In a sport where so many players struggle with the concept of retirement – trying to eke every possible season out of a career that rarely lasts much more than 10 years – Simon Bonetti certainly broke the mould.
The former Sydney Roosters hooker was just 26 when he decided it was time to call it quits after helping the club to their famous 2002 grand final win over the Warriors, but even now he insists that he has no regrets.
“I suppose a fair few people questioned it at the time but for me it was a fairly easy decision,” Bonetti told NRL.com this week. “I’d made my mind up before we won the grand final but probably winning and going out on that note made it pretty easy. I never really had representative aspirations – I was always realistic about my ability – but that was one thing I always wanted to achieve. It was a dream come true and it certainly made the decision easy in the end.”
Bonetti stunned plenty when he announced his retirement while at the peak of his powers, but his reasoning was sound and he credits that decision with allowing him to move on to the next phase of his career on the family farm at Griffith in south-western NSW.
“Injuries were definitely a part of it,” he explains. “I had a shoulder reconstruction after I finished and that was the second shoulder operation I’d had. I had four operations in three years. I knew I wanted to end up back on the farm when I finished playing footy and I wanted the body to still be in good shape so I could lead the physical lifestyle after that.
“The other thing was that I had basically played first grade all of my career and then in 2001 I was dropped for the first time in my career under Graham Murray. I’m a proud sort of person and first grade was the only thing I ever wanted to do. I didn’t want to be dropped back. I wanted to go out on my own terms rather than get a tap on the shoulder saying, ‘sorry mate, you’re not good enough anymore’.
“That was probably the biggest factor – wanting to go out on my own terms and while I was still playing good enough to be playing first grade.”
Renowned as a tenacious defender and a smart dummy-half – think Michael Ennis rather than Robbie Farah – Bonetti debuted for the Roosters in 1997 and played 142 first grade games before calling it quits in 2002.
He also featured in two grand finals – the first a 14-6 loss to this week’s opponents Brisbane in 2000 before turning it around against the Warriors two years later.
A country boy at heart, Bonetti was never one to chase the spotlight but his tremendous work ethic around the ruck made him a fan favourite and he describes his time in the NRL as a memory he won’t easily forget.
“The 2002 grand final was a highlight but also just the mateship and living a different lifestyle,” he says. “As you know, a lot of country people – a lot of people in general – don’t get to experience the professional sports life and I got to do all of that. I was able to live in Sydney for six years and enjoy just a totally different lifestyle.
“I met some great people that I still remain great friends with. Even the people still involved with the club – I still go down to games now. Those friends you stay close to forever and that’s the main thing for me. The friendships you make out of it.”
His timing proved to be perfect too.
The Roosters achieved the rare feat of playing in three consecutive grand finals between 2002-04 but only managed the one win and Bonetti considers himself fortunate to have avoided the demoralising lows of two more losses on rugby league’s biggest day.
Then again, perhaps he would have made all the difference?
“I doubt that! But then I don’t think anyone was cheering them on as hard as I was,” he laughs. “It probably vindicated my decision having experienced the high of winning one and also losing one in 2000. I know how disappointing that was.
“I know it was hard on the guys that won one in 2002 and then had to endure two losses in 2003 and 2004. I stayed pretty close with guys like ‘Fitzy’ (Craig Fitzgibbon) and ‘Freddie’ (Brad Fittler) and it was tough on them.”
These days Bonetti spends his days back on the farm at Griffith, planting and harvesting crops across the family’s whopping 4000 acres.
Having historically grown wheat and rice, the Bonettis have recently ventured into grapes as well and supply some of Australia’s biggest wine producers including the world-famous De Bortoli in the Hunter Valley.
“We’ve got a mixture of reds and whites. We’ve got Merlot and Cabernet in the reds and in the whites we’ve got Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon so it’s a mixture of varieties,” Bonetti explains. “It’s funny, I never used to be much of a wine drinker but I don’t mind a glass or two now that I’ve got an interest in it.
“And I love being outdoors. The big thing about the farm is reaping the benefits of your hard work. We’re harvesting rice at the moment and when you work hard it’s pleasing to see the rewards that come at the end.”
Bonetti, of course, has remained an avid Roosters fan and has kept a close eye on their progress in recent years. And despite their rocky start to the 2011 season he remains confident that they will again feature prominently at season’s end.
“They’ve had a few injuries to key players early in the year and I think a bit of luck has gone against them as well, but I’m sure with Brian Smith there – he’s a good coach.
“They’ve still got some great players and they made the grand final last year so I think they’ll be up there again.
“They’re still a young side but with Mitchell Pearce and Todd Carney leading the way and some of the strike-power they’ve got out wide they should be a force to be reckoned with again.
“It’s such a close competition this year that anyone can win it but I think they can make the top eight or even top four, and from there anyone is in with a shot.”