Quit NRL to backpack the globe before swansong phone call

Adam Woolnough was driving a tiny car in Paris when his phone rang.

He didn’t know the number but answered anyway.

Six months earlier, the prop hung up the boots, but the itch was back.

With a ‘Round the world’ ticket in his front pocket, Woolnough was exploring the globe.

But rugby league was in his heart.

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So, when he answered the phone and heard Craig Bellamy’s voice, he almost drove off the road.

“Around six months into the trip, I met up with Clint Newton who was playing for Hull KR, stayed with him for the week, and around that period the Storm had their salary cap drama,” Woolnough recalls.

“Newto, played down there and said to me, if you ever want to test yourself and see how good you could really be, you got to go down and try the Storm’s system. They’ve got to get rid of all this talent and millions of dollars’ worth of players and I was certainly going to be cheap.

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“He made a phone call to Craig Bellamy and a few weeks later, I’m in France at this stage and I’m driving down in this little Citroen and I get the phone call and its Craig Bellamy, I had to pull over, I couldn’t believe he was on the end of the phone.”

The Melbourne mentor wanted Woolnough to come to the Storm.

But not right away. First, he was told to finish his holiday and join the club in the pre-season.

It was the break his mind and body needed.

While Woolnough started his NRL career at the Knights in 2002, he joined the Panthers in 2008 where he expected to finish things up.

It was an injury ravaged time at the foot of the mountains.

While he had another season left on his deal, by the time 2009 rolled around, he was spent.

“I snapped the medial ligament (in my knee) and that ruined my year. Coming back after 16 weeks out, I came back with the Windsor Wolves and then I hurt my neck and had some surgery on my neck (in 2008), to remove some bone spurs and a bulging disk, then I had a slow 2009 so it was a shocking two years with form and injuries (at the Panthers),” he recalled.

“I remember a mate of mine, Matt Kennedy, was oversees back packing at the time and I was warming up against the Warriors out the back of Panthers Stadium, and all I could think of for the first time in my career of 130 games, was that I just wanted to be somewhere else other than running out and playing in the NRL.”

It was the lightbulb moment that he knew he was finished.

“I knew at that point, that was it and I can’t continue, that I shouldn’t be running out representing the Panthers when my mind was oversees back-packing and looking at the sights and scenes of the world, I knew I couldn’t contribute anymore,” he said.

“I said to my wife, ‘we’re going and went back-packing for the next 10 months and enjoying each other’s company’. We did what we wanted to do.”

That takes us back to the opposite part of the globe.

After completing his trip with his wife, he was ready to return to Australia and move to Melbourne.

“I wanted to go in and test myself, train hard and learn, recover, I was a bit older, around 29, but having 12 months off took a toll on my body and the Storm are renowned for their training ethos and brutality off their off-season, and I got through that but the continuation of the training and the intensity wore me down, so I knew pretty early on that it was only going to be one year.

“I got offered a new deal, for 2012, but I turned it down and got an offer to go back to the coal mines in the Hunter Valley, and I went for the longevity instead of the continuation of a footy career and they (the Storm) went onto win it in 2012, so a little bit of irony in how that worked out but no regrets at all.

“If I had of stayed, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now, I take a lot greater joy in my role in the world now.”

So, what is Woolnough doing now?

“Working for the Australian Institute Network and working with Olympic and Paralympic athletes making sure their off-field stuff was in order, and the last nine months transitioned down to the Institute of Sport and worked for a new branch called Athlete Wellbeing and Engagement, based in Melbourne, and work with the engagement, opportunities and programs for our categorised athletes across Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth games sports,” he said. 

“They’re delivering some great outcomes to the community across the country, and those opportunity’s where athletes are giving back with real purpose and impactful stuff is really empowering for myself.”