Nielsen's lonely road back to the NRL
When there are three clubs only a short distance behind in your rear-view mirror, the future that is laid out in front of you is an uncertain one.
Sacked by St George Illawarra 12 months ago for an incident at a Cronulla hotel, Dane Nielsen retreated to a stint in the second tier of the English Super League because he just couldn't face the idea of starting again at another club in the NRL.
A premiership-winner with the Storm just four years earlier, the 30-year-old was unsure if he'd ever lace up in the NRL again and was preparing to return to Bradford to add to his five appearances there when an old mentor came calling.
Rabbitohs coach Michael Maguire was an assistant at the Storm when Nielsen was there and he was responsible for the lifeline that brought the former Maroons three-quarter back into the NRL ranks.
"It all came about first talking to 'Madge' after New Year's," Nielsen told NRL.com.
"I was going to head back overseas and he said if I wanted to give the NRL another crack he'd be willing to give me an opportunity but there's a lot of hard work before that. I told him I was behind [in terms of fitness] and he said they understand that."
Even before Nielsen left for the UK he was fielding interest from other NRL clubs but said he couldn't face it at the time.
Having returned from the UK in October, it was a rare chance to spend some extended time at home in Mackay with his family that helped Nielsen move past the tough times that saw him depart the NRL after a short and unhappy stint at the Dragons and decide he wasn't finished with the toughest competition in the world.
"I think because the clubs I was speaking to at the time before 30th of June last year, it was all well and good having the chats to them and my manager but I could just feel I needed some time away and looking back on it I made the right decision because I just wasn't feeling it at the time for a number of reasons," he said.
A series of phone calls with Maguire, as well as former Maroons and Storm teammate and now-Rabbitohs captain Greg Inglis, convinced Nielsen his future lay in Redfern and he was on a plane and at training the day after the deal was sealed.
"Having that experience to go over there [to the UK] and have some time off and also have some time with my family – It's the longest time I've spent up in Queensland with my family since I was 17 or 18 when I left home so that was a blessing in disguise, I was able to spend some time with my niece and nephew and friends and family back home. It's put me in good stead for where I am now," Nielsen said.
The Mackay product is reluctant to delve too deeply into the incident that saw him sacked by the Dragons but conceded it took some getting over.
"It was pretty hard. That's all in the past now but I learned a lot from it," he said.
"After going through it I wasn't sure what to do because all I'd done since I was 18 or 19 was be involved in first grade football so it was pretty hard to take but being able to go back and spend time with my family was a real eye-opener.
"I've come a long way since all that drama and it's only made me a better person and a stronger person and I've learned from it."
Having been given a second chance, Nielsen said he was prepared to do whatever it took to grasp whatever opportunities were presented to him.
He was, by his own admission, in 'the fat club' when he finally joined the club well into the pre-season, three weeks into January, but said he was able to progress quickly under the watchful eye of the Rabbitohs' high performance staff.
"I definitely wasn't in shape," Nielsen flatly conceded.
"You get to know your body when you've been around the game a long time. It's obviously a second tier comp over there with Bradford so it's even another level down so to get back into first grade I knew I had a lot of hard work to do.
"Whether I was selected or not would have been another different thing but I definitely wouldn't have been right by Round 1, no way. The staff knew that, Madge knew that and so did I."
With the assistance of now-departed high performance manager Troy Thompson, the club devised a plan to get Nielsen match fit in as short a time as possible.
His day would begin with solitary training sessions at Redfern Oval starting at 6am before joining the larger playing squad for whatever torture Maguire had in mind that day and then staying behind for extras when exhausted teammates left for the day.
Nielsen was a surprise inclusion in the pre-season Charity Shield side, playing the second half but hurting his wrist which put him out of the first few rounds of the Intrust Super Premiership with feeder club North Sydney and made catching up fitness-wise even more challenging.
"I missed the first couple of weeks with my wrist. That made it a little bit hard because I played the second half of the Charity Shield, that was a bit of a surprise – I'd only been back for a few weeks so I was sort of thrown in the deep end there but it was good to test myself, see how it was and obviously I still have a lot of work to do up until now," Nielsen said.
Having worked with him at the Storm, Rabbitohs coach Michael Maguire knew there was not only a quality player but a quality individual in Nielsen who if given an opportunity would prove he could still contribute in the NRL.
"I think it's a really good story," Maguire said after Nielsen's debut game for the Rabbitohs last Friday night.
"I've been fortunate enough to spend a bit of time with Dane at another organisation and to see him have the highs that he had in his career and then have to face a bit of resilience throughout the last couple of years, I think that says a lot about our game and a lot about him as a person.
"He wasn't able to get a great pre-season and he worked extremely hard… to get himself this opportunity so to have a senior player like that with a lot of experience inside our organisation is going to help these younger guys through these periods."
Nielsen was a late addition to the Rabbitohs team against the Broncos last week and with Hymel Hunt suffering a long-term pectoral injury he hopes to build on the 76 running metres from 10 runs he had in his first NRL game since March 16 last year. He has now been named on the wing to play his second straight NRL game when his side hosts the desperate Wests Tigers on Thursday night.
"I've worked my backside off and given myself an opportunity to get my first game with Souths so in terms of the future that's all I can do, do everything right at training, on the field and off the field and also do everything right when I do get an opportunity in first grade because you don't know if there's many opportunities there," he said.