MITCHELL Pearce thought Sydney Roosters were a top eight side before the season started – and while we’ve all been getting excited, he still thinks they’re a top eight side.
But over the next three weeks, his mind might change. And, by some sort of twisted logic, he’ll play a big role in the events that will change his own mind.
“We’ve got Manly, followed by the Cowboys, followed by the Storm,” the 24-year-old says after mid-week session of Bikram yoga.
“I just think we’re a top eight side, don’t want to put too much press on us but … maybe we can say top four. After the next few weeks, we’ll know whether we can aim for that top four spot.
“It’s definitely an important period.”
No better time, in fact, to have a chat to Mitch than on the eve of a run which will determine his club’s premiership candidacy – and of an Origin series which will give us the best indication yet of what legacy he will leave as a footballer a decade from now.
Much has been written about the regeneration of the Sydney Roosters under new coach Trent Robinson. But Pearce is the personification of the rebirth.
Like his club, he was downtrodden and beaten for much of last season. He was said to be on his way out, at odds with the coach, unlikely to be retained by NSW as first choice number seven.
He featured more prominently in the gossip pages than the sports pages.
Maybe it wasn’t fate. Maybe it was Nick Politis. But the intervention of something or someone set off a domino effect and every single little one of the blighters fell in Mitchell Pearce’s favour.
Coach Brian Smith departed and was replaced by former prop Trent Robinson. The club re-signed the son of NRL Commissioner Wayne Pearce to a four-year contract.
And, as it to clean up a loose end, Blues coach Laurie Daley came out and declared it didn’t matter what any other halfback did, Pearce was his first choice for Origin I on June 5.
According to Robinson, the good signs for Pearce were obvious one day during the summer when he grabbed a lift with his young playmaker. The car was tidy – a shock for Robinson after a year in the south of France.
Pearce was one of those people who focused on what he HAD to do and dismissed the periphery. While Robinson was chomping on croissants, Mitchell Pearce had – literally – got his shit together.
So, was Pearce gone if Smith had stayed? “It said that in a few stories, a few journos put their own spin on it, that I was going to leave,” he said.
“I didn’t comment. I don’t think you’ll find I said much publically at all. I never said I was leaving the Roosters.”
Ok, that’s fine. But now it’s all in the past, can you comment? Can you tell us what really happened?
“No, look, never once was I thinking about doing that,” he says. “There were some good times with Smithy but then towards the end, the whole team wasn’t going so well.
“I wasn’t the only one.
“It was disappointing but Smithy helped me a lot with my career, I’ve learned from all my coaches. I’m grateful to him.
“I never wanted to leave.”
Be that as it may, there’s no doubt that Robinson’s arrival has been a positive for Pearce. Cliches like everyone “buying in” to what the understated former Parramatta Eel and Wests Tiger don’t really say much, though. Buying into what, exactly?
“He talks about trademarks,” Pearce explains. “You look at Manly and Melbourne, they have trademarks – things they do in every game, hard work, that comes before they do anything fancy.
“Things like controlling the ruck. Big wingers, doing the hard work and the flashy stuff off the back of it. They are known for those things and they are in their culture. We’re not there yet be we’re working towards it.”
It’s that psychologically clever focus on honest toil from Robinson that has allowed him to keep the tent door on the Sonny Bill Williams circus closed and introduce some reliability and predictability into the football of Michael Jennings.
The success stories are many. Sam Moa has come back from England a near-superstar. It’s because, like Melbourne, the Sydney Roosters are working hard on honing a craft that in turn puts them in position to win football games.
Pearce, more than most, could easily argue that Melbourne operating in something of a vacuum in comparison to a club like the Roosters is a big factor. Between Moore Park and Bondi, there are an untold number of camera phones that can bring a Sydney Rooster undone.
“Yes, that’s true, but still look at the players they have,” he argues. “It’s about the coach they have. It’s the calibre of players – Cronk, Slater, Smith – and the culture they’ve built.
“That’s what we want to do. We know it will take a while but we’d love to see something similar here.”
Which brings us to the Roosters’ culture – or at least what it’s perceived to be. At the start of the season, Robinson plonked his men down in a room and asked them what the opposition thought of them. If a player was FROM and opposition team, he challenged them: ‘what do YOU think of us?”
“There were some pretty strong things said,” Pearce recalls. “There was the party image, I don’t think people thought of us as an 80 minute team.
“And we spoke about what our goals were, to change those impressions. It wasn’t fully based on trying to impress people, just about changing the way people think about you because those perceptions could be based on something.
“I think we’ve been playing for 80 minutes this year. We might be earning some respect.”
When I ask Pearce if group meetings and “buying in” to changing perceptions are more effective that curfews and Kings Cross bans, he steers the conversation away, saying all clubs have group meetings and it’s the results of such confabs that matter.
And so to Origin.
Pearce has played nine times in sky blue, scored a try, never won a series. At least if Willie Mason is involved in this year’s series, Daley will have someone who remembers what it’s like to beat Queensland.
Daley’s endorsement was unexpected, he says. “I didn’t know he was going to say that until I saw it in the paper but I saw him later and thanked him.” What was Daley’s motive in annointing him the first man picked? Was it intended as a confidence booster for someone who needed one?
“I can’t speak for that, I just feel privileged that he has asked me to fill that role. You’ll have to ask him. It’s a nice feeling that the coach wants you as his half.”
Criticism, says Pearce, “is part of playing for NSW and until we win a series, it’s not going to change
“I’ll be honest, I always find it a long, drawn-out process, the lead-up to Origin. You probably feel it more as NSW half
“Everyone talks about it, it’s a great spectacle. Hopefully I can get out there this year and prove a few people wrong.”
HE didn’t play in it, is in the NSW team anyway, but Mitchell Pearce believes City-Country should be retained.
“I missed it because of a calf injury – I would love to have played, I like playing in those games,” he says.
“Adam Reynolds, he’s a really good halfback and he had a great game for City, a good second half. I don’t mind saying he’s got the best kicking game in the comp.
“Good on him. I would have played if I could.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK