Alex Walmsley: St Helens and England forward desperate to end semi-final curse

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Challenge Cup semi-final: St Helens 16-35 Catalans Dragons highlights
Betfred Super League
Starts: Thursday, 31 January
Coverage: Selected full match commentaries on BBC Radio 5 live, BBC Radio 5 live sports extra, BBC local radio and the BBC Sport website; listen to the weekly BBC Rugby League podcast and watch highlights on the Super League Show; selected live text commentaries and reports of every game on the BBC Sport website and app.

Six semi-finals for St Helens. Six straight defeats.

Few were as painful as last season's two final-four fixtures. Despite finishing 10 points clear of nearest rivals Wigan in the regular season table, Warrington dumped them out in the Super League play-offs.

Prior to that, Justin Holbrook's side were blown away by Catalans Dragons in the Challenge Cup semis and missed out on a trip to Wembley.

It was even more frustrating for England prop Alex Walmsley, whose involvement was curtailed by a long-term neck injury just five games into the campaign.

Now, in 2019, he and Saints are ready to go the next step and quash their semi-final blues.

"It's a motivating point before being a focal point," he told the BBC's Super League Show.

"When you lose semi-finals the first thing you're going to do is write that year off and get going again. You can't wait for the season to start just so you can rectify those wrongs, and it's exactly the same this year.

"Anything less than a final this year I don't think will be acceptable for this club.

"We were really disappointed how we finished last year. Being arguably the best team for the vast majority of the season and to come unstuck at the semi-finals was tough to take."

Long road to recovery for Walmsley

Not only are neck injuries painful, there is also the uncertainty which goes along with them.

Players have had careers ended by such issues, from former Kangaroos great Andrew Johns and ex-Castleford winger Kirk Dixon, to Wales and London centre Michael Channing.

Recovery to play again can be a long, stressful process.

"After two or three months of scans, your mind starts to play tricks on you," the 28-year-old front rower said. "Going from one consultation to another and being told it's not ready, you doubt it's ever going to get there.

"You sort of dread the consultations in the end because you know you're going to get the red flag rather than a green one.

"I wasn't told any negative news at any point during the rehab to have any doubts, but you still get them. Me and the physio, Nathan Mill, drove over to the last consultation I had and it was like driving over to a funeral, it was as if we were expecting bad news.

"Sitting down I was still sort of expecting that same 'Yes, it's not quite ready' or whatever. Thankfully we didn't get that this time and it was nice. It was nice to hear those words.

"Being able to go back into the car and tell my partner that I'm fine and I can do it again. It's not just the stresses on yourself, it's your family that goes through these journeys with you and it's been a tough, tough journey.

"Being able to tell my family and things like that, that I've come through, I can put it to bed."

Spending time with family during rehab

If there is a silver lining to being denied the chance to play, to do the job you are desperate to, to kicking your heels at home all day - then it is spending time with the family.

Walmsley, who famously left a game early in his kit to join his partner Simone at the birth of their son Atticus, is usually tied up in the cycle of the rugby league season which runs straight through the summer months.

Without the daily grind of training and games, he had a precious opportunity away from the sport.

"I've got a young boy, and being able to spend a lot of time with him, seeing him grow up, yes it's been great," he added. "[I could] focus on things you don't normally get to focus on being a rugby player and go on family holidays in the summer.

"These little things you sort of take for granted and to be able to do them was nice. Don't get me wrong, I'd much rather be out on the field and playing and hopefully helping the team out, but that was a nice touch."

Goodbye Barba... hello Coote and Naiqama

Lachlan Coote (second right of trophy) with his North Queensland teammates
Lachlan Coote (2nd right of trophy) won an NRL premiership with North Queensland in 2015

If Saints are going to go one better than last year at the least, they will have to do it without their Man of Steel full-back Ben Barba.

The 29-year-old ended his 17-month spell at the Saints with a return to the National Rugby League in Australia with North Queensland Cowboys.

In his place, Saints have raided the NRL for further quality, with Lachlan Coote swapping places with Barba, Fiji skipper Kevin Naiqama arriving from Wests Tigers and Cronulla's powerful back-rower Joseph Paulo adding skilful ballast to the pack.

"There are a number of teams thinking the same, only one team can win the competition," Saints head coach Justin Holbrook told BBC Sport.

"We have to work that bit harder at the end of the year to make that happen.

"Lachlan, Kevin, Joe Batchelor [from York] and Joseph - those four have come in and brought a nice freshness to the group, and throw in the return of Alex Walmsley who didn't play last year after round five.

"It's massive to have him back. It's a real good mix and a real good side."

White-hot Wigan derby kick-off for Saints

Alex Walmsley takes on the Wigan defence in his last derby outing - the 2017 Super 8s
Alex Walmsley is relishing the atmosphere and passion of the Saints-Wigan derby on Thursday

Walmsley's re-introduction to the rigours of Super League will be a ferocious one. Saints' rivalry with Wigan is as fierce as any in Super League, and the Warriors are the reigning champions to boot.

Both Saints-Wigan and Hull KR-Hull FC are being played on the opening weekend, while former Grand Final and Challenge Cup final foes Warrington and Leeds are also paired up in round one.

"You won't be dipping your toe in against Wigan," Walmsley laughed. "I think it's great, not just for Super League but for both towns as well to start with a bang.

"They've obviously had a great off-season celebrating a Grand Final win, so I'm sure they'll be on full form. I reckon it'll be a great game, I really do.

"There are no easy games in Super League anymore. The way teams have developed recently, you look at Wakefield in recent years and how they've kicked on.

"It doesn't matter who you play, if it's Wigan, Wakefield, Hull KR, Salford, Warrington, it's going to be a tough game and everyone's going to look for a good start.

"Hopefully a big sell-out in front of 20,000 people at Langtree Park would be nice way to start the season."

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