Last men standing: Minichiello v Hohaia

Eight years is a long time in rugby league – so long, in fact, that when Anthony Minichiello looks around the Sydney Roosters dressing room these days he doesn’t see a single familiar face from the club’s 2002 grand final win over the Warriors.<br><br>But he won’t be completely alone in his memories this weekend.<br><br>In a strange twist of fate, Minichiello’s opposite number at AMI Stadium in Christchurch on Sunday happens to be Lance Hohaia, himself the last Warrior standing from that fateful day in October, 2002.<br><br>“It’s quite funny, I didn’t know that one,” Minichiello laughs when told of the coincidence. “I suppose it’s a nice feeling to still be here. <br><br>“I knew I was the last one left from the Roosters but I didn’t know he was the last from their side too. That’s not too bad, I guess.”<br><br>Inevitably, Minichiello says, clashes with the Warriors tend to evoke memories of that sole grand final win.<br><br>The Roosters were by far the dominant side of the early 2000s, with four grand finals in five years. But they only have one premiership to show for it after emphatically disposing of the Warriors 30-8.<br><br>“There are always memories,” he says. “That was a great year for us and the way we finished off that game – it was a tight first half but we came home strong in the end. <br><br>“As you go into this game you do think of the memories but this is a different season and a totally different game in general too I guess, so you can’t think about the past too much.”<br><br>Although he professes to simply enjoy being back on a rugby league field in 2010, Minichiello is very much turning back the clock this season.<br><br>Once the game’s premier fullback, a crippling back injury sustained in early 2006 almost ended his career and he played just 33 games over the next four seasons (his frustrations compounded by a serious ankle injury last year).<br><br>His time out of the game saw incoming coach Brian Smith tread carefully when he settled on a squad at the start of the year, with Minichiello shuffled to the wing to accommodate the Todd Carney experiment.<br><br>But circumstances have changed and after starring in his side’s 38-6 win over Melbourne two weeks ago, the 30-year-old appears to have once again made the no.1 jersey his own.<br><br>“It’s exciting,” Minichiello says. “I played a bit of fullback when Mitchell Pearce was in Origin and we had a few injuries but now that we’ve got our full squad back on deck and I’m at fullback again it’s pretty exciting.<br><br>“I’m looking forward to building some combinations with the boys.”<br><br>More importantly, the Roosters custodian can see some of his old form returning – the sort of form that saw him play 18 Tests and nine State of Origin games for NSW.<br><br>“I think my game is still the same as it always was,” he says. “The NRL itself is obviously harder. It’s more about the wrestle these days – defensive patterns are stronger and it’s much harder to break the tackle.<br><br>“But I’m happy with how I’m going.<br><br>“I mean, my goal at the start of the year was just to play week-in, week-out football which I haven’t done for four years, so I think I’ve come a long way.<br><br>“It’s been a long time coming. For the first few months of the season I pretty much did nothing during the week outside of football – everything was about recovery and getting my body right.<br><br>“Now that my body is conditioned again for training and taking the hits it’s feeling pretty good.<br><br>“I’ve played a lot of games now and the body has adapted.”<br><br><b>Late NRL news:</b><br><br>•    It’s confirmed Penrith captain Petero Civoniceva will make his return from a broken hand – sustained in State of Origin I – against Manly tonight.<br><br>•    Wests Tigers have lost halfback Robert Lui to a knee injury for tonight’s clash with St George Illawarra. Benji Marshall is expected to move to halfback with Blake Ayshford moving to five-eighth.<br><br>•    Key Titans trio Scott Prince (hamstring), Preston Campbell (heel) and Luke Bailey (ankle) are all in serious doubt for Sunday’s clash with Newcastle at Skilled Park. A final decision on all three will be made on the day.<br>