Ryan Papenhuyzen has revealed the brilliant way in which Billy Slater and his wife took him under their wing as he recovered from a devastating knee injury that saw him miss more than 12 months of NRL action. The Melbourne Storm fullback made a successful return to the top grade two weeks ago, before getting his first start in 13 months last weekend against the Broncos.
It marked the first time Papenhuyzen had started a game in the NRL since shattering his knee cap into 10 pieces during a game in July of 2022. Speaking this week ahead of the Storm's qualifying final clash with Brisbane on Friday night, the 25-year-old said he wouldn't be where he is now if not for the care and support provided by Slater and his family.
Storm champion Slater acted as Papenhuyzen's mentor while he was still playing fullback for Melbourne. Since hanging up the boots, the Queensland coach has continued to mentor Papenhuyzen while working as a coaching consultant at the Storm.
But more importantly, Slater and Papenhuyzen have become close friends away from football. "Billy has been awesome. I am where I am now because of him," Papenhuyzen told AAP on Tuesday.
"He went through such a long-term injury himself and understands how tough it is, but him and (wife) Nicole would invite me over to their place and we would just have a day out where we would not talk about footy. He understood the mental side of rehab and how you need to switch off sometimes and enjoy the company of others. I am just really grateful to them.
"They would invite me out to their farm. We'd go out and have dinner. (Slater's children) Tyla and Jake would chill out and we'd go play some tennis."
Billy Slater's vital mentorship of Ryan Papenhuyzen
Slater knows what Papenhuyzen went through as he doubted whether he'd ever get back to where he was before the injury. The Storm champion played just eight games in the 2015 and 2016 seasons due to injury, and helped Papenhuyzen reset his mind.
"They did that for me. A big credit to Slats," Papenhuyzen said. "He is unbelievable. I am forever in debt to him.
"He has helped me through the whole ordeal. He reached out about how important it is to have someone else (helping) while you are not playing, to keep your mind simulated. It is just special to have someone like him at the club who wants to give back so much.
"You have your days where you don't think it is possible (to get back), and even coming back you don't know if you are going to make the 17. It is daunting. It is scary but I am just happy I put in all the hard work … all those days where you don't want to do things but you just have to do them. I am reaping the rewards now.
"I am just grateful to be back and in the side. To be playing finals footy again is exciting. You want to do it as a kid and that is no different now. This is my third finals and I am really looking forward to it. I hope we can do something special."
Ryan Papenhuyzen or Nick Meaney to start at fullback?
Papenhuyzen's start against the Broncos last week came after Nick Meaney was rested for the final game of the regular season. Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy has been keeping his cards close to his chest about whether Papenhuyzen or Meaney (who has been superb at fullback this year) will get the No.1 jersey for the finals.
Papenhuyzen said he'd be more than happy to come off the bench so Meaney can retain the fullback role. "I know Means (Nick Meaney) has been doing a really good job so it might not be fullback, but if it is I am ready to go," he said. "If it is somewhere else then … put me in. I just want to be in the 17 because I know it is a special team."
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