As he endured a 2398-day hiatus from first grade between 2012 and 2019, Storm forward Tom Eisenhuth feared he could end up becoming a 'one-game wonder'.
When Eisenhuth was unexpectedly called up for the Panthers 11 years ago, he didn’t even have a mobile phone to call his parents and tell them the news.
The 20-year-old aspiring centre never anticipated he’d be making his debut when he packed his bags for New Zealand but on August 19, 2012, Ivan Cleary tapped him on the shoulder and told him he was in.
Little did he know that it would be almost seven years until he'd make his next appearance in the NRL.
“I got fortunate with that one, we were over in New Zealand to play the Toyota Cup game beforehand and I think someone got sick the night before and they ran out of players fit in their squad,” Eisenhuth told NRL.com.
“So they had to call one of us in and they picked me to play.
Eisenhuth joins the party for Melbourne
“It’s all pretty blurry because there wasn't much time to do a lot. I was strapped up ready to get on the bus to go to the 20s game when I got the tap on the shoulder.
“It all happened pretty quickly and I hadn’t done much with the first-grade team so it was a bit of a shock.
“We were only over there for two days so I didn’t think I’d need my phone. I had to borrow someone else's phone to call home and let my family know.”
Strutting his stuff alongside the likes of Lachlan Coote, Luke Walsh and Josh Mansour, he celebrated an 18-16 win at Mt Smart Stadium, but that's where the party ended as injuries and competition for spots restricted him to just one game in reserve grade during the next two seasons.
It was a hard pill to pill to swallow for Eisenhuth who witnessed younger teammates Isaah Yeo, Tyrone Peachey and James Fisher-Harris go on to cement spots in first grade.
“I went back and played a bit more [NSW] Cup and did play a bit with Fisher-Harris and Isaah but the proportion of their squad now is a bit younger than me,” he said.
“It was a weird one. With the turnover of Ivan as coach, he brought players in that were ready to play first grade and I probably wasn't quite ready for the ins and outs of first grade when I was a bit younger.
“Originally, I tried not to think that was me [a one-game wonder] but then yeah, for a good chunk there I thought that might be it.
“I took a little break there a little for a little bit just to enjoy my footy again. And then I was fortunate enough to end up down in Melbourne and revive my career.”
The no-frills forward played just eight games for the Sunshine Coast Falcons before making his club debut and playing just his second NRL game in 2019.
While it hasn’t been all smooth sailing since, with Eisenhuth suffering several injuries including a larynx fracture in his first season with the Storm, the 31-year-old has enjoyed his most successful season in 2023.
Welch: 'We'll be doing our best to ruin the party on Friday'
Eisenhuth has been an emergency or late withdrawal for several of Melbourne’s finals campaigns but this year he has cemented a spot on Craig Bellamy’s bench and will chalk up his 18th game of the season on Friday night - the most he has played in a single season.
“I've warmed up for a few finals and been injured just on the last few rounds a couple of times so this is the first opportunity that I’ve had to play,” he said.
“What they say is true in that it's a totally different ball game - there's just an intensity that comes with playing the stronger teams and the emotion with your seasons on the line.”
A qualified school teacher, the Melbourne prop has always had a back-up plan having been in and out of first grade during the past 11 years, but he admits he’s never been happier on the rugby league field.
“As soon as I finished school I started my undergraduate. That took a little longer than planned, doing it part-time alongside footy," he said.
“But it’s all done and ready to go when I need it. It’ll be interesting when I do go back to it because I feel like I’ll have to learn it all over again.
“The body is pretty good, I think the injuries I’ve had have protected it from the week in, week out collisions that come with the sport.
“I’d be happy to play some more footy but I’ll just get through the next two weeks and worry about that later.”
Match: Panthers v Storm
Finals Week 3 -
Venue: Accor Stadium, Sydney