Ryan Papenhuyzen has made a heartwarming admission ahead of his return to the field with the Storm superstar admitting: “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”
All eyes will be on Papenhuyzen when he runs out for the Storm in their pre-season trial against the Bulldogs on Thursday night.
It will be his first game since breaking his ankle in week one of the finals and just his fourth game in 19 months after a well-documented knee injury sidelined him for the end of the 2022 season and most of 2023.
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But the 25-year-old is ready — physically and mentally — to take on this season after a “journey” that has him wondering “why can’t it (footy) be better than what it was?”
Speaking to the Fox League Podcast, Papenhuyzen opened up on the thoughts that crossed his mind after his ankle injury, why he footed the bill for his trip to the US and how a healthy dose of jealousy has re-lit the fire in his belly.
‘I REMEMBER GETTING QUITE EMOTIONAL’
Suncorp Stadium went silent in the 72nd minute of the Broncos-Storm clash when Papenhuyzen went down injured in what was just his third game back from a horrific knee injury.
After joining the game from the bench in the 23rd minute, Papenhuyzen had some nice touches. But then disaster struck as a teammate landed on his ankle.
The fan favourite was in visible pain before he was taken from the field on a medi cab.
When asked to reflect on the moment, Papenhuyzen used the word “disappointment” to sum it up.
“After working so hard to come back from the knee, getting a few games in and getting into finals…” he began.
“It was the first week of finals so all that excitement builds up. I got myself through to the 75th minute and we all know what happened from there.
“It was probably disappointment, you could see I was pretty shattered on the field.
“Looking back on it, it’s hard to watch but I guess you just have to embrace those emotions because it makes the comeback a bit better and it makes you appreciate what you do a bit more when you get back out there.
“I don’t think it really hit me at the time, it was more just that instant ‘oh no, something has happened again’.
“Then you look down at your ankle, it’s probably not where it’s meant to be, then the pain of the swelling setting in while your boot is still on.
“I think it probably hit me, whether it was going to be a long-term thing, when I went back under the ground. Everyone was around me, there were doctors and it probably hit me then at that moment.”
That was a rough night for the Storm, who went down 26-nil to the Broncos. Speedster Xavier Coates also suffered an ankle injury, while four players left the field during the game for HIAs.
But the biggest storyline out of those 80 minutes — perhaps even out of the entire weekend — was Papenhuyzen.
How could the rugby league Gods be so cruel to one of the game’s genuine good guys? He missed close to 14 months after shattering his kneecap into 10 pieces in July, 2022 — surely he was due for some good luck, right?
Papenhuyzen relives horror injury | 00:52
Those same questions crossed Papenhuyzen’s mind too.
“I remember getting quite emotional again and you just sort of think after being out for the last 14 months and going through what you went through you do feel a little sorry for yourself,” he conceded.
“Once I got taken back under (the stadium), there was probably a five or 10-minute period there where I really felt sorry for myself… but then the green whistle kicked in.”
He had a moment of questioning if there was any way he could’ve avoided back-to-back injuries, but some practical thinking helped him get over that.
“I think after processing it for a while, both were freak injuries. It’s not my body letting me down, it was literally an external force hitting me,” Papenhuyzen said.
“So once I processed that I sort of got around it… but you definitely feel that and probably feel like you’ve let your teammates down as well which sounds so silly in hindsight but it’s the genuine feeling you get once you’re injured.”
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‘I WAS LIKE A NEW HUMAN’
Pre-season looked a little different for Papenhuyzen this time round.
He travelled to America to work with renowned reconditioning specialist Bill Knowles again before Christmas and then hung around Storm headquarters over the holiday period to knock over a crucial two-week block of training.
Other than three days in Sydney to see family, Papenhuyzen was chipping away at his rehabilitation in Melbourne.
“Once (the squad) went back on January 4, I was like a new human — I was running, I was changing direction and I think the boys were a little surprised. I was at a point where I probably needed to do that two-week block,” he said.
Papenhuyzen first worked with Knowles in 2022 when he suffered his knee injury. He had such a positive experience that he footed the bill himself to head back over to Philadelphia to work with the world-class specialist.
“It was one I think I needed to do mentally, to see the best person for the job to get me back in a good physical condition,” he said.
“A small sacrifice when you put it that way but I did it off my own bat and I guess it’s one of those things I’ll probably look back on at the end of my career and be really grateful that I was able to do it.
“It’s definitely worth it.”
Knowles has become the go-to man for NRL players recovering from a long-term injury. Latrell Mitchell, Tom Trbojevic, Jayden Brailey and Luke Metcalf join Papenhuyzen on the list of players that have worked with him.
When aked why Knowles is so good at what he does, Papenhuyzen said “it’s just a different approach” and pointed to the one-on-one attention he received as an example.
“Usually you’re here in an environment where you’ve got 40 guys training and there’s only two physios,” he said.
“It’s hard for them to oversee what I’m doing and give me really specific things to do where with Bill it’s one-on-one for two weeks, you’re there every day, you’re doing two sessions a day.
“So if you put that together I’m probably getting a month or two’s work in two weeks.
“And just the way he goes about his work, he’s very passionate, never makes you feel like you’re doing the wrong thing, very encouraging and I think that’s what I needed at that point.
“I was obviously very frustrated after this injury. But the way he goes about it, it’s really encouraging, it really makes you want to be there and it gives you that confidence that when you actually come back, you’re back playing in the NRL you’re going to be up to that level that you were at before.
“He frames it up a little bit differently to what I’ve heard before. I obviously had that experience with him when I went over for my knee and the ankle (conditioning) just confirmed why he’s so good at what he does.”
While there was time spent on rehabilitating the injury itself, Knowles also helped Papenhuyzen realise how big of a role the brain plays in recovery and taught him ways to try and prevent further injuries.
“The first two days I learnt how to walk again. It was weird,” he said.
“I think like anyone after an ankle injury, they have that little limp and my foot was really stiff. So the first two days we were just walking on his gym mat and he’d video me and critique it.
“But it all built up for the third day. I hopped in the pool and he put flippers on my feet (and) I was just working through range. Once I did that and went back onto the gym mat my ankle was moving again.
“So it’s just teaching the brain that it actually is OK to do that but how we get to that point is breaking it all down and going backwards.
“People think rehab is just doing lots of work on the injury but he did a lot around movement, mechanics of the body and making sure that I’m being proactive with my body in positions that won’t affect that area or that will take the load off a little bit.
“It’s a whole range, you’re in the pool, doing stuff with your core, you’re doing stuff with your feet and he talks about your hip and feet connection — you’re not even talking about the ankle or knee.
“By the second week you’re doing things that you probably didn’t think you could do in the first week.”
Knowles has worked with a wide range of athletes from the NFL to the Premier League.
He didn’t know a lot about rugby league when Papenhuyzen first visited but that’s just how the Storm speedster likes it.
“The first time I went over there he called the footy a Sneeden — not a Steeden — I was like ‘what is going on?’” Papenhuyzen laughed.
“But I think that’s what’s also quite refreshing, he doesn’t know you from a bar of soap.
“When I first went over there he had to watch a couple of clips to see what I did. But essentially we’re making some of the same movements as NFL athletes… A lot of the reference is about changing angles, taking off and being able to do that repetitively.”
It’s also worth noting ahead of the NRL’s historic double-header in Vegas that Knowles rates the physicality of rugby league higher than American football.
“He declared that ours is definitely physically tougher so I’ll take that,” Papenhuyzen said.
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‘WHY CAN’T IT BE BETTER THAN WHAT IT WAS?’
Papenhuyzen won’t be able to wipe the smile off his face when he runs out for the Storm onto Belmore Sports Ground on Thursday night.
It’ll hopefully mark the end of an incredibly tough period in his career, where he’s only managed 30 games over the last three seasons due to injuries.
But there’s no reason to feel sorry for Papenhuyzen because he’s never felt “clearer” or more settled away from the field.
A big part of that is thanks to the reading he’s been doing. The Chimp Paradox and Freakonomics are his recommended books, while he also revealed he’s currently reading about the five love languages.
“I’m probably the happiest I’ve ever been. I feel fit and in a physically good condition as well,” Papenhuyzen said.
“Life outside of football is really good. I feel like I’m doing things in the background and I’m building my skillset in other areas that I can sort of say is an outlet.
“Footy can be quite intense at times and can bring you down a little bit but I’ve got a good group of friends around me and I just moved into a new place.
“I just feel really refreshed in my mind. It probably goes back to all the reading and the self-discovering that you do.
“Once you sort of bring up things from the past, expose them and speak about them it just takes that weight off your shoulders.
“I probably didn’t know I needed that at the time but it’s definitely helped and made me feel a lot clearer now.”
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Papenhuyzen has always been passionate about his footy, but such is the case with many players that go through injury challenges, his time on the sideline has helped uncover a new level of love for the game.
He’s ready to get back to player — so ready in fact that he’s asked himself why life and his footy can’t be better than that they were pre-injury.
“I’ve been on a big journey actually,” Papenhuyzen said.
“I think I knew (that there’s more to life than just footy) before but it sort of took me being out of the game for a while to go ‘OK you do need to focus on some other things’.
“But I think that love for the game, because it’s been taken away from me, you sort of get a bit jealous of the guys out on the field who are killing it and you’re like ‘I want to do that again, I want to be that person’.
“I guess my focus in that period was ‘I can’t work on things that I can’t control so let’s do some things that I can control’ and that’s the mental side of the game and studying the game and seeing what the trends are.
“I think all the mental stuff has put me in good stead, now it’s just the physical training — getting the reps in my legs and reps in with my teammates.
“I had a feeling today of ‘why can’t it be better than what it was?’ I think that’s exciting to feel like that.”
Source website: www.foxsports.com.au