Days before the biggest game of his life William Hopoate stands on Brookvale Oval and thinks back to his favourite games on the hallowed turf. There are the seven NRL games, a handful of trials and 14 Toyota Cup matches but his affinity with ‘Brookie’ goes back further. It’s where Hopoate remembers Sunday afternoons with his family watching his famous dad play and where he donned the maroon and white of his junior club Manly Cove Rebels in several grand finals at the end of fun, carefree seasons of junior footy with his mates.
“I played a lot of grand finals here at Brookie as a kid,” Hopoate tells Big League. “There are plenty of memories there and ones I’ll cherish forever.”
His favourite memory is from 2006 when he and the Rebels took on the Cromer Kingfishers in the under-14s grand final. With minutes remaining Manly Cove were down by five and staring at a loss, “but we scored with two minutes to go,” he says with a faint smile on his face. “We needed a kick from the sidelines. My mate Benny Paul slotted it from the side and we won the Grand Final.”
Five years later Hopoate is preparing for his final game for Manly – for now, at least – after announcing earlier this year he will leave rugby league to take up a two-year Mormon mission. He has no regrets about turning his back on further fame and fortune and says to bow out as a NRL Grand Final winner would be the perfect end to his young career.
Not many players can finish their first full season having achieved it all, but there’s every chance that’s how the Origin star and potential Grand Final winner will one day reflect on 2011.
On the other side of the field, fellow winger Michael Robertson is also getting ready to play his final game for Manly after signing for Super League club Harlequins. Robertson joined the Sea Eagles from Canberra in 2006, the same year Hopoate played in that under-14s decider.
A popular member of the side and a fan favourite for his on-field ability and off-field sense of humour, Robertson has become a stalwart of the side and will be best remembered for two things.
The first is his hat-trick in the 2008 Grand Final that sealed Manly’s first premiership since 1996. “It was a great day for the club and myself personally,” says Robertson.
It’s a moment he claims not to reflect on too often but his team-mates haven’t let the memory go so easily.
“I wonder what the odds are to see ‘Robbo’ do it again?” asks Jamie Lyon, whose only regret about Robertson is they didn’t get to play more footy together (Lyon plays on the right and Robertson on the left). “It would be great to see another hat-trick. He’s a great clubman, he’s been here for years and he’s such a pleasure to be around.”
Robertson has scored 68 tries in his Sea Eagles career but Lyon knows he was always more than a good finisher. “He’s always done a lot of other work too. He gets us off to a good start in our sets off our own line and he does plenty of talk. Just the enthusiasm and excitement, he’s great for the side,” he says.
But Lyon couldn’t resist one last jab at his mate who has always been the first to dish out the jokes. Which brings us to the second thing Robertson will be remembered for: his longevity.
Robertson didn’t miss a game in his first five seasons at Manly after his debut in Round 2, 2006, playing an incredible 139-consecutive games for the club, missing his first in Round 12 this season against Brisbane. He’s missed only six games in racking up 149 as a Sea Eagle.
But Lyon offered his explanation of Robertson’s ability to avoid injury for so long.
“I think it’s a lack of training throughout the week,” he says with a laugh, looking around to see if the nearby Robertson could hear. “We hardly see him during the week, he’s always at the gym doing his own stuff or floating around whinging about training. That’s probably helped him in the long run, his lack of training.”
In Robertson and Hopoate, the Sea Eagles farewell two wingers who leave a lasting legacy. One is highly talented who would not have looked out of place in a Blues jumper; the other a rising star with the potential to end his career 15 years from now as one of Manly’s greatest but who will leave proud he held firm in his beliefs.
For Robertson, a Grand Final win will be the ultimate send-off for a memorable yet unheralded NRL career; for Hopoate a chance to add another favourite memory alongside that Manly Cove premiership.