Flashback to 2002 and Ansett Airlines had just been thrust into the hands of administrators, John Howard was in the midst of his Prime Ministership and the NSW Blues were an interstate force on the verge of recording a three-series winning streak.
The year also marked a special occasion for 31-year-old Titans back-rower Mark Minichiello – debuting for the Roosters as a dummy-half at a time when David Gallop had just been appointed the NRL’s CEO and the likes of Chris Anderson, Graham Murray and Craig Coleman were head coaches. Now, 11 years later and with Kevin Rudd in his second term as Prime Minister, Minichiello is a rugby league legend – and an icon on the Gold Coast.
“I have been around for a long time,” Minichiello, who becomes the first 150-game Titan this weekend when his team meets the Warriors, tells NRL.com behind a few chuckles.
“I remember my debut – it was in Round 12, 2002, against Penrith at (then) Penrith Park. I played hooker and came off the bench and didn’t get long – about 10 minutes probably. I remember we got beat convincingly so it wasn’t the best debut... but that’s alright.
“That year the Roosters went on to win the grand final and at the time under Ricky (Stuart) they saw me more as a hooker than a back-rower and at the time they had Craig Wing at hooker who was playing really good footy. Putting myself in that hooking role, I was always going to be up against it getting a spot. I went across the road to Souths, they gave me an opportunity and I took it and was there for four years, had a good time and then moved up to the Coast.”
For family man Minichiello, the younger brother of Roosters captain Anthony, the world-famous stretch of beaches at the Coast and the lush green hinterland surrounding it are now what he calls home.
“It’s the lifestyle up here, it’s pretty relaxed,” says Minichiello, who has three children with wife Milena.
“Coming from Sydney you don’t really realise or know any different – Sydney’s a pretty crazy, busy place when you move away from it. You come up here and it’s really laid back and the weather is great. It’s different to Sydney altogether… it’s good for the kids, the beach is down the road and everything is pretty close without the crazy traffic you have in Sydney. Although all our family’s in Sydney we’ve made our life up here and we’re really enjoying it.
“[Anthony and I] grew up in Prestons which is in Liverpool, on five acres, and it was a great way to grow up. We were always outside running around and it was a fair travel into the city to go to training – but that’s what you do in Sydney!
“We were very lucky to be blessed with some really good parents who did everything for us… they took us to training three days a week all the way into the city and they never complained once. It’s something we’ll never forget for giving us the opportunity for us to go on and fulfil our football dreams.”
Most of Minichiello’s football aspirations have been fulfilled – although one major goal remains. A City representative from 2007 to 2011, the gutsy and hard-working back-rower was a long time considered for NSW selection – but it never eventuated. He would have liked an opportunity, but he’s got other more pressing goals this year and beyond.
“It is disappointing not to have played for the Blues but in saying that I’ve had a great career – it’s not something I’ll look back on and say I wish I had done,” Minichiello, under contract until 2014, says.
“Everyone hopes to play Origin but when you look at it, one per cent of the players go on to play it… it’s the pinnacle of rugby league and you’ve really got to earn your spot there. I thought for a few years there I was playing good enough to get a shot but that’s the way it goes and I’m happy to have played five years for City Origin.
“At the moment I just want to win a grand final – that’s [the focus] of my NRL career now. I’d like to experience the feeling of playing in a winning grand final side and that would be something special – the highlight of my career.
“It’s something I think we can do – we’ve got to work hard to try to get it done – but it would be special to be one of the originals to hold that trophy for the first time.”
Minichiello, who was dropped earlier this season but recalled after just a handful of games in the Queensland Cup, is still battling to comprehend the significance of the occasion that will greet him on Saturday evening at Skilled Park when his team meets the Warriors.
“When you’re growing up you wish to play first grade and that’s sort of what you focus on, then when you make your debut it’s a massive highlight... but to play 10 or 11 years at the top level it’s a pretty big achievement and something I’m very proud of,” Minichiello says.
“It’s not something many players get to do – play 150 games for one club.
“There’s been a few ups and downs in the seven years I’ve been here so far but it’s been a lot of fun and I’ve enjoyed it… hopefully I can play 200!”
This week, though, the Warriors risk spoiling Minichiello’s celebrations. It’s a vital game for both the eighth-placed Titans and the 13th-placed Auckland-based side.
“They’re a big team that plays very physical. I’m looking forward to a good tough game,” Minichiello says.
“They’re in the same boat as us… it’s going to make a very physical game.
“Just a victory would be great – you can’t ask for more than a good win.”