Ready to face the Brumbies: NSW forward Stephen Hoiles.

Ready to face the Brumbies: NSW forward Stephen Hoiles. Photo: Getty Images

Not many said it to Stephen Hoiles, but he knew plenty thought it.

One day, at a coaching clinic at Newington during his three-year absence from playing because of a mysterious, mind-numbingly annoying injury, someone said it.

''What are you going to do now that you're retired?'' a former player asked.

Overcoming adversity: Stephen Hoiles packs down at training.

Overcoming adversity: Stephen Hoiles packs down at training. Photo: Getty Images

''I'm not retired,'' Hoiles said.

''You're one of those blokes, are you?'' the player laughed. ''Still hanging on.''

Hoiles did not reply, but noted it nonetheless.

Try time: Stephen Hoiles scores against the Hurricanes in May.

Try time: Stephen Hoiles scores against the Hurricanes in May. Photo: Anthony Johnson

''I thought, 'I'll add him to the list. I'll show him,' '' he recalls. ''He said what most people were thinking. I never had one friend say, 'What are you doing?' I know a lot thought it. And I can understand that. I would think the same if I had mates with two young kids at the end of their career.''

There are injury comeback stories and then there is the story of the 32-year-old from Sydney's east, who probably should have walked away from an excruciating Achilles tendon injury and found a career post-football but then took the road less travelled.

He was not prepared to watch his career end with him cleaning out his locker at the Brumbies one Saturday morning in Canberra, and driving back to Sydney. No way.

Instead, he rented out the family's Coogee home, moved in with the in-laws, funded his own surgery and rehab and fought his way back.

Now he finds himself starting for the Waratahs against the Brumbies on Saturday night, before a possible record crowd at Allianz Stadium, with the NSW side never better placed to win a Super Rugby title.

''I've had the most enjoyable season of my career,'' Hoiles says. ''It feels like a club team. It's got that feel about it. And maybe it's because my mentality is different. I am just playing.''

Just playing. In this era of professionalism, when it is about the next contract, the next endorsement, the next code switch, it is a refreshing thing to hear.

If you Google Hoiles' name, one of the first things that pops up in the search engine is ''Stephen Hoiles retire''.

''I quite often said I hadn't retired,'' he says.

The fact is he had been away from the game for three years. He had slipped off the edge of the radar, as broken players often do.

The nightmare started in 2010 when he was labouring through matches for the Brumbies with a stiff foot.

The Brumbies advised an operation that would sideline him for three months. When he came back, he had a new, sharp pain in his heel. He played a handful of minutes in 2011 and that was it.

He was sent to the Australian Institute of Sport for treatment. No good. They tried putting him on anti-depressants because it helps with neural pain.

''I was sitting in Canberra for six weeks like a zombie,'' Hoiles says. ''I tried everything. I said, 'That's not working. I'm just a junkie with a sore foot now.' ''

Then Brumbies coach Jake White, who he never really got on with, showed him the door.

''That was really tough,'' he says. ''I had been there for five years, I'd been captain, and I'd watched the shitfight unfold; coaches getting sacked and players moved on … That's why I kept playing. My last memory of footy was that year-and-a-half debacle. In a week, I was out. I didn't get to speak to the team. I came in one Saturday morning, cleaned out my locker and drove home to Sydney. It was an empty feeling.''

Hoiles returned home to Sydney and trained with the Tahs during the pre-season. The red bucket he used to ice his heel every day became a fixture at Moore Park.

''I'd put it in the ice bucket every day,'' he says. ''From the day from the time my son was born until he was two.''

One day he jogged on the sand with his kids at the beach. He could not walk the next day. He could not surf. He had to wear sandshoes to the beach. ''I looked like a Swedish tourist.''

It was a Swedish surgeon who rescued him.

Hakan Alfredson is renowned as the best tendon specialist on the planet. He takes his craft seriously: as a young doctor he wanted to snap his own tendon and then find the best way to fix it.

Hoiles and his father Alan caught 11 flights in 11 days, sleeping on the floors of airports, to have surgery in Sweden.

''It wasn't until I got to Sweden that they found a bone fragment that was lodged in my tendon,'' he says. ''That was the new pain. It wasn't tendonitis. It was from the first surgery. I always find it interesting when people say they don't have any regrets. I regret that first operation. It took three years of my footy career away.''

His first game back was for his beloved Randwick, in second grade, buzzing with nerves at Coogee Oval.

The next week he played in the first grade semi, tore his hammy in the second minute but fought on, knowing that he had to show the Tahs that he could still play.

He fronted for Waratahs pre-season last October prepared to play for nothing. Coach Michael Cheika put him on a supplementary contract.

So Hoiles is effectively playing for match payments. He can expect to make no more than $50,000 this season, although a new deal beckons.

''It's disappointing what's happened financially,'' he says. ''But I don't expect people to feel sorry for me. I've had a dream run. I've sold my unit in Canberra, moved in with the in-laws, my wife went back to work, and we didn't have a third kid."

But there have been upsides.

''In a weird way, it's made my wife and I a lot closer. When I came back, I realised how much your career means to your family. And a lot of those people wondered if I was doing the right thing. But they respected what I was doing, because they knew what I was like.''

What is Stephen Hoiles like? A footballer who is just playing, for all the right reasons.