Rams’ fulcrum Roach playing with a smile again

Photo: Serge Gonzalez

Given some of the negative mood music that initially surrounded the latest rebirth of the Greater Sydney Rams, the fact that the players and coaches alike have managed to put any off-field distractions to one side and produce two wins from their opening two games of this year’s NRC, is commendable.

Originally forged as the Western Sydney Rams for the one-off ARC season back in 2007, with feeder clubs Eastwood, West Harbour, Parramatta and Penrith under their umbrella, the ‘Greater’ moniker was applied for the first two years of that competitions successor, the NRC, in 2014/15, to accommodate an alliance with the Southern Districts club.

Coach of the 2007 side Brian Melrose returned for 2014, only to be succeeded by ex-Wallaby Jim Williams in 2015, who in turn was replaced by John Muggleton last year, when the name reverted back to ‘Western’ Sydney Rams – despite still having several Souths players in tow. That was quickly kiboshed when the licence was taken over by the Eastwood club a few months ago, and the Greater Sydney Rams Version 2.0 was unveiled in time for round one this year, with the original ARC coaching duo of Melrose and John Manenti back at the helm, in albeit different guises.

Confused? So are some supporters, and while it was always going to be hard to foster a genuine buy-in from, and connection with, fans of any team plucked from thin air just four years ago, such meddling with the brand name, and the revolving door of coaches, hasn’t exactly helped to engender any loyalty, passion or tribalism amongst their potential audience.

Indeed, their only consistency across the last four years has been the lack of success. Before a ball was kicked in round one, the Rams had won just six of their 23 NRC matches, and are the only New South Wales-based side not to have tasted finals football. So it was perhaps understandable that now head coach John Manenti felt that the best way for he and his team to promote that interest and build some bridges back with the fanbase, was to start winning games of footy, plain and simple.

A first-up 44-23 win over last year’s runners-up, the NSW Country Eagles, set the bar fairly high, and was backed up by a gritty 41-26 victory over the Sydney Rays last weekend. This not only meant that the Rams had beaten both their state rivals for the first time, it was also their first back-to-back victories in their short existence.

Sure enough, people are starting to view the Rams in a positive light again, and if social media is a reliable barometer, the number of those lending their support to the revamped venture vastly outweigh the few dissenting voices.

Hugh Roach_Rams v Eagles_2017 NRC_JB

Hugh Roach on the charge against the NSW Country Eagles – Photo: J.B Photography

A standout performer in both wins was hooker Hugh Roach. The only Ram to have been named in all four of their NRC squads – he ended up missing last year through injury – the Waratahs rake has been back to his disruptive, combative self, topping the competition turnover charts after two rounds, hitting anything that moves, and forming part of a pack that is setting a pretty handy platform for their talented backline to work off.

All of which is a far cry from the player that seemed to have lost some of his trademark zip in his fleeting performances for the Tahs this year. By his own admission, the last couple of years in Super Rugby haven’t gone as well as he – or indeed the Waratahs – would have liked. Having blazed a trail to a professional career through his exploits as an Australian Schoolboy – for whom he shares the record for most appearances – and with club side Eastwood – with whom he won two Premierships and was named Shute Shield Rookie of the Year back in 2013 – his graduation to the next level hasn’t quite kicked on in the manner that early success suggested.

Being stuck behind the formidable Tatafu Polota-Nau when he first rocked up to Moore Park didn’t help, although the time on the training paddock with the Wallaby no.2 was no doubt invaluable. But Tarf’s departure for the Western Force ahead of the 2017 season opened the door for a trio of talented hookers to fight it out for the one spot, and it was Roach who ultimately came off worst behind Tolu Latu and Damien Fitzpatrick, afforded just 237 minutes of game time across 15 matches.

Body language can be easily misconstrued, but watching from the sidelines, I didn’t get the impression that this was a guy wholly committed emotionally to what he was doing in the Cambridge Blue jersey this year. That’s certainly not an accusation of a lack of commitment on his part, but having watched plenty of Roach’s exploits as he came through the club ranks, and the intensity and vigour he brought to the table once he crossed the white line, he just didn’t look like a guy who was enjoying himself. Something wasn’t right, and as it turns out, I wasn’t alone in my concerns.

“I haven’t smiled out on the field for a long time – a lot of people have pulled me up for that!” Roach revealed to Behind the Ruck this week. “But you can probably see that I’ve been smiling out there [for the Rams] and I think when you’re enjoying footy, it’s easy. We’re all footy players and we all want to play footy, and while it’s bloody tough, I just love the process at the moment, and I’d rather be playing than sitting on the couch.

“Honestly, at this time of year, some of the guys are all busted and bruised when they get to the NRC, and that can take away some of your enthusiasm. I know because I’ve been in that position. But this year my eyes have been open to the benefits of this competition, and my love for rugby has come back ten-fold because I’m playing a great standard of footy with some great guys. It’s a job through the week to prepare and on the weekend it’s get out there, have fun and express yourself.”

It’s perhaps no coincidence that Roach’s on-field rehabilitation seemed to begin when he returned to the Eastwood fold for the end of the Shute Shield season. Back in familiar surroundings, and in the colours of a club that is clearly close to his heart, his willingness to put in for the team was evident by his marrying up of two roles, one as the starting hooker, and then as the finishing openside, when fellow Tah Fitzpatrick came off the bench to join the front row. He even got to test his game management skills…

“Going back to TG Millner is always good, I have a lot of fun when I play there and we have supporters who quite enjoy coming to the games when we get some of the Super boys back,” he affirmed. “I never played seven before I finished school, but for some reason, it’s something I’ve done a fair bit of since. Playing at seven having started a game at two is a challenge because you’re coming from scrummaging, and you’re quite gassed, and then you’ve got to run with the backs. But if someone wants to put me at seven then I’ll do it because I want to play, and I even had a run at halfback with the Woodies this year as well!”

Hugh Roach_Eastwood v Norths_2017_SG

Carrying the fight to Norths in the Shute Shield semi-final – Photo: Serge Gonzalez

He understandably played a fairly straight bat when talk came around to the state of play for him at the Waratahs, and if there is any underlying frustration there, he masks it well.

“Fitzy and Tolu are great players, and obviously Tolu is over with the Wallabies doing his thing, which is fantastic. But for me, I’ve just got to get my head down and keep working hard,” he says. “We’ve got some new programs at the Tahs at the moment, including a new weights program, which is great, so my target is to get bigger and work on my set-piece. Being versatile is a bonus I guess, but right now I’m concentrating on my scrum and lineout. That’s everything for a hooker at Super Rugby level, everything else around the field is just a plus in my mind. If you can’t scrum and you can’t throw, the rest of it doesn’t really matter so much.

“My role at the Waratahs is if I’m playing, I’m playing, but if I’m not, I’m making sure everyone else gets their training in to the best of their ability. It doesn’t matter who’s on the park, as long as we get the results through the week and on the weekend. That’s how I see my role, and that’s how I’m preparing, whether that’s with the Tahs or if I’ve got to switch my mind back to club footy if I’m going back to Eastwood, or the NRC with the Rams.”

It’s also no coincidence that his form and enjoyment of the game have improved since he has been back under the auspices of John Manenti. It was under Manenti that Roach cut his 1st grade teeth at the Woodies, and his Man of the Match performance in the 2015 Shute Shield grand final was the culmination of a working partnership that has been of huge benefit to both parties. Now that his former mentor has been handed the reins at the Rams, alongside the returning Brian Melrose, it is no surprise to Roach that they have begun the new competition in such fine fettle.

“I’ve been in the Rams since it’s inception and getting off to such a great start is pretty new to us to be honest,” he admits. “There’s been a lot of change over the years, whether coaching staff or players, and it is hard to become attached to something that has seen so many changes – including the name. But I’ve always sort of felt a bit of loyalty to the club. I just focus on the team I’m in and making sure my job is done well within that team.

“Credit has to go to our coaching staff, we had the same guys right at the start and they’ve both got their accolades in different fields. Johnny’s done stuff with the Aussie Sevens and won Premierships, and is a guy I’ve had a lot to do with at Eastwood, which is great. But I think the combination of the two different personalities, and the way they manage each other and the boys is the key.

“They’re both good with the boys, they both get their points across really well, and they relate to the guys. We can all have a laugh together but when it’s time to get down to business, we really get to it. That’s probably why we’ve had such a good start, because the coaches have put their best feet forward for us.”

Manenti’s affection for the 25-year-old hooker is apparent. His coach is perhaps his biggest fan, to the point that he has awarded Roach the captaincy honours for this afternoon’s clash with Perth Spirit, after incumbent skipper Jed Holloway was ruled out with a hamstring issue on Friday.

“Firstly, as a coach, you always have players you love to go to battle with, and Roachy’s one of those,” Manenti told Behind the Ruck. “Every time he takes the field, he gives every ounce of himself. He’s as tough as they come and he’s like an energiser bunny, just non-stop.

“Some say he’s too small for Super Rugby but that’s rubbish. Pound for pound, he’s the best hooker in the country,” he continues. “His set-piece work has improved out of sight, and what separates him from other hookers is his ability to play like a flanker – something he has actually done in the Shute Shield. In the past two NRC games he has eight turnovers to his name – from pilfers, tackle turnovers and intercepts. That’s really remarkable.

“Like all aspirational footy players he wants to play as high as he can, and at times the expectations may have weighed heavier than they should. But he has a smile back on his face and loves ripping in with the lads. He’s enjoying his footy and that normally means you play good footy. On Sunday he’ll lead the Rams on the park as skipper, a sign of how much he’s maturing as a player and how much respect myself and the Rams have for him.”

Jed Holloway_Rams v Eagles_2017 NRC_SG

Roach assumes the Rams captaincy from injured best mate Jed Holloway – Photo: Serge Gonzalez

Travelling across the Nullarbor to take on most people’s pre-competition favourites, Perth Spirit, is a daunting challenge, particularly without the services of the influential Holloway. The reigning champions are playing for more than just a trophy this time around, with the pride of Western Australian rugby on the line as they look to cock a snook at the ARU’s decision to axe the Western Force.

Factor in a surprise loss to the Canberra Vikings last weekend and that challenge for the Rams is only amplified, but the new skipper is not only relishing the chance to lead his side out at McGillivray Oval, he is confident they can put their best foot forward and see where it takes them.

“It’s unfortunate that my opportunity has come from someone else’s minor setback, but I’m more than willing to step up to the important role Jed [Holloway] plays in this side,” he says. “I’ve been a part of the Rams leadership group from the start, and since then we’ve had some great players and great mentors in that leadership role to emulate. For me it is a proud moment, but I fully understand that our team has a big task ahead and it’s going to take 23 leaders to win the game. I’m confident that if we stick to our guns it will be an impressive game of football.”

Whether that will be enough for the Rams to bring home the chocolates for a third game in a row remains to be seen, but they’ve already shown plenty in the opening rounds to suggest they could well be in the mix come the business end of the season. And that will surely help to keep a smile on the face of their longest serving custodian.

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