Craig Bellamy has a massive decision on his hands in terms of the make-up of his back-line in 2024, with Ryan Papenhuyzen seemingly on track for a round one return. Papenhuyzen suffered a broken leg in a game for the Melbourne Storm against the Broncos in September - ending his NRL season after just three games.
The gun fullback had only just made his return from a fractured kneecap suffered in 2022, which saw him miss over 12 months of footy. Playing in just his third game since making a return, Papenhuyzen got his leg caught underneath teammate Nelson Asofa-Solomona in a tackle.
There were initial fears that the back-to-back injuries could be career-threatening, but Papenhuyzen has since made a remarkable recovery. He was spotted in full flight at training this week and appears to be tracking towards being ready for round one.
Two weeks of Geelong intensity...incoming 🔥 pic.twitter.com/7PwaD86Eyf
— Melbourne Storm (@storm) January 15, 2024
Papenhuyen's return would create a welcome headache for Bellamy after Nick Meaney's sensational form in 2023 and the emergence of young gun Sua Fa’alogo. Speaking to reporters this week, Storm captain Christian Welch said Papenhuyzen has been flying at training.
“We didn’t see too much of him pre-Christmas, but he’s come back (and looked great)," he said. "Today he was jumping in drills and he looks electric. Speed kills in the NRL and he’s got it in spades.
"It’s really exciting for us as a squad to have him coming back on top of Sua Fa’alogo’s emergence as well. There’s plenty of speed which is really exciting except for when you’re trying to chase them down in training drills. It’s nice when you look up out of a scrum and you see these guys causing a bit of chaos.”
How will Craig Bellamy utilise Ryan Papenhuyzen in 2024?
If Papenhuyzen is ready to go for round one, Bellamy will likely utilise him in his preferred position at fullback. Justin Olam's exit to the Wests Tigers will likely see Meaney shift to centre, while Fa'alogo might be used as a weapon off the bench.
Fa'alogo can also be used at fullback if Papenhuyzen still needs some time on the sidelines. It will be interesting to see if Bellamy opts to use Papenhuyzen off the bench again - like he did at the end of 2023 when he used him in the middle of the field as an extra ball player.
But that move put Papenhuyzen in the firing line because it meant he had to do more tackling, a point that Alex McKinnon highlighted and said contributed to the latest injury. "I cannot understand the decision to play Ryan Papenhuyzen as a middle off the bench," McKinnon wrote in an opinion piece for Fox Sports at the time. "It’s easy to say in hindsight, but Papenhuyzen is a $1 million player coming back from a serious knee injury and playing him in the middle was almost asking for trouble.
"Nick Meaney has probably been the most overperforming value-for-money player this season, but Ryan Papenhuyzen is Ryan Papenhuyzen. If the plan was to play him for 50 minutes in the middle then surely he was fit enough to start at fullback. He’s a Ferrari but they were driving him like a RAV4."
Welch said this week: “It’s exciting to have some of these weapons. “Craig gets paid a lot so he’s got some tough decisions to figure out how this is all going to work because I’m not sure how you fit them all in.
"But you’ve got to have these guys playing every week in the NRL in terms of Sua, Paps and Nick Meaney. I’m not sure how they’re going to juggle the backline and the bench, but it’s really exciting to have those weapons at your disposal."
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