The hit, the rise, the bubble life: How Ryan Papenhuyzen rose above adversity for a finals finish

Ryan Papenhuyzen and the Melbourne Storm are only one win away from the NRL Grand Final Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

The Storm was over, the match won, but Ryan Papenhuyzen wanted that final strike.

With the siren only seconds away from sounding at Sunshine Coast Stadium, the Melbourne Storm fullback silenced the critics with the nonchalant cockiness of a rare two-point field goal.

It iced the cake of the Storm's 40-12 win over the Manly Sea Eagles, on a Friday night when Papenhuyzen tallied 24 points and crossed twice to score.

So not only did that last touch state Melbourne's finals mission, but also that the man with a mullet was back and in a big way.

He's now one win away from the NRL title decider, with the Storm to face either the Penrith Panthers or Parramatta Eels in next Saturday's preliminary final at Suncorp Stadium.

It will be the next chapter in a season that didn't go quite to plan on a personal level, and now with a week off, Papenhuyzen has a chance to look back on how it all unfolded in Queensland.

THE NRL BUBBLE LIFE

There's an odd sense of normality as 23-year-old Papenhuyzen waits in a parking lot as his partner, Australian netball star Kelsey Browne, does the shopping.

It's such a universal and ordinary task that one has to remember, in these unfathomable times, so many pieces had to be moved for this simple scenario to occur at all.

For this shopping centre is not in Melbourne, it's on the Sunshine Coast where the Storm have been based for almost two entire seasons due to COVID-19.

As the Delta strain hit Australian shores, coach Craig Bellamy advised his team on their last relocation to steel themselves for another campaign on the road - rather than the one month the NRL first indicated.

And so Bellamy's side simply let their football do the talking and thrived in the hub environment as they went on to level the longest winning streak in Australian rugby league history.

But the Storm are no strangers to success in the NRL bubble thanks to their 2020 triumph. While the feats manifest a club culture which seems to be impervious to external influences, for Clive Churchill medalist Papenhuyzen, it simply comes down to resilience.

"We learned a lot from last year and tried to do a few things similar, but at the same time it's been equally as hard," Papenhuyzen told ESPN.

"There's been a lot more uncertainty this year, whereas last year we were [in Queensland] and that's just the way it is. This year it's been 'are we going back to Melbourne? Are we staying in Queensland? Are we moving to Darwin?'

"It's been all of those speed bumps we've had to overcome but we're lucky to have a good group, a pretty resilient group. Although we learned a lot from last year, it's been different in its own regard."

But as the world continues to turn, so does life outside the NRL bubble. So for high-profile athletes such as Papenhuyzen, partnership and sponsorship commitments must still be met.

One of those is his recent collaboration with Swiss watchmaker Tissot, who had him style the T-Touch Connect Solar watch on Sunshine Beach in Noosa.

"There's a lot of mask wearing and social distancing, but I think at the same time with these opportunities the ones you want to do are the ones that are easier to do. That's the case with Tissot," he said.

"We went down to Sunshine Beach and shot for a few hours and that same day, we [saw] the sunrise... a whale jump out of the ocean and an eagle attack a bird out of the sky. It was a pretty eventful day.

"With those sorts of opportunities, it's not too hard to get up and about. It has its challenges but you have to be grateful for it. I'm just happy they reached out and saw me as someone that can really help out their brand and ... be a part of that movement as well"

THE HIT, THE RECOVERY, THE CONCERN

On the same weekend the Australian Rugby League Commission said it would crackdown on high tackles in May, Papenhuyzen was on the end of a high shot that saw him concussed and stretchered off at Suncorp Stadium.

In the weeks that followed the hit from Dragons second-rower Tyrell Fuimaono, the headaches persisted. He went to bed each night hoping he would wake up in the morning feeling okay.

But as soon as the Storm fullback lifted his head off the pillow the concussion symptoms were back. And so began another day which would seem to have little to no progress.

"It was frustrating. After doing that for 40-50 odd days it sort of got to me," Papenhuyzen said.

"Waking up going, 'today I'm not progressing, when am I going to progress? Am I ever going to progress? That was probably the toughest part of it."

Papenhuyzen could do nothing until the symptoms ceased. It took about eight weeks for those to subside and he could then start light training, which began with walks and riding an exercise bike.

In total the New South Welshman was sidelined for 68 days.

"It was pretty tough," Papenhuyzen began.

"It's a pretty long process if you don't get over the first hurdles. I wasn't symptom free for about five to six weeks... a few people this year got over their symptoms in a day or two. It took me a little bit.

"After that, it was about doing really simple training. Just sort of rolling my legs over the spin bike or going for a walk. Once I could do that, then you progress to the next level which is stepping up the intensity.

"We went to see professors at a university that were studying whiplash and concussion at the time. They gave us a bit of a plan going forward in terms of training and getting your heart rate up to a certain amount. If you started getting headaches or feeling bad, you'd drop it right off. There was a lot of that, and figuring out the threshold of where I could work to.

"It took about eight weeks until I was into simple training and probably a further three weeks of playing before building that confidence back up again. It's a pretty lengthy process but it's good they have it in place. They can really look after us, it's something you don't want to mess around with."

Papenhuyzen started off the bench for his first four matches back from the lengthy lay-off as the Storm eased him back into the frame before finals. In his absence 25-year-old Nicho Hynes took to the fullback role with ease and was crucial to the club's 19-match winning streak, with his sudden rise ultimately earning him a lucrative contract at the Sharks.

"He's had a crazy year. He signed a contract, started in a lot of games and led the try assists at one point. That's something we pride ourselves on at the Storm to be honest, it's having a bit of depth," Papenhuyzen said.

"You like seeing people be successful and I think it's the case with a lot of the debutants we've had this year, when they get announced the whole squad jumps around and are really excited. That's the feeling you get for being in a hub for two years. It's good to see.

"His performances contributed to us being at this point this year and being minor premiers. At the end of the day, you just have to be happy that's part of it and he's put us in a good position now."

Just when concerns were raised about whether Papenhuyzen was even the best-choice fullback for the Storm ahead of finals, the flying Dutchman came out and crushed Cronulla's chances for a top-eight berth.

He finished with 229 running metres, 14 tackle busts, three line breaks and a hat-trick to bounce back into form. And the key? Simplicity.

"Yeah, I brought it back to the simple things. As much as I thought I was doing that in the first few weeks I came back, there was probably still a lot of game plan that was stuck in my head," Papenhuyzen said.

"I had to strip it back and let other guys talk about the game plan and really digest in that regard. I had to think about when I did have the ball, what was I going to do? Really simple things, and when I didn't have the ball where I was telling people to go. That's just my job as a fullback.

"So as much as you get caught up sometimes and probably think towards the finals as well that you have to have a few more things on your mind, it was just stripping it back and making it simple, and trusting all the training I'd done was going to contribute to a good performance. I was lucky I was able to do that."

WHAT LIES AHEAD FOR PAPENHUYZEN

In a year when the NSW fullbacks have been the talk of the town, Papenhuyzen's resurgence at the business end of the season likely has Blues coach Brad Fittler tapping his fingers together like Mr. Burns.

Excellent is the word that comes to mind in the debate about the NRL's elite fullbacks who bleed blue. But fitting Papenhuyzen, Tom Trbojevic, James Tedesco and Latrell Mitchell into a starting team is like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with an odd amount of pieces.

For the man from Kellyville that's a 2022 issue. State of Origin, in fact, has barely crossed his mind.

His focus is on having the Provan-Summons Trophy back in his hands. That first taste of premiership success was delicious and now he's back for a second helping.

"Winning that premiership last year and having that feeling, I just want to relive that," Papenhuyzen said.

"That's why I haven't thought much about Origin or anything like that. Just because it's such a special moment and you do work 12 weeks of preseason at the start of the year to win a premiership.

"[For now] it's about focusing on the Storm. It would be huge to go back-to-back."

Only the Sydney Roosters have claimed consecutive titles in the NRL era and Papenhuyzen is under no illusion on how difficult it is to achieve, with the Storm falling short in 2018.

But, he said, lessons have been learned from their missed chance and for this rare opportunity for the Storm as a playing group, "it's [about] being simple and clear with your roles, and going into the game and trusting it."

But whether or not the Storm bring a historic title home, Papenhuyzen has another three seasons to look forward to at Melbourne.

He credits the club, who brought him south in late 2017, for his development into the star he is today and in a career that could end at any moment - the flying fullback is taking every opportunity.

"Craig was a big part of the decision but also, too, the culture of the club," Papenhuyzen said.

"Twenty years now of people working hard and at the end of the day, they just want their performances to make proud of the guys who came before us. To have that at the club and to be a part of that was a big decision of why I signed on.

"They've made me the player am I today as well. A lot of help from the coaches and Billy Slater, they've made me who I am. I was thinking about where I wanted to go and the player I want to be, I thought this is the perfect environment to do it at and that's why I signed on."