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In the latest of a series on the breakout stars of the NRL leading into the finals, Joel Gould tracks the journey of Storm No.1 gun Ryan Papenhuyzen.

 

Ryan Papenhuyzen intends to show "all those little blokes" that get told they are too small to play NRL that their dreams are never over.

The electrifying 22-year Storm fullback, who is still just 80kg wringing wet, insists that size doesn't matter for any small footballer who is prepared to play tough and continually add to their skill set.

Papenhuyzen, whose first contract was with the Wests Tigers where he played juniors with Dundas Shamrocks, also played junior footy in the Eels catchment with Kellyville Bushrangers and Hills District Bulls.

It was while in the junior system of Parramatta, the team he will play in the qualifying final on Saturday night at Suncorp Stadium, that he was first told that he didn't have the frame to make it in the big time.

Like Johnathan Thurston and Allan Langer before him, Papenhuyzen  heard the "too small" knock on him plenty of times.

"That is what happened at Parra early on. I remember I was in a touch footy side and playing for Parra and one of the dads was friends with the recruitment guy and he wanted them to pick me up, but their thing was that I was always too small," said Papenhuyzen.

"Although I made a couple of rep sides when I was a kid there was still that doubt in my mind, when people tell you that you are too small.

"You’ve just got to keep adding to your skill set and give it a crack and that’s something I’d like to show to all those little blokes out there that get told they are too small, that it’s not over and to just play tough.

"If you play tough there is no reason that they can’t pick you. Generally if you do that, then you can make any side."

Papenhuyzen has done that and more. In 17 games this year he has made 12 line breaks, scored seven tries, has 12 try assists and is averaging 190m per game.

It was his raw speed and toughness that first caught the eye of the Storm.

Two key meetings

After being signed by the Tigers and impressing with the SG Ball side, Papenhuyzen came to the attention of Storm recruitment chief Paul Bunn.

The night before the Storm's 19-18 over Wests Tigers in round seven, 2016 there was excitement in the air at the Novotel in Darling Harbour. 

Bunn was preparing to show coach Craig Bellamy and director of football Frank Ponissi a rare talent. The air crackled with the energy that their target now displays in a purple jersey.

"Paul Bunn and all his scouts were in Sydney and the night before we played the Tigers he showed all the coaches highlights of this young bloke that Paul and his all scouts were keen on," Ponissi told NRL.com.

The Foxx gets into the open field

"He was small, wearing headgear and quite outstanding. It was his speed that stood out. He was lightning.

"We were a little taken back by how small he was, but he also had a real toughness.

"We had come across a lot of quick blokes in our time but they haven’t been as tough, and Ryan has that tremendous balance where he can take a hit and keep on going.

"We said 'if you think he is good enough then sign him'. Then Craig and I met Ryan and his parents a couple of weeks later. He was really impressive and so was his family. It was an easy decision."

Papenhuyzen recalls the meeting with Bellamy and Ponissi at the Novotel in Parramatta like it was yesterday.

"The [Storm] boys had played Parra and we met up at the Novotel beforehand because I am from the Parra area… and it just felt like my first day at school," he said.

"You hear about Craig and you hear about Frank and then to meet them and talk about possibly having a career with them… just thinking about it feels like so long ago but it was only four years ago.

"It was pretty daunting but they are good people and only want the best for you."

Negotiations continued over the following months as Papenhuyzen played out that season at the Tigers. Early in 2017 the Storm announced they had signed him from the end of that year and the next stage of his journey was under way.

Hamstring hiccups

The first item on Papenhuyzen's agenda when he joined the Storm ahead of the 2018 pre-season was overcoming the doubts that had crept in at the Tigers where hamstring injuries had been a bugbear.

"You hear about people who do their hammies and that it is one of those injuries you can never get away from. It made me think 'if I am getting them now what is it going to mean down the track?'

"That was a tough time because when I came back I seemed to get injured. That is another reason for coming to the Storm," Papenhuyzen recalled.

Papenhuyzen splits the Raiders during last year's finals series.
Papenhuyzen splits the Raiders during last year's finals series. ©Nathan Hopkins/NRL Photos

"The speed coaches addressed the hammies and I got down to Melbourne a few months before pre-season to start working on it. It was a tough time but it was great to have the speed coaches to get me out of it."

The fact that his career did not kick-off at the Tigers is one Papenhuyzen can accept.

"I probably wasn’t the footy player that I am becoming now. I was very new and fresh to it and had a few injuries at the time," he said.

" I learned a lot of things that I do now from the Storm and from Billy [Slater] so no hard feelings against them."

The Slater influence

The Storm had an ace up their sleeve when they recruited Papenhuyzen, none other than club legend Billy Slater who was still playing at the club when he signed and is now an outside backs coach for Melbourne.

"Bill is one of the best coaches we have had ever had at this club. I’ve not seen anyone come close as a coach of outside backs and he’s done a lot of work with Paps and played a significant role in his development," Ponissi said.

"We purposely used Bill as a recruitment tool when we signed Paps and that is a pretty good attraction when you are a young fullback. We knew Bill had a coaching pathway here so it was an easy sell."

Match Highlights: Dragons v Storm

And Papenhuyzen is certainly sold on the wisdom of Slater, who he said had  been "awesome and teaches me so much still".

The burden to be the "next Slater" was also quickly removed from his shoulders.

"I got asked that early but Billy said straight off the bat 'don’t play like me. You’ve been picked for a reason, so just do what you are good at and try and get better every game’," Papenhuyzen said.

"He said that early on and that stuck. I didn’t have to think about filling his boots. I just had to play my own game and adapt to those around me.

"I can’t just have speed as my number one skill and Billy encourages me to keep learning a new skill every year so I get caught up to. That is what he did early in his career.

"He wasn’t a natural fullback but put a lot of work into studying the top five fullbacks at the time, and putting a little bit into his game.

"He says that you have got to keep trying to evolve because there is always going to be someone trying to knock you off the platform.

"Billy was one of the greats of the game and started every year with something to improve. That is an inspiration."

The turning point

After an injury-hampered development year in 2018 where he played at the Sunshine Coast Falcons, at the the start of the 2019 season Papenhuyzen was in a log jam of talented fullbacks at the club with Scott Drinkwater and Jahrome Hughes also on deck.

Drinkwater suffered an early-season pectoral injury and ultimately linked with the Cowboys while Hughes was converted into a halfback.

The door was ajar for Papenhuyzen and he raced through it in his rookie season with a stunning display in the 64-10 round nine win over the Eels at Suncorp Stadium.

In a cameo of all cameos, off the bench Papenhuyzen scored two tries, made three line breaks and two line break assists in 32 action packed minutes of pure entertainment.

"That was his turning point, no doubt about that," Ponissi said.

"Paps was number three on the list and with Hughes moving to seven he has now gone to number one.

"Drinky got injured last year of course and you get your opportunities in different ways. The secret is what you do what you do with the opportunities, and once Paps got his he clutched it with both hands and has not looked back."

Inspirations

Papenhuyzen has an eclectic taste in "heroes" but as a Canterbury supporter as a youth it is no surprise several of them wore blue and white.

"I was a big Doggies fan so I liked Brent ‘Shifty’ Sherwin, Luke Patten and Brett Kimmorley as well. I loved it when he came to the Dogs," he said.

"I didn't have one [hero] in particular.

The final moments of the Roosters-Storm 2015 QF

"Obviously Benji Marshall and Shaun Johnson, they made it exciting as well. I don’t have their agility but they were always cool to watch and I tried to emulate them in the front yard playing footy with my brother. All those guys inspired me to play."

Like Slater did in his pomp, Papenhuyzen is a keen student of the best custodians of today with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and James Tedesco fitting the mould of the kind of fullback he wants to be.

"I try and play tough and put myself in situations where I can stop a play or have an impact," he said.

"There are lots of fullbacks in the NRL to take notes off, but they are the main two."

The future

The Storm have Papenhuyzen wrapped up until the end of 2022.

He is sure to have plenty of suitors when he comes off contract but you get the sense that Melbourne won't be losing him any time soon.

"It is the place you want to be," Papenhuyzen grinned.

"You know everyone is going to do their job and everyone is held to a high standard.

"It is something people really take for granted sometimes but I am aware of it and the impact it has on me and my performances.

"I feel like I have picked up my game the last couple of years and the team I am playing with now really shows that. I came here for the change-up and I am enjoying my footy again."