Minichiello back to full throttle

When Ricky Stuart called Anthony Minichiello to play for NSW in the second game of State of Origin last year, it represented the iconic fullback’s career turning full circle.

It was Stuart as coach of the Roosters back in 2003 who gave Minichiello his first opportunity in the custodian role after he had played the previous two seasons on the wing.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Minichiello grabbed the position and made it his own, claiming City Origin, NSW and Australian jumpers to boot. It marked the emergence of the Roosters star as one of the most destructive players in the game. And after just two seasons at the back, the man affectionately dubbed ‘The Count’ won the Golden Boot Award.

“I thank Ricky Stuart for seeing that [potential] and moving me to fullback,” Minichiello told NRL.com.

“That was a great year for me to break into representative footy and to get some accolades individually.

“I had some great years following all that and I was playing some great consistent football week-in and week-out and to get that award was a great achievement personally.

“Obviously the players in the team helped me to achieving those goals.”

This is no throwaway line from Minichiello. The Roosters playing roster in the early years of last decade was formidable, to say the least. The fact they made four grand finals in five years is testament to the talent they had on the park.

The 31-year-old acknowledges the calibre of players around him gave him the confidence to make the switch a successful one.

“I was fortunate enough to come into a great side when I was a young kid,” he said.

“We had some great players in our team and we made three grand finals in a row. That obviously helped my game and that transition to fullback.

“I always liked to get the ball and get involved as much as I can, so when Ricky Stuart moved me to fullback, it gave me an opportunity to do that and it got me more involved in the game and that is what I loved about it.”

Minichiello’s battle with injury after 2005 has been well documented. With the rugby league world seemingly at his feet, he managed just 33 games in the next four seasons with a long-term back problem that threatened to end his career.

It is why Minichiello’s return in 2010 was so inspiring. After four years away from the spotlight, many questioned whether he could ever return to the field, let alone to the player he once was.

After starting back on the wing, Minichiello quickly seized his treasured No.1 jersey as the Roosters surprised everyone to surge into the NRL grand final, ultimately losing to Wayne Bennett’s St George Illawarra Dragons.

But while Todd Carney stole most of the headlines, Minichiello’s story was just as important.

The comeback was complete in 2011 when Minichiello pulled on the sky-blue jumper and put an exclamation mark on his resurrection by scoring a dramatic match-winning try in front of a raucous NSW crowd.

The moment, Minichiello says, was one of the most satisfying of his stellar career.

“It was one of my career highlights, there is no doubt about that,” he said.

“Coming back from the injury and getting back to that arena and scoring the winning try was a great feeling and an unbelievable experience.

“It was a good feeling to get back into that arena and feeling the hype and the excitement of the big games.

“It was great to be in camp last year. Ricky got amongst the group and got the belief there that they can go on and win the series this year. It is going to be hard again, but they have put some great steps in place and hopefully the boys can stay fit and get the job done.”

Asked whether his goal is to get back into the Origin arena this season, you can excuse Minichiello for baulking at the question. He is wise enough to know that ultimately it is not in his control.

While you get the sense he would love nothing more than to help the Blues end their six-year drought, Minichiello is hosing down any expectations.

“I’m not looking into representative football at all this year,” he offers.

“To get back into that squad would be a great achievement, so I’ll have to do my best at the Roosters and see what happens after that.

“But it is out of my control. I just need to play my best and if they do happen to pick me I’ll be really excited and willing to do the best job I can do.”

That job has changed significantly from when Minichiello first announced himself as one of the game’s most exciting stars when he shifted to fullback almost a decade ago.

The modern game is a vastly different beast. While the fullback has always been a vital component in any football team, the evolution of the No.1 has made the position part of the ‘spine’ of the football team.

In many clubs, the fullback is the focal point of the team, in both defence and attack. It's something Minichiello says has been a massive change.

“The fullback plays a pretty important role in the side, that hasn’t changed,” Minichiello explains.

“But back when I started in the position, you weren’t really organising the numbers in defence, pointing players where to go. Nowadays you have to think about that a lot more, you have to think about the numbers and the defensive line. That has definitely changed the fullback’s responsibilities on the field.

“The coaches also like to see them play a little bit of a ball-playing role. If you look across the park in the whole NRL, you think everyone has a great No.1 in their side.

“Most get involved and play almost like a second five-eighth. It has been a big change.

“The calibre of fullbacks in our game is great competition for everyone to get better. They are stepping it up and getting better and better every year.”

Minichiello will run out for the Roosters against the Storm at AAMI Park against today’s premier fullback, Billy Slater. Two Golden Boot winners go head-to-head, perhaps not for the last time in Melbourne.

There is a chance they could meet again on April 23, for the opening Origin clash, but Minichiello isn’t thinking that far ahead.

You can forgive him the cliche, but Minichiello is just taking it one game at a time.