League: Jerome Ropati - Miracle in the making

By Chris Rattue

This is one insider's memory of Jerome Ropati's teenage league career in Auckland: "The main thing I remember is looking at the sheets and seeing Jerome Ropati - player of the day, Jerome Ropati - player of the day."

Others also talk about facing Ropati's teams, and how the youngster from Mt Roskill tore them apart.

It wasn't the usual blockbusting charges typical of the junior standouts which made the watchers take notice. Ropati had smart hands and feet, a rare Kiwi five-eighths in the making.

Some players - Stacey Jones springs to mind - bubble straight to the surface in the NRL, but Ropati has arrived via a slower boil, maybe because he has toiled at a club which has experienced so much trouble.

Ropati, 21, will complete his third full NRL season against the Broncos tomorrow. In a stable environment, and having been parked in his favourite position for the season, he is starting to deliver on his great promise.

His most brilliant NRL statement came last Sunday, a four-try destruction of the Roosters at Mt Smart Stadium, but the encouraging signs go deeper than one game.

Yes, Warriors (and Kiwi) fans may have the miracle: A world-class standoff - a home-grown one at that.

But first things first in this Weekend Herald interview. Ropati is as famous a name as you get in New Zealand league. Jerome, who is Auckland-born to Samoan parents, is delighted to be lumped in with the clan. But no, he isn't in the clan.

Might as well get the big question out of the way: Are you a Ropati, if you know what I mean?

As far as I know, there is no link to the Ropatis. My grandfather had a matai, or chiefly, name and his original name was Lomano or Romano. His first name was Lopati and my dad decided to take his first name as his last name when he came to New Zealand, and made it Ropati. Regardless of whether I'm related to the Ropatis, they have established a name in rugby league, and I've got a chance to carry that on.

Your dad, Filipo, has been a big influence?

He was my coach from the under-6s to under-13s at Marist. The big thing I remember is my dad cheering my brother and me on as we ran around the park. My father has been a massive influence. He knows what he's talking about. He's still coaching me.

Still cheering you on ...

There are no positive tips from him. It's all about how I'm supposed to tackle, where I should have positioned myself. He's right ... but I kind of hoped he'd tell me, 'Good game, son.' He didn't say anything after the Roosters game. Actually, he did congratulate me.

What's his best tip this year?

He wondered why I supported Awen Guttenbeil by running on Awen's right, when Awen is a right-handed carry so he mainly offloads the ball to the left. Dad's never said anything technical like that before. He doesn't realise I'm not Superman who can get from one side to the other. I've got a job that Ivan Cleary has set for me - I was there to get Awen into a one-on-one. But there are times I've tried to do what dad suggested - as yet the guys haven't been able to get the ball free.

You were shunted all around the backline (and on to the interchange bench) in 2005 ...

That was challenging, but it did let me see all the different angles. Ivan sat down with every player before this season, and I told him I would eventually like to play No 6. He gave me a few pointers to work on.

Why standoff?

Since my junior days I grew up leading teams. My dad was coach and he looked to me as a leader. I was in the position of organising players, reading the game, to get us to dominate. The position suits - I like running on to the ball, ball-playing on the run, being second receiver, playing out back, support running. I love defence.

Word association game. Defence - Ruben Wiki - ouch.

We call Rubes the Sniper. He reads the play well and ... comes out of nowhere and takes out your legs. Ruben teaches the whole team about defence, gives us tips. He's so aggressive. I put my arm out to break his speed when Ruben comes at me in practice.

So who's the game's biggest hitter?

A lot of the guys say Sonny Bill Williams. He was at Marist when I was there and he could belt guys. You don't see him so much defensively now, because guys don't like running into him. They run into the guy next to him, which is the smart thing to do. Once he connects, it's not a pretty sight. I'll say Sonny Bill ... but Ruben is right up there.

That's quite a forward pack the Warriors have.

A lot of clubs can boast good packs but not a lot have more skilful and agile forwards, and our forwards aren't exactly small, either. Awen, Evarn, Epalahame, Steve Price - so many offloaders.

Were you a little Warriors fan?

I was aware of them, the Kiwis, the Australians, State of Origin, but not the ARL or Super League so much. We didn't watch that much TV. I went to one Warriors game and ET [Cronulla's Andrew Ettingshausen] ripped them apart.

Childhood hero?

Stacey Jones. He was so feisty.

Hope you told him that when you became his teammate.

It's not really the cool thing to do.

And rugby passed you by?

I love rugby. Love the All Blacks. And the Blues - Spencer, Junior Tonu'u was awesome, Brian Lima was a great hitter, Zinzan, Fitzpatrick ...

I hear you're married.

Yes, to Leah, last November. We met at church in Mt Roskill in 2004.

Church is big in your life?

I became a born-again Christian five years ago. It's one of the reasons I play league and got married early, to honour the Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible talks about all men being sinners and I didn't like the way I used to live. I used to smoke, drink, go to parties, have girlfriends. But that wasn't the way God ordained man to live. My perspective on life is far greater now. It helps me deal with the ups and downs of this career as well.

The media ... what's the biggest hit you've taken?

I'm only human and sometimes things are hard to ignore. Last year, after I dropped the ball at fullback against the Cowboys and they scored, Murray Deaker interviewed Nathan Fien and I heard that Murray was giving it to me. Murray Deaker is a well-respected guy and, being young, I thought, 'This is not enjoyable, I don't want to have to go through all that again.' I felt like going into my shell and playing safe football, or not playing football at all. But I've grown up and learned it's all part and parcel of this job. People are entitled to their opinion ... We do our best, and what more can you do?

You couldn't have done much more against the Roosters. The season highlight?

It's the first time I've scored four tries. Evarn Tuimavave was always scoring six, seven tries a game when we were kids. He was a big boy.

He still is ...

I think the highlight was actually winning four in a row mid-season. The media and everyone thought we would fall over again after two. The whole season has been awesome - we've done it tough having lost the four points, but we've proved people wrong, shown we can compete with the toughest. The credit belongs to Ivan Cleary and John Ackland.

And so to Suncorp Stadium, where you scored two tries last year in your only test appearance. Can the Warriors make it five in a row?

When certain teams meet, people go, 'This is going to be a good game.' This is one of them. They say over 40,000 will be there. It's a grand final for us.

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 28 Dec 2014 15:31:13 Processing Time: 1707ms