Ryan Papenhuyzen is back.

He might not have said it in as many words, but that's the statement he made through his 80-minute performance for the Sunshine Coast Falcons in the QLD Cup last weekend.

The star fullback, who will push for a first-grade return with the Melbourne Storm by the time the season is out, was somewhere near his best for the Falcons during his second competitive hitout.

After a successful return in a 40-minute effort the week before, his second performance in a big win over the Norths Devils saw Papenhuyzen score a try, kick five goals, add a pair of try assists and run 127 metres.

The performance, which saw Papenhuyzen move freely after the horrific shattering of his kneecap last July, was a glowing vote of confidence in his recovery and rehabilitation, and also spoke volumes of why the Storm waited as long as they did to drag him back from injury.

At one stage, Papenhuyzen was due to return in Round 1, and then again in Round 8, but the timeline was continually pushed back. As frustrating as it was, it's now evident that it was the right call to ensure he was 100 per cent fit to play again.

The fullback will line up for the Falcons again this weekend as the Sunshine Coast make the trip south to play the Tweed Heads Seagulls, but what happens after that is realistically anyones guess.

First-grade coach Craig Bellamy seemed to hint that Papenhuyzen may be in line for a return to first-grade in Round 26 when the Storm host the Gold Coast Titans in Melbourne.

“It'd be nice to get him back, but I don't want to bring him back too early," Bellamy said during Sunday's post-match press conference after the Storm had thrashed the Raiders 48 points to 2.

"He hasn't played at the top level for a real long time so we'll have a chat to him in the week and the medical team will have their say on it as well and we'll see what happens.

“I doubt we'll play him next week, but the following week if everything goes OK and we're all on the same page then that might be a chance.”

If the Storm were out of finals contention, or struggling, it would be an easy call for Bellamy to bring him back into the side, but simply put, Nick Meaney has done his job and then some throughout 2023 in filling in for Papenhuyzen.

We know that Meaney can play just about anywhere in the backline, but that isn't the point, and nor would it be fair to turf any of the Storm's back five for the finals.

In 20 appearances so far this year, Meaney has been simply phenomenal. He has 10 tries, 9 try assists, 72 tackle breaks, 8 line breaks and has been strong in defence while averaging 146 metres per contest.

Try Assists
Tackle Breaks

It speaks volumes of exactly how good he has been in Craig Bellamy's system.

If the coach needed another reminder over why Meaney has been the unchallenged fill-in for Papenhuyzen this year, then he provided it on Sunday as the Storm demolished the Raiders 48 points to 2.

Meaney had a try, six goals, a couple of try assists, 171 metres and didn't miss a tackle. Simply put, he didn't put a foot wrong in a game against a top-eight contender.

But that has been Meaney to a tee this year. He has been consistent as anything, normally heavily involved without overplaying his hand in an attack that also features Cameron Munster, Jahrome Hughes and Harry Grant.

Only twice this year has the ex-Bulldog failed to make 100 metres in a game.

All of that suggests it would be near-on impossible to move him to the wing, although the argument will be presented that a team with both Meaney and Papenhuyzen in it is stronger than one with either of them missing.

The issue then is that Will Warbrick and Xavier Coates both deserve their spots on the wing for the men in purple's premiership push.

Coates, who now has 64 NRL games under his belt to go with a number of State of Origins for Queensland, has crossed for 12 tries in 18 games and is averaging 120 metres per contest.

His height has made a difference at both ends of the park for the Storm at times this year, and as a specialist winger who has improved his game significantly under Bellamy's coaching, it would be a gutsy decision to axe him from the side.

NRL Rd 1 - Wests Tigers v Storm

Then there is Warbrick.

The rugby sevens convert didn't play first-grade last year, being instead part of the Melbourne-based outfit's enormous injury crisis.

In the games he did play for the Sunshine Coast Falcons in the QLD Cup, he proved beyond all reasonable doubt exactly how much he would bring when he did get his NRL debut.

And that is exactly what has happened this year. Like Coates, he has crossed for 12 tries in 20 games, and averaged 129 metres per game, to go with 44 tackle breaks and 15 line breaks, his strength proving crucial.

The likely factor Bellamy needs to decide upon is whether he will gain more out of having Meaney on the wing in terms of starts to sets - neither Warbrick or Coates have been among the biggest metre-gainers in the competition this year despite healthy totals.

If Meaney could provide more there without giving away defensive or finishing ability, then the switch may well be worth making to accommodate Papenhuyzen at the back. Finals football is often a tight tustle, and the abilities of back fives to regularly run around the 200-metre mark makes a substantial difference.

Just ask the Panthers, where Brian To'o has consistently been the NRL's most aggressive metre-eater in the last three seasons.

The Storm don't play the same style as Penrith, but it's still worth the discussion given what Papenhuyzen will provide at the back, and Meaney's average metres in the number one.

But being worth the discussion doesn't mean making the change.

The other option for Bellamy is to play Papenhuyzen from the bench for the remainder of the year in a super-sub role.

Australian Kangaroos Mal Meninga flagged Papenhuyzen as one of the potential bench utilities for the Kangaroos at the end of the year when speaking at the Pacific Cup launch earlier this week, and prior to concussion problems in 2021, NSW Blues coach Brad Fittler spoke about Papenhuyzen as an option to play from the pine.

It's not hard to see why either.

His ability at fullback wouldn't look out of place in the halves, but in the modern game, where lock forwards are more ball-players than they are forwards, Papenhuyzen could fit right in.

His running game and explosiveness around tired forwards in the middle of the match could be a real X-Factor for Melbourne as we head into the finals if Bellamy elects to take that approach.

As enormous as the call would be, it makes degrees of sense on multiple levels. If there is an injury in the backs, then Nick Meaney would be ultimately the player to shift, whether that be onto the wing or into the halves with Papenhuyzen then playing fullback.

The versatility of Meaney is simply outstanding. It was on show time and time again in 2022, and it's little wonder the Storm want to lock him up at the club long-term, given how well he has played for the men in purple since exiting the Canterbury Bulldogs.

There is little doubt that a team with Papenhuyzen and Meaney in it is stronger than one without one of the options, but it remains to be seen how Bellamy makes it work.

Don't be surprised if Papenhuyzen returns wearing the number 14 next week.


  1. “If the Storm were out of finals contention, or struggling, it would be an easy call for Bellamy to bring him back into the side,”

    Surely it is the other way around? If the Storm were not contenders, then coach Bellamy would leave him out until 2024, and not risk aggravating the injury.

    The issue has arisen only because the Storm will probably make the eight and possibly make the four.

    If the coach thinks that there is little realistic chance of making the four, then he should give Ryan some time off the bench, to work his way back in, in preparation for the finals.

    However, if there is a good chance of making the four – with all the benefits which that brings – then the real problem arises.

    I personally would tag-team Nick and Ryan, with no more than 40 minutes per match for Ryan unless there is injury to a back, in which case he will have to play as long as is needed.

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