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'People talk about who’s not there, but we talk about who is there': How Robbo’s reggies battlers are looking to upset the Storm

14th September, 2023
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14th September, 2023
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As recently as April, Paul Momirovski was playing on a pitch without proper goalposts. 

In the midst of a wet weekend in April, the NSW Cup game between North Sydney Bears and Sydney Roosters – both feeders to the same NRL team – was moved to Hills Grammar, with a host of professional players forced to turn out on a field usually reserved for teenagers, replete with hybrid soccer/rugby posts.

This weekend, the circumstances could not be more different. Momirovski, plus Sandon Smith, Junior Pauga and Siua Wong, who also played that day, will be the biggest show in Australia as they travel to AAMI Park for the Roosters’ knockout finals showdown with the Melbourne Storm.

Shorn of stars Joey Manu (hamstring), Joseph Suaalii (concussion), Daniel Tupou (knee) and Billy Smith (jaw), the named backline will be James Tedesco plus four, all of whom have spent more time in the second grade than first in 2023.

Trent Robinson might have been forgiven for giving up hope, but instead, sought to put his faith in the reggies battlers that have put in the work all year to get to this moment.

“They’re uncontrollable,” he said of the injuries in last weekend’s win over Cronulla.

“Suaaliii there was no choice, Joey Manu there was no choice and Billy Smith got operated on yesterday so there was no choice, so no wasted energy on those.

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“Guys that we believe in and that have played a lot of footy are coming in. You continue the belief in the squad that you’re going to choose and keep going.

“A lot of people have been talking about who’s not there, but we spend all week talking about who is there, their qualities and what they bring.

“Sometimes their strengths are better than the two Joeys. It’s not about what’s not there, it’s about what is, and then slight adaptations to their skillset. We think we’ve done that and now we need to execute it.”

Momirovski is top of the list of battlers. He has been out since Round 9 with a shoulder injury and bounced between firsts and seconds before that, but has proven experience in the finals having played a Prelim for the Roosters in 2019, been in the squad for Melbourne’s Premiership in 2020 and then won a comp with Penrith in 2021. 

“There’s always been confidence in Momma and that’s why he’s back here,” said Robinson. 

“He’s a Grand Final winner, a big game player for us as well. We’d have liked more games with his shoulder injury but we’re always confident in Momma and what he’s capable of.

“With shoulder surgery, he’s done a lot of running and opposition work against us, pushing the strength and all that to the point where he’s able to get selected. This is the first week that he got ticked off.

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“Two weeks ago they highlighted this week to get back ready to play again so that was good timing.

“If he wasn’t going to play with us, he might be playing at North Sydney on Saturday. He was slated to play this week. We’re not rushing anyone back, we’re not putting anybody at risk.”

That link with reserve grade is being tested to the max this weekend with so many first string players, especially in the backline, absent. 

Robinson focused on the importance of players keeping high standard and being ready when their moment comes, as it will this weekend.

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

“There’s a big difference between playing reserve grade and playing first grade, and so there should be,” he said. “That’s why we watch elite sport. 

“The fall-off is quite sharp, but you’re still the same person and the belief that you hold, no matter where you play and what you’re working on, is what we talk about.

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“We talk about working in the shadows. When no-one’s watching, what work are you doing?

“Guys like Corey Allen and Paul Momorovski have been meticulous all year, whether they’ve been in rehab, reserve grade or first grade.

“They work and work and work. That’s where the belief comes from us, because as soon as you go back in, you don’t have to pump them up. I know they’re ready. They’ve been ready, it’s just we haven’t seen it on the big stage. They’ve been preparing for it for a long time.”

One of those who had successfully made the jump has been forward Terrell May. His performances in the last month have caught they eye, especially in the absence of pack leader Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, with the youngster forced to take on extra minutes to cover injuries and suspensions.

May played the whole second half against Cronulla, which Robinson said was all down to his own improvements, with the coach growing in confidence to leave him on.

“He played 40 minutes the second half against Souths as well, and I needed to lean on him in that game, and I needed to lean on him again last week with the changes,” he said.

“You have a plan and then you keep looking at the player and if it needs to be tweaked. Every time I look at him, he has good energy, good movements. 

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“Ten minutes in the second half, then 20 minutes, 30 minutes and he keeps moving. It’s a real credit to him for what he’s done and where he’s come from. 

“He’s been unheralded throughout his juniors as well and he had to work really hard to get into the position he’s in. Now, the rewards are coming.

“He’s a real credit to North Sydney. They put forward guys that they want to train and trial and T turned up for five weeks. 

“That was all he was guaranteed. We were like: ’This guy’s pretty good’, so we extended that.

“We got the point where he was dominating, but couldn’t play first grade because he wasn’t in the top 30. You can’t play before Round 11.

“He was dominating reserve grade, all the stats, everything like that. I think we debuted on the 12th round of the season, as soon as we could play him we played him.

“He’s been a real quiet achiever and his game’s developed. The way he goes about playing the game has been great.

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“There’s a lot of train and trials where the hunger of only having one or two weeks (to impress). It’s not a lot of money, they’re on a thousand a week and it could drop off in a week. 

“They don’t have a full time job, they don’t have a base salary and they can go back to nothing. They have to find a job next week and play reserve grade.

“But they’re happy to do that and that hunger – guys either fall off, can’t do it and aren’t good enough or guys grab it. That’s what Terrell did.

“He went from 120kgs to 105kgs in the preseason before he got to us and said ‘I’m hungry to do this’.”

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Defeating Melbourne in Melbourne with a backline filled with reserve graders is as big an ask as it comes, but the 2023 Roosters are not daunted. They have been playing knockout footy for over a month to make it this far, culminating in the emotionally draining Sharks win.

Robinson admitted that the effort to sneak home in the Shire took it out of his team, but said that they had tailored their week in order to go again in Victoria.

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“It definitely does (take it out of you) so the recovery is very important,” said the coach. 

“You’ve got to make sure you get the energy back that you expended. When someone goes off the field, someone has to take their place so recovering from that. 

“Then also you get energy from it as a team and a club. Your faith in the guys around you starts to rise even more than what it was.

“You get the energy back that you need to go again and also the faith and trust in the guys around you to go again and attack the game.

“We’ve played a lot of semi-final games (with Melbourne) and been toe-to-toe a lot of times, so there’s respect there, but also a hunger to attack each other.

“That’s why they’re memorable games, and that’s no different for this game. If we’re cycling at the top enough we’ll run into each other.

“We really want to go after this game. There is no tomorrow, and that’s been our mantra for a while now. It’s no different. We haven’t looked past this week, we know who we’re playing and we know what we’ve got to do. 

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“We emptied the tank last week and we’ll empty it again on Friday.”

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