s quite raw, loves the physical side of the game, loves carrying the ball and runs around like a headless chicken sometimes, which I did when I first came in.

“But when you have someone like that you know that they really want it and you can’t help but be endeared by those kind of people.

“I’m really excited for George and what his career is hopefully going turn into.

“Any sort of advice I can give him, pointers, tips, I’ll do my best but he’s lucky he’s got somebody like Matty Lees, Morgan and Sione – some really good experience around him to develop.

St Helens Star:

“Noah is a good one to fit in that mould. I think he will play a few games this year - he’s a big, massive boy and another who enjoys that contact.

"If you have got someone at 18/19 who’s was built like that who looks forward to the physical side of it you are halfway there.

"It’s nice to see that there’s some very good players coming through in that position.

So how are Saints tackling a campaign that sees the Super League trophy that they had for four years resting on the other side of Billing Lump.

“There’s always pressure at St Helens to succeed, but for the first time in four years we’re not going in as champions and that’s a different feeling and it’s an exciting feeling,” Walmsley said.

“Pressure is a privilege, but at the same time not going in as favourites allows us to go about our work a little bit differently.

“It allows us to attack the year and chase something as opposed to defend something that is what we’re all excited about.

“There’s almost that fresh feel about the place and the start of a new chapter in the club and something we are all on the same page with and we’ll see some exciting stuff from us,” Walmsley said.

Walmsley also welcomed the moves to clean up the ruck - especially given he has been one of the most sinned against players when it comes to flopping.

“In Australia last year against St George and Penrith I averaged at least two if not three, 'six agains' in those in those games.

“Hopefully that is a standard that is going to come into our game this year.

“We want an exciting game - a fast game and not one spoiled around the ruck.

“For someone like myself who prides himself on his carry and play the ball speed it’s hopefully part of the game I can exploit.

“And hopefully it will allow the likes of Daz, Jack, Jonny and Lewis to do so off the back that,” Walmsley said.