The toughest part for Isaac John wasn’t so much that he felt unwanted, but that it happened twice in the space of 12 months. That’s when he really felt down; when the doubts started to creep in and he questioned whether he belonged in top-level rugby league.
“I was over in England and things weren’t really working out for a lot of reasons,” John told NRL.com of his 12-month stint with Wakefield last year. “I wasn’t really happy with the life I was living and that reflected the way I trained and the way I played on the field. The coach over there [Richard Agar] didn’t really rate me as a player.
“That was tough, because I was still signed at the Warriors when Brian McClennan came into the club (at the end of the 2011 season) and Shaun Johnson was going quite well at the time. He said he didn’t really see me as a half at the club either.
“So when I went over to England I was 22 and you don’t have any family around. During winter it’s quite a depressing country because it’s always dark and if it’s not raining, it’s snowing. If it’s not snowing, it’s minus-six degrees.
“That’s not why I played bad but it was a combination of things that weren’t really working well for me. I started to resent myself over there and what I was doing. I started to question my ability, which is something you should never do as a footy player.”
Luckily for John – who starred in Penrith’s 62-6 thrashing of his old club the Warriors last weekend with three tries and a try assist – there was one coach who knew exactly what he was capable of and three days after Ivan Cleary called to offer him a lifeline, the 24-year-old was on a plane and headed to Sydney.
“They offered me an opportunity to come to Penrith but gave me no promises,” John explained. “They told me to work hard and if I was playing well they would give me a shot. That’s all the chance I needed.
“But I’ve sort of grown up a lot the last few years. I’m 24 now and I’m not trying to prove a point to anyone, I’m just trying to prove a point to myself that I can play well and try and improve on the performances I’ve had so far.
“A lot of people have said to me ‘it must have been good to get that win against the Warriors’ but I say ‘it would be good to get that against anyone’. I’m not that sort of person anymore.”
There was, of course, plenty of irony in Penrith’s huge win last week given that Cleary, who coached the Warriors to the 2011 grand final, is now in charge of the Panthers – not to mention the fact that two of Penrith’s best, John and Lewis Brown, are also former Warriors.
Next year Elijah Taylor arrives as well and while the Warriors continue to struggle under their second coach since Cleary left, it appears Penrith’s grand plan might finally be starting to reveal itself.
Asked what it was about Cleary that brought the best out in him, John said: “He has coached me since I was 17 so I sort of know what to expect as a player. First and foremost he is a very intelligent coach. He doesn’t say a lot but when he does it has a lot of meaning behind it. That really works for me. He lets you be yourself and he is such a calming influence.
“I think all of us (John, Brown and Taylor) have played our best football under Ivan. I haven’t played a lot of NRL yet but when I do get these chances, I want to be playing well to stay in the team.
“Ivan’s style works for us and I guess you have a tendency to go with what works for you. In our case, we play well under Ivan. I didn’t play well under my old coach and ‘Lewie’ said the same thing – he didn’t work well under his old coach (McClennan). He probably played his best game on the weekend for Penrith too. He killed it.”
Having played against his former club last week, John faces a different sort of challenge this Saturday when he lines up against St George Illawarra and the man pegged for the Penrith No.6 jumper in 2014, Jamie Soward.
But yet to be re-signed after being given a one-year deal this season, John said he was only concerned about putting in his best performance for the Panthers again this week.
“Nothing is happening at moment (with his contract) but that’s out of my control. The only thing I can control is how I play and train, how I carry myself around the club and how I prepare for games,” he said.
“I’m not reading too much into [the Soward clash]. The only person you need to compete against is yourself and we’ll be trying to do that. He is in good form and we’ll be trying to limit his opportunities but as for me playing against Jamie Soward, it’s not something I worry about. At the end of the day I’m just one of 17 in the team, so is he and I’ll just be trying to do my job for the team and do the basics well.”