Alex Walmsley says he spent half the season mentally dealing with what it meant to resurrect his Super League career after breaking his neck.
The St Helens prop returned after almost an entire season out to make 22 league appearances, helping them reach Saturday’s Grand Final at Old Trafford.
With big hits and tough tackling expected of the 29-year-old, he admits it took time to again feel comfortable.
“The biggest hurdle of rehab was the was the psychological one,” he said.
“It took me a good 10 or 12 games to put those issues behind me.
“I can remember the first game I came back, and while I wouldn’t say I was petrified I was nervous and I could only think about how good it would feel to be sat back in the changing room after the game.
“That is all I wanted, I didn’t care about the result, the match or the win – I just wanted to get through that game and be sat in the changing room after it.
“I had that battle for a few weeks, but as the time went by the feeling diminished and got to a point where I don’t like to think about it.”
That return was against Saints’ bitter near neighbours and champions Wigan in February.
He made 12 tackles, 14 carries and 115 metres. As the season has gone on, Walmsley’s influence has grown – averaging 15 carries, 124 metres, and 19 tackles per game.
“The beauty of playing the sport we play and particularly the position I play is that there isn’t a lot of time to think about what goes on,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live.
Walmsley broke a bone in his neck in a Super League game against Warrington in March 2018 and was then consigned to the stands as his team-mates dominated on the field.
However, after winning the League Leaders’ Shield, they went out at the semi-final stage of the play-off and last four of the Challenge Cup.
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It was is the absence of hulking opposition running at him, when sat in sterile hospital rooms or working alone on his physical recovery, that he had time to think about what the injury meant.
“It was a dark year for me last year – dark times with very much a lot of doubt and uncertainty about my career,” he said.
“To come back and help the boys and return to the Theatre of Dreams makes those tough times all worth while.
“Being back in 2019 and not just to play well enough to be in the side that I am, but to make it to Wembley first or all and now Old Trafford has been a great year.”
Within six months of his return he had helped Saints reach the Challenge Cup final – a decider they went into as heavy favourites and lost against Warrington in August.
The pain of defeat, Walmsley said, is something that the entire side has harnessed as they aim to win their first Super League Grand Final since 2014.
Saints went on to finish a record 16 points clear at the top of the table and breezed past Wigan in their semi-final to confirm their place at Old Trafford against a Salford side they will be expected to beat.
“The beauty of us losing at Wembley is that it gave us one sole purpose, and that is to win on Saturday,” he said.
“Straight after that game at Wembley we were gutted and we were down, but we took solace that we would have one more final to get to.
“We have all the determination we need to win this final.”