“You can be really down, then he’ll get the ball and go straight at their biggest front-rower and do it over and over and over again,” longtime teammate Jake Friend says. “Sitting there behind him watching him do that, it spurs you on. I’ve always had massive respect for the way he’s gone after individuals in the opposition for the benefit of our team.”
Given the cavalcade of stars who have been at Bondi in the last decade, there’s never been a player you could easily identify as the Roosters’ barometer.
Mitchell Pearce ran the show for almost a decade, and without him the Roosters couldn’t even win half their games. Boyd Cordner and Friend, both of whom retired this year due to concussion issues and played a total of 47 minutes between them in 2021, have been the heart and soul of the club for years. There’s Mitchell Aubusson. Luke Keary and Cooper Cronk.
But maybe Waerea-Hargreaves is the guide to the Roosters, whose winning percentage plummets from 62 per cent to just 51 when he doesn’t play according to Champion Data.
Yet it’s never been about numbers with Waerea-Hargreaves. His worth has always best been measured with intangibles, rather than SuperCoach points. The bigger the game, the bigger his performance.
He was so immense in the 2019 grand final triumph he was told he had won the Clive Churchill medal and to stand by the presentation stage – until organisers apologised and said Jack Wighton was the recipient. He set the tone the previous year when the Roosters had blown away Melbourne by half-time in the decider.
‘He understands the primal thought process of it’s me or you in the position he has.’
Sonny Bill Williams
Williams reckons these days he’s noticed the 32-year-old working just as hard at the little areas fans miss, but coaches don’t. Third man in on a tackle. Winning an extra half-second in the ruck. Pressure on the kicker. Leading the defensive line. Twice this year he’s played an entire 80 minutes, refusing to come off.
But none have been his greatest asset.
Perhaps Phil Gould put it best once: “When the big dog barks, they all bark. And he’s the big dog in that team”.
“He understands the primal thought process of it’s me or you in the position he has,” Williams says of Waerea-Hargreaves, who stood guard at the Suncorp Stadium tunnel when Latrell Mitchell approached after the Joseph Manu tackle. “We love it. I love it.
“I said to him in 2013, ‘we won’t win this competition without you’. I was trying to gee him up, get him to take on their big dog. There’s a real primal thing in the contact sport we play – and he understands that.
“And the last few years he’s played better than he’s ever played. He’s played in one of the most volatile positions in the game – and he’s thrived. I can’t speak highly enough of him as a footy player, but what I love more about him is how he is as a man.”
There’s a story which perfectly captures the two loves in Waerea-Hargreaves’ life.
His then-fiancee Chelsea was pregnant with their first child leading into an important end-of-season game in 2015. She was due on the day the Roosters were down to play Parramatta. He said he was prepared to do a runner mid-match if he got word Chelsea had gone into labour … but only after taking one more hit-up.
There are few that really know the clean-living Kiwi international, and even fewer that truly understand what makes him tick.
The easy narrative is the player whose eyes occasionally spin like a poker machine on the field, the one who has clobbered a rival a little high, pulls out his Tuesday night suit, and is on a first name basis with the parking attendant outside the NRL judiciary.
The man is different.
He’s not a big drinker, and has embraced yoga and pilates later in his career to keep up with the modern demands of a frenetic game. He was always one of the last players to leave fan days, if anyone can remember back when clubs could actually host them. Waerea-Hargreaves used to ask if he could conduct his media appearances in a series of one-on-one interviews because he preferred being personal with a reporter. He was an excellent golfer when younger and played off a low single figure handicap. He and Chelsea have become semi-regulars on Sydney’s real estate pages, “flipping” homes on the lower north shore.
None of it sounds like the Waerea-Hargreaves people think they know.
Friend roomed with him on away trips for more than a decade. There were two habits which drove him mad: Waerea-Hargreaves always had to relentlessly clean their room as part of his gameday ritual … but only after shaving himself down in the bathroom.
“He would wait until away games to clipper most of his body,” jokes Friend. “So I’d spend the rest of the week walking through his body hair.
“But he’s the ultimate family man and I’ve seen him blossom as a father. I’ve actually taken a lot away from how he is with his girls, family means so much to him. He’s an absolute gentleman off the field, and not many who watch him on the field would probably think that.”
This year, he’s taken a number of the club’s young forwards such as Fletcher Baker, Naufahu Whyte and Tuku Hau Tapuha under his wing.
But the one he’s really guided has been teenage dynamo Sam Walker.
When the halfback audaciously ran 90 metres backwards to wind down the clock as a battered Roosters beat last-placed Canterbury earlier this year, one of the first ones to have a quiet word to him afterwards was Waerea-Hargreaves. He gently reminded him the way the Roosters play.
“He mentors him, guides him, advises him, protects him … and that’s the type of bloke he is,” veteran player manager Steve Gillis says.
On Saturday, a Roosters team which has exceeded every expectation by finishing within a whisker of the top four will play for their lives against the Titans in Townsville. Waerea-Hargreaves is not only one of their last big names still on the field, but he has a reputation to uphold.
“We want guys on the field who have been in this position before, and adding guys like [Waerea-Hargreaves] is vital,” Robinson says. “As far as who he is as a leader and also around the camp, the way he trains and sets an intensity, he’s ready to go.”
The likes of James Fisher-Harris, Payne Haas, Josh Papalii, Christian Welch and Daniel Saifiti could all have claims to being the NRL’s best prop, but would you want anyone else other than Waerea-Hargreaves in battle during the finals?
“If I was picking a team to save my life, and I’m only talking personally, he would be the first one I’d pick,” Steve Roach says. “The other blokes are great players, but they haven’t done it like he has. For my way of thinking, [Shane] Webcke and [Petero] Civoniceva are among the best I’ve seen – and he stands right next to them.”
Which is why it’s best he doesn’t take down your number, even if you’re a pre-school kid.