Jason Ryles is one game away from his maiden NRL grand final – or a devastating third preliminary finals loss. Regardless, he has been pivotal to the Roosters 2010 turnaround. <b>Big League feature by Tim Matchett</b>.<br><br>Expectations, like records, are there to be broken: it’s true some doubted whether a 30-year-old Jason Ryles would have much of an impact in his return to the NRL from the UK Super League. Even his own front-row partner admits to having been in two minds about the former Dragon.<br><br>“I thought he would be this old cranky man,” Roosters prop Frank-Paul Nuuausala says of his initial reaction to Ryles’ arrival. “But he’s just like a young fella. He likes to pull pranks and that type of stupid stuff.<br><br>“He doesn’t act his age – he thinks he’s young even with all his grey hair [laughs].”<br><br>As far as backhand compliments go, Nuuausala’s is up there with the best. But as the young prop spoke to Big League, it doesn’t take long to realise the respect Ryles holds amongst his team-mates.<br>“He’s our leader in the forward pack,” Nuuausala continues. “We do what he says, and if he goes good we can follow him.<br><br>“He brings experience in the preparation for games, just keeping us relaxed. He’s got a lot of knowledge about the game for us young forwards.<br><br>“He’s been really good for me; I’ve learnt the basics of playing from him… like normally I might offload on my first run, but he’d be telling me to just take the ball up – things like that. He helps you to prepare yourself, and pace yourself.”<br><br>After winning nothing but the wooden spoon last season, Nuuausala says it was Ryles who convinced him the Roosters could go all the way.<br><br>“I told Jason earlier in the year I’d be happy if we just go along and improve on last year, then he said ‘nah, stuff that, we’re going to win the GF.’ In the last two weeks we’ve been talking about what I said to him – and now we’re in the [preliminary final].”<br><br>Nuuausala isn’t the only one whose expectations were changed. Ryles said he never thought he’d play in the NRL again after leaving St George Illawarra in 2008 for French side Les Catalans, let alone be challenging for the title.<br><br>“I signed a three-year deal over there and I thought I’d finish up [my career] over there, but I got another go back here, and here I am,” Ryles told Big League.<br><br>While the departure of players such as Ryles to the Super League was not uncommon, he has become one of the few players to s return to the NRL and achieve good success, both personally and with a team.<br><br>The veteran of 15 Tests for the Kangaroos and eight Origin games for NSW from 2001-05, Ryles has become a leader up front for the Roosters with 102 metres per game – the most of any front-rower in the side – and has established himself as a mentor amongst the club’s young forwards.<br><br>Ryles believes the time in Europe changed him as a person, and says he was always aware of the leadership role he was expected to play.<br><br>“I’m the same sort of player but just a bit older and wiser,” Ryles reflects after his year out of the NRL. “I’m certainly a different person… Hopefully I can help the young guys like Marty Kennedy and Jared [Waerea-Hargeaves] and [Daniel] Conn… They’re just getting better and better every week, which makes my job easier.<br><br>“Players make players, I believe, so the better they get, the better I can go.”<br><br>Speaking in the tunnel after the Roosters’ victory over the Panthers on Saturday night, Ryles was doing his best not to talk up his side’s premiership chances too much, but admitted he was desperate to avoid the pain he felt when he lost two preliminary finals with the Dragons in ’05 and ’06.<br><br>Ryles was one of eight Origin and Test representatives in the Dragons side of the mid-naughties that is still considered one of the best playing rosters to have not won a premiership.<br><br>Friday night’s game against the Titans will be his first preliminary final since falling to the Storm in ’06, and Ryles is fully aware how rare such chances can be.<br><br>“Thank God that I’ve got the opportunity again with a quality team that’s on the way up,” Ryles says as he recalls his September pain with his old club. “I’ll certainly be letting the guys know that there’s nothing worse than watching the grand final when you know that you had an opportunity to make it.<br><br>“Back at the Dragons we made a couple of the qualifiers but unfortunately we didn’t get through.<br><br>“I would have been pretty disappointed if we were knocked out [against the Panthers]; it would have been a pretty empty feeling considering what we’ve been building to all year, so it’s good to get that step closer.<br><br>“You never get the opportunity back, which is something I learnt the hard way.”<br><br>Friday night is D-Day for the Roosters’ season, with only the Titans standing between them and a shot at grand final glory. And for Ryles, his chances of making the NRL decider may come down more to a battle with a familiar face.<br><br>Ryles will face off against former club and representative team-mate Luke Bailey, with whom Ryles formed one of the Dragons’ and Blues’ best ever prop pairings.<br><br>“We’ve had a few good battles since we’ve left the Dragons,” Ryles says. “I’m looking forward to it again, he’s a quality player and he’s certainly the cornerstone of their pack.<br><br>“If we can stop him, we’ll go a long way to stopping their go-forward.”<br><br>Friday night’s game will be the third encounter between the two since Ryles joined the Roosters, with the scores shared at one apiece this year.<br><br>Ryles knows all too well that while one of them is guaranteed a shot at a first grand final, the other will have lost his third preliminary final from three attempts.<br><br>“One of us is going to get a go [in the grand final],” Ryles says. “Hopefully it’s me [laughs].”<br><br>Luck may be on the Roosters’ prop’s side – Ryles is undefeated at Suncorp Stadium in five appearances. And with the possibility he may face other familiar faces in the Dragons in a grand final, Big League asked Ryles if he would have conflicting feelings about beating his old club:<br><br>“None whatsoever,” Ryles said. “I’d love nothing more than to beat them.”