Ryan Stig has good memories of this tunnel.
It’s 3 July, 2011. The Newcastle Knights are flying.
For too long a cash-strapped club, the Knights have just entered a new era under billionaire owner Nathan Tinkler. They’ve signed on the game’s most successful coach, Wayne Bennett, for the following season – and they’ve just beaten Bennett’s current side on its own turf.
Optimism floods throughout the Knights’ sheds, underneath WIN Stadium’s southern stand, as the visitors enjoy a good, gritty, Newcastle win over the Dragons. They celebrate the apparent emergence of their fresh, 21-year-old halfback, try-scorer and Man of the Match in just his third game at the top level. Premiership glory doesn’t seem too far away.
The next time the Knights would visit Wollongong would be on 1 April, 2018. Easter Sunday.
In the seven years that have passed, that optimism has ebbed and flowed; coaches and owners have come and gone, games have been won and lost. That halfback isn’t 21 anymore, he’s not in the NRL and his Intrust Super Premiership NSW side was just beaten – yet there he stands once again, underneath the southern stand, celebrating a victory. The type of monumental victory that makes the two competition points pale into relative insignificance.
“It was last time the Knights played here, I think it was about seven years ago, we won first grade,” Stig tells NSWRL.com.au. “It probably wasn’t as happy a hunting ground today as the last time I was here, but it was still enjoyable just to be playing a game of footy.
“It was a bit of a triumph in itself, just to get out there.”
Stig has been rocked by a serious illnesses throughout much of those seven years, and his journey to get back into the Knights’ second-tier side is a remarkable one. After 13 consecutive games in the NRL – a run which earned him a two-year contract extension – the budding playmaker was sidelined by a blood clot behind his right eye. From there, Stig began to battle chronic fatigue as his health deteriorated; his final game at the lower level came in Round 4, 2012, almost six years ago to the day.
It took two years before Stig was diagnosed with Lyme disease, a potentially life-threatening tick-borne bacterial infection, and many more would-be NRL seasons were spent undergoing treatment. At the illness’s lowest point, Rugby League was the furthest thing from Stig’s mind.
“I just started to get blurry vision in my right eye and started to get sicker and sicker,” Stig says. “I was really crook at a point there – I was close to a wheelchair.”
The former Australian Schoolboys playmaker, once with the world at his feet, was then struggling to find his feet at all. Lyme disease is less-commonly recognised in Australia, so Stig had to travel the world for treatment; he visited clinics in Mexico, Germany, Switzerland and Malaysia on the long road to recovery. Eventually, after extensive measures, his health began to improve.
Now 28, Stig stands in that same tunnel which brought him so much hope last time. The importance of that moment dawns on him: having trained with the Knights over the off-season, including a short stint in a pre-season trial, Stig’s just completed his first competitive game at any level in six years.
It’s a moment Stig had thought may never arrive.
“At one point there, I was struggling to keep everything moving,” Stig says. “The fact that I’m now playing footy is a spinout.
“It’s so surreal because it doesn’t feel real at times – but then it feels so normal as well. It’s a funny place sometimes.
“In the trial match, my little girl and wife were able to come to the game. I never thought I’d get to do that with them… it’s really good.”
Coming off the bench in the 30-10 defeat, Stig was afforded 62 minutes as he completed another major step in his comeback – but the journey isn’t over yet. Stig’s next task will be securing a regular place in Simon Woolford’s side, before pushing for what would be an incredible NRL return.
“I felt really comfortable out there. Better than I thought,” Stig says. “Hopefully I can just keep building on my strength and speed and fitness … and hopefully I can work my way back to where I was when I got sick.
“It’s just game time (that Stig needs to return). Getting back into the nuances of the game and controlling a game in my position. I’ll keep working on the physical aspects of the game.
“I want to get back in the top grade at some point, so that’s my goal – whether that’s this year or next year, I’ll just keep chipping away at it.”
Once again named on an extended bench for the Knights in Round 5, Stig will look to return to McDonald Jones Stadium to take on the North Sydney Bears from 5.15pm on Saturday, 7 April.