Alex Walmsley: How the prop leads the St Helens try-scoring charts
By Marc Bazeley
Last Updated: 18/09/20 12:36pm
Even given the strangeness of this pandemic-affected Super League season, it is highly unlikely many would have predicted the man who would be the leading try-scorer for St Helens at this stage.
Some would have perhaps picked Regan Grace or the currently suspended Tommy Makinson. Others may have said Lachlan Coote or Kevin Naiqama. Either way, it would be a surprise if Alex Walmsley featured high on the list of potential candidates.
Yet the prop is in a particularly rich vein of form when it comes to crossing the whitewash, with seven to his name so far in 2020 - five of which have come in St Helens' six games since the season resumed.
It is not particularly down to Saints using him in a different way or adjusting his game, but head coach Kristian Woolf has seen subtle improvements in some facets of the England and Great Britain international's game which have led to him putting in a string of fine all-round displays.
"It's great he's scoring tries and he likes to let us know he's scoring plenty of tries as well," Woolf said. "He's obviously a terrific player.
"He's a little bit unique as a player as well and that makes him really hard to handle. I really like the way he's gone about his work since lockdown in particular - that's both with and without the ball.
"Quite often he gets the plaudits with the ball, but I think what he's doing without the ball is really good as well and he's made some real improvements there. I'm happy with his form and we need to keep going, obviously."
Quite often he gets the plaudits with the ball, but I think what he's doing without the ball is really good as well and he's made some real improvements there.
Kristian Woolf on Alex Walmsley
Walmsley's talent has always been evident, be that from his amateur days with Dewsbury Celtic when he was named National Conference League player of the year in 2011 or when he stepped up to professional level with Batley Bulldogs and won their player of the year and Championship young player of the year accolades in the same season.
Since moving to St Helens in 2013, the forward has become a cornerstone of their pack too, helping the club to Super League Grand Final triumphs in 2014 and 2019, along with being named in the Dream Team and nominated for Man of Steel in 2015 followed by earning international caps.
Standing at 6ft 5in and weighing just over 18st makes Walmsley physically imposing for defenders to deal with anyway, but Sky Sports rugby league expert and former international prop Barrie McDermott has noticed how much he has progressed in the technical side of the role during the past seven years.
"He's in his prime and that's the reality of his situation," McDermott told the Golden Point Podcast.
"I like to quote [former Batley head coach] John Kear who said when he watched him for Dewsbury Celtic, he was too big, he was too hard to handle and nobody could stop him, but he didn't know what he was doing. He went to Batley, nobody could handle him, but he didn't know what he was doing.
"He went to Saints and at first he was too big and nobody could handle him, and he was just getting used to what he was doing. Now he has absolutely nailed what his role and what his job is."
The 30-year-old's physical attributes makes him particularly difficult to stop when up to speed, with all of his tries since the restart coming in a similar manner where he has taken the ball around or within 20 metres of his opponents' line.
McDermott puts that down to the work being done by the man alongside him in the front row, citing how much of his best periods of form when playing for Leeds Rhinos coincided with having Terry Newton and Matt Diskin in the team with him.
It's no coincidence that when I played at my best, I always had an exceptional No. 9 and a hooker who gave me the ball when I needed it.
"It's no coincidence that when I played at my best, I always had an exceptional No 9 and a hooker who gave me the ball when I needed it," McDermott said.
"I never got over-called with Terry Newton or Matt Diskin later on, because if I called for it, I got it. When I got those crisp passes, they bought me half a second, which was another metre and a bit.
"As well as that in terms of what I gained, I might have got a retreating defender or the wrist part of the tackle instead of the crease of the elbow or shoulder. So, I would put a lot of what is going on down to James Roby."
That is borne out by the fact four of Walmsley's recent tries have come via assists from his hooker, with Roby providing two and up-and-coming pivot Aaron Smith on hand to set up two of his others.
Of course, as Woolf points out front rows tend to get plenty of ball from their hookers anyway, but even so he has been pleased with the work Roby and Smith have been doing recently too.
"He's got two good blokes inside him to give him the ball there," Woolf said. "James Roby has been an outstanding player and has been for a long time, and I'm really happy with how Aaron Smith has come on as well.
"The more he has played the better he has got, and he has made a lot of improvements with and without the ball. I was really impressed with what he did against Huddersfield where we asked him to play some big minutes.
"I thought he did a terrific job there too, so we're happy with how he's progressing as a player too and that's the direction we need to be going in."