BARELY five years ago, just getting a trial with Batley Bulldogs was “unbelievable” for Alex Walmsley, an amateur rugby league player whose main aim was to finish his studies and get a job as a quantity surveyor.
However, a lot has changed since; the hulking prop is now one of Super League’s leading players and, remarkably, in line to make his England debut against Samoa in Sydney next month.
His rags to riches tale is rare – the Dewsbury-born front-row was 22 before he even made his professional debut with Championship part-timers Batley – but a reminder that anything is possible given the right attitude.
“I was playing for Leeds Met Uni’ and Dewsbury Celtic about five-and-a-half years ago,” explained St Helens star Walmsley, when discussing his call-up to Wayne Bennett’s England squad for the mid-season international.
“I’d not even signed for Batley as I was on trial there. To be where I was, knocking about with my mates on a local field, and where I am now, heading to Australia as part of a 20-man squad playing Samoa, is unbelievable.
“Would I have thought back then I may have opportunity to potentially play for England?
The last five years have been such an unbelievable time. Being here now caps it.Alex Walmsley
“No. My aim was finishing uni’ and being a quantity surveyor. It wasn’t even signing for Batley. To get a trial there was unbelievable.
“It’s been one milestone after another – signing for Batley, playing in the Championship, signing for Saints, playing Super League, playing in a Grand Final.
“The last five years have been such an unbelievable time. Being here now caps it.”
Walmsley won the 2012 Championship ‘Young Player of the Year’ in his sole season with Batley, Saints immediately recognising the marauding forward’s obvious talent and duly taking a punt.
It was, arguably, their best bit of business in some time. The plan was for Walmsley to return to Mount Pleasant on dual-registration as he found his feet with the rigours of full-time training but he soon got a chance in Super League and did not look back.
He was in Saints’ 2014 Grand Final winning team and so influential the following season he was shortlisted for ‘Man of Steel’.
Walmsley, cruelly, missed out on an England call then due to injury and last season he struggled to recapture his best and was not in the reckoning as Bennett took charge for the Four Nations.
Indeed, the giant forward –Walmsley stands at 6ft 5in and weighs 18st – was not even in the 31-man elite training squad named as recently as January.
However, it has been impossible to ignore his form in the early part of this campaign; the thunderous player has made more metres (1,530) and carries (204) than anyone else in Super League and, at times, seems unstoppable.
Walmsley found out about his call-up on Saturday, fittingly, from one of the game’s all-time great props Jamie Peacock, the former England captain who is now the national side’s football manager.
He explained: “JP phoned me a couple of weeks ago asking for some visa details, just on the off-chance. He said: ‘You’re playing well, they’re talking about you. Whether you’re in or not is another matter. Keep doing what you’re doing and you’ve got a chance.’
“I still didn’t expect it, though, so to get the call Saturday was amazing, I was pinching myself a bit. With the way I was last year, with injuries and the way my body was, I did sort of expect the cut (from the ETS).
“It’s not as if I gave up hope, I just put it to the back of my mind and concentrated on myself and Saints. Whatever happens happens. But I thought with me not being in the ETS, I’d really struggle for the Samoa game.
“It’s a big shock and massive honour. Hopefully, I’ll get to play.
“Playing and training alongside the likes of James Graham and Sam Burgess will be a bit of a pinnacle.”
Bennett has named four other props – Graham, Chris Hill, Tom Burgess and Hull FC’s Scott Taylor – while Sam Burgess, who played loose-forward in the Four Nations, could also feature there given the return from injury of captain Sean O’Loughlin.
George Burgess is banned and fellow front-row Mike Cooper has been left out while St George-Illawarra stand-off Gareth Widdop was yesterday sidelined by injury so Bennett may make a swift change to his half-back plans.
On his unusual path to this point, Walmsley added: “I’m very proud of the route that took me into the game and to have done it such a fashion where 99 per cent of rugby league players don’t make it.
“I still keep in touch with the lads I played with at Dewsbury (Celtic); they definitely wouldn’t let me get above myself!”