Garry Schofield pays tribute to the St Helens prop forward, whose success didn’t come originally through the Academy route.
With their comprehensive wins over Salford and Hull KR, St Helens have made a very solid start to their bid for a third successive Super League title.
There are bigger tests to come for sure, but you can only play the teams in front of you, and 54 points scored to only six conceded will make pretty satisfactory reading for coach Kristian Woolf.
Saints have also done a good piece of business by tying Alex Walmsley down to a new long-term contract.
I think he’s the best prop in Super League, and one of the top frontrowers in the world, and as long as he avoids any injury problems, he will have a great opportunity to show that at the World Cup later this year.
There’s sure to have been plenty of interest from the NRL, but Alex has committed to Saints until the end of the 2024 season.
The club clearly appreciate him, and from his comments it’s clear the feeling is mutual. By the time his new deal ends, he’ll have been there for twelve years, earning a deserved testimonial.
Alex will be 34 by then, but let’s not forget, he was something of a late starter in the professional game, and I reckon he can get better still.
I’ve mentioned before that he was among the BARLA Young Lions squad I took on tour to South Africa in 2010.
Alex was with Dewsbury Celtic, but there was no doubt in my mind he could have played at the top level, and when we got back, I recommended him to Leeds, Castleford and Hull.
I still suspect they chose not to act because he hadn’t come through the game’s Scholarship and Academy system, which in my view, is far from perfect and given too much kudos by too many people.
There will always be those who either get missed at a young age, aren’t yet showing the things clubs look for, or choose to follow a different path.
It doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t good enough, as is shown by Alex, who was eventually signed for Batley by John Kear and then snapped up by Saints.
The table’s taking shape
Two rounds in and Saints, despite hardly getting out of first gear yet, topping a table that already has a fairly familiar look.
Hull are in second, and the signs are that they have picked a good ’un in new coach Brett Hodgson.
They have chalked up impressive wins over Huddersfield and Salford, and Josh Reynolds has been great so far.
He not only contributes plenty to the team, but also takes some of the pressure off Marc Sneyd, whose game has also improved as a result.
Jake Connor, meanwhile, has been excellent at fullback.
We’ve always known the lad has plenty of talent, but he is a bit of a maverick.
Brett, of course, was a brilliant fullback himself, and I think you can already see his influence rubbing off on Jake, who appears to be linking with his team-mates more fluently.
Wigan, Castleford and Catalans are the other sides with maximum points, and Adrian Lam’s Warriors have done it while missing some of their most experienced backs, including a superb strike player in Bevan French, and without playing anything like as well as they are capable of.
Even when they don’t hit their straps, Wigan usually still do what Wigan do, they just keep going through their routines, and slowly but surely grind their opponents down while producing enough moments of quality to get those crucial points on the board.
Pre-season, I thought Castleford might struggle, but the announcement that Daryl Powell will be leaving at the end of the season seems to have added an extra dimension to their play.
The Tigers have taken two decent scalps in Warrington and Leeds, and seem to be enjoying themselves out on the pitch, just as they will be doing on the training ground under their very experienced coach.
There seems to be a real desire to make sure Daryl goes out on a high, and I’d love to see his side win some silverware to reflect the great work he has done there.
I’m also pleased for Steve McNamara, who as coach of the competition’s only French side Catalans, has been posed some unique problems by the pandemic.
That opening-round clash with Hull KR might have ended differently, but Saturday’s success over Huddersfield was more convincingly achieved.
And as he looks towards the World Cup, England coach Shaun Wane will have been delighted by the assured display at fullback of Sam Tomkins, a player we know he‘s very keen on from their time together at Wigan.
Sixth-placed Warrington were disappointing against Castleford, but in Leigh they had the right kind of opponents to bounce back against, and especially in their halfbacks Blake Austin and Gareth Widdop, had too much quality for John Duffy’s side, who, it has to be said, looked poor.
While Leeds, in seventh, have yet to find some rhythm, I expect them to be climbing the standings before too long.
But as for the other five sides, Huddersfield, Hull KR, Leigh, Wakefield and Salford, a big improvement is required and, while it’s still early days, the pressure is most definitely on.
I don’t want to see any coach lose his job, but it’s a results business, especially with relegation back on the agenda this time, and clubs know the many financial changes and difficulties dropping to the Championship would bring.
Of those four, Huddersfield’s form so far has been the most surprising, especially given Ian Watson’s bold predictions on his appointment.
The Giants are missing one of their main men in Aidan Sezer, and he’ll have to step up to the plate on his return.
The form of Watson’s former club Salford is also a concern, because, while they have faced good sides in St Helens and Hull, they have been well off the pace, which Richard Marshall will have to quickly address.
My Challenge Cup predictions
Round three of the Challenge Cup has handed us some great ties, and we’ll be looking out for the quartet of Championship clubs.
All four face Super League opposition, and Widnes could trouble Salford, but I think the Red Devils will have a bit too much for them and win by 16.
York’s clash with Wigan will be interesting, and a great occasion at their new ground. What a shame fans aren’t yet back.
Wigan won’t have it all their own way, and much could depend on what kind of side they put out, but I’m tipping them to win by ten.
Plenty of us remember Featherstone’s win over Hull in the 1983 final, and the current Rovers are a cracking side.
But the Black and Whites should have too much power, and I’m saying an away win by 14.
Warrington go to Swinton, and I can’t see anything other than a big victory. It’s the Wolves by 40.
St Helens, the defending Super League champions, versus Leeds, the Challenge Cup holders, is a cracker, but it’s come a bit early for the Rhinos, so I’ll say Saints by 14.
I’m also going Castleford by 14 at Hull KR, while I reckon it will be Catalans by 16 against Wakefield.
That leaves Leigh against Huddersfield, which is an opportunity for both sides to boost confidence. For me, it’s the Centurions by seven.
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