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Best friends Joe Keyes, of Hull Kingston Rovers, and Alex Walker, of Wakefield Trinity, on their journey from Leventhorpe School in Sawbridgeworth to the Betfred Super League

Having become best friends in Sawbridgeworth 12 years ago, Joe Keyes and Alex Walker have been reunited almost 200 miles away from home in the Betfred Super League.

They are both busy settling in at new clubs at the start of the 2020 season after securing moves back to the top flight, with half-back Keyes having moved to Hull Kingston Rovers from Bradford Bulls and full-back Walker switching to Wakefield Trinity from London Broncos.

Keyes and Walker have been mates since being in the same Year 7 form class together at Leventhorpe School, and began their professional career together with the Broncos in 2014.

Alex Walker and Joe Keyes after a London Broncos academy game in 2014 (31331470)
Alex Walker and Joe Keyes after a London Broncos academy game in 2014 (31331470)

And the 24-year-old pals, who also both featured at the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, dream one day of running out for the same side again playing a sport they have loved since they were young.

Keyes was born in Enfield and grew up in Sawbridgeworth, going to Reedings Junior School before attending Leventhorpe.

He began playing rugby union for Romford & Gidea Park as his dad John was based in east London, with his father forming Redbridge Raiders so his son and his friends could play rugby league in the summer.

Hull KR's Joe Keyes. Picture: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com
Hull KR's Joe Keyes. Picture: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com

He went on to join the Harlequins scholarship programme - London Broncos were known as Harlequins Rugby League from 2006 to 2011 - at the age of 12 as well as moving to Brentwood Elvers.

And he went on to make his Broncos first-team debut in Super League a few days after completing his A-Levels at Leventhorpe in the summer of 2014.

"I played union and league side by side, but I always had my heart set on league," said Keyes, whose mum Val still lives in Sawbridgeworth.

"I watched a lot of Australian NRL and the way I played was very much league as well, with tackling higher."

Betfred Super League (31331496)
Betfred Super League (31331496)

Walker, who was born at Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow, moved to Sawbridgeworth with his family when he was in Year 3 and went to Mandeville Primary School before meeting Keyes at Leventhorpe. Mum and dad Paula and Andy still live in the town while his brother James is based in Elsenham.

Walker was "football crazy" as a youngster and had trials with Norwich City and Ipswich Town as well as playing rugby league for the Elvers with Keyes.

He also became part of the Broncos academy at under-15 level before committing fully to rugby league and making his Super League debut alongside his best friend in the last game of the 2014 season.

Wakefield Trinity's Alex Walker. Picture: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com
Wakefield Trinity's Alex Walker. Picture: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com

Walker went on to spend another five seasons in the Broncos first-team squad. After relegation in 2014, he had four years in the Championship before they regained their place in Super League for the 2019 campaign.

He played a major part in his team beating Toronto Wolfpack 4-2 in the Million Pound Game to decide who got promoted and made what was dubbed the 'million pound tackle' - a crucial one-on-one intervention to stop Blake Wallace scoring a try despite having broken a finger and dislocated three others on his right hand in the first minute of the game.

"In those games you've got so much adrenaline pumping through you that you'd do anything to stop the opposition scoring and win the game," said Walker. "I was just doing my job.

Keyes and Walker became friends at Leventhorpe School in Sawbridgeworth. Picture: Vikki Lince
Keyes and Walker became friends at Leventhorpe School in Sawbridgeworth. Picture: Vikki Lince

"It was massive for the club, getting them back to where they deserved to be in Super League."

Walker agreed a move to Wakefield during last season and his time with the Broncos ended in heartbreak.

They ended up playing Wakefield on the final day of the campaign in what was a winner-takes-all relegation showdown and succumbed 19-10. Now he is concentrating on helping his new club challenge in the higher echelons of Super League.

"I got the deal done quite early so I could concentrate on the rest of the season. It ended up being a relegation decider in the last game of the season - it was horrible," said Walker.

"I hope they [Broncos] can come back up again this season. I still follow their results on Twitter and text the boys to see how they're getting on."

After an injury-hit 2015, Keyes made the move to Championship side Bradford Bulls in 2016 hoping for a fresh start.

But there turned out to be troubled times at Bradford as they went into liquidation in January 2017, with a 'new club' immediately formed to resurrect them with a 12-point deduction. They were subsequently relegated to League 1 for the 2018 season and got instant promotion back to the Championship, coming sixth last term.

There was even a time when Keyes wondered what his long-term future was in the game due to a back injury.

"It was a bit of a crazy time at Bradford with the liquidation. That was not a good time for me and everyone involved with the club," said Keyes.

"The 2017 season was hard with a very young team as lots of players left and we started on minus 12, so we didn't really have a chance. It was a big learning curve.

"In 2018 we were in League 1 and were winning a lot, which was good for the confidence. But I had a bad injury at the start of last season, with discs in my back, and didn't know if I'd be able to keep on playing.

"I missed the first five months of the season getting over it and then played the last 10 games, getting back to my best. I really turned a bit of a corner and the opportunity came along to step up to Super League again, so I jumped at it."

While the pals are now back living just 30 miles apart - Keyes is based in Halifax with his dad and step-mum Liz, who relocated up there, while Walker resides in the village of Eggborough with girlfriend Ciara - they have also enjoyed a rugby league adventure on the other side of the world.

Keyes and Walker qualify to represent Ireland and Scotland respectively through their grandparents and they featured for their countries at the World Cup in Australia three years ago. They have also helped their nations reach the 2021 competition, which takes place in this country.

"It was unreal. My Scotland hotel and his Ireland hotel were about 100 yards away from each other, so we got to spend some time together out there," said Walker.

"Playing against the world's best players was really good."

The friends last played against each other in 2017 when the Broncos took on the Bulls. They could have gone head-to-head on the first day of this season, but Keyes (knee) and Walker (ankle ligaments) were both ruled out as Hull KR beat Wakefield 30-12 at home.

And being reunited in the same club colours for the first time since their Broncos days would be something special for the duo.

"We haven't played together for a long time so it would be nice to play on the same side again one day before we're too old!" said Keyes.

Walker added: "It would be unreal if we found ourselves on the same team again one day. We've got a good connection and know each other's game."

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