Almost a decade ago Ryan Walker didn’t have a car or a licence and was pushing trolleys to make a living.
On Wednesday night he accepted the prestigious Newcastle Rugby League player of the year award and ahead of next weekend’s grand final the Western Suburbs playmaker declared he hasn’t been this fit since an NRL stint in 2011.
The 31-year-old thanked the off-field team at the Rosellas, including Newcastle RL coach of the year Matt Lantry, for the opportunity to play at Harker Oval in 2017 but mostly partner Sarah Ross for sticking by his side.
“I don’t know what she saw in me back then,” Walker said on stage in front of 175 people at McDonald Jones Stadium for the annual presentation. “But without her I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
The couple live together at Gillieston Heights with their two children – daughter Jullarnje, 2, and son Djulgin, who turned one this week.
The coal miner’s family are his biggest supporters around the grounds but it has been Walker’s “hard work” off the field that has kept him operating at such a high level this season.
A rigid routine of “stretching, rehab, physio, chiro, massage, recovery, ice baths and diet” have not only helped Walker finish five points clear of Wests’ halves partner Sam Keenan (17) on the overall leader board, but he was also voted players’ player by opponents and topped the try scorers with 22 in the regular rounds.
“I’m still a little bit shocked to be honest,” he said.
“It has been a new lease on life [playing at Wests] and really enjoyable.
“Obviously playing with the quality of players around me, but Matt Lantry as coach and his support staff. It makes it easy to do my job and play my natural game.”
Walker said he was “keen” to make the most of his shot at the September 23 decider being seven years since his last grand final appearance with NSW Cup side the Windsor Wolves (2010) and eight years on from premiership success with Queensland Cup outfit the Sunshine Coast Sea Eagles (2009).
PLAYER OF YEAR POINTS: Ryan Walker 22, Sam Keenan 17, Chris Hyde 16, Luke Dorn, Liam Higgins 15, Brad Murray 14.
Wests will meet the winner of Sunday’s preliminary final between Macquarie and Central at Townson Oval.