Robson's beach ties that bind
If there's one Cronulla Shark who knows what's going through the minds of the boys from the Northern Beaches in the lead-up to their Elimination Semi-Final on Friday night, it's halfback Jeff Robson. That's because, until recently at least, he was one of them.
While Robson played just six games for Manly across 2004 and 2008 before shifting to the Eels and later the Sharks, only last year did he actually leave Sydney's northern peninsula, farewell mates 'Snake' and 'Gifty' and become a resident of the Sutherland Shire.
"About halfway through the year last year I shifted over – I was living up at Dee Why," Robson, a country boy originally from Leeton who clearly is enjoying his time in the big smoke, tells NRL.com.
"It's a funny story. I was offered a contract at Parramatta so we thought I was going to be staying there, then things didn't work out and the contract was pulled and I ended up signing with the Sharks. We'd just signed a new 12-month lease so I thought I had to stick that out for a bit so I was trekking across from Dee Why. But now I've moved over and I'm a Shire boy now and enjoying it.
"I'd have to leave very early to get [from the Northern Beaches to Cronulla] in an hour in the mornings – if I didn't leave by 6.30 it'd take up to an hour and a half, and on the way home it was much the same. It was quite a trek!
"I still keep in contact with a few of them (at Manly) – the Stewart boys, Matty Ballin… I keep in contact more with the older boys who aren't there anymore though. I really enjoyed my time at the club, there's a great bunch of boys over there and a pretty similar feel to the Sharks club and the Sharks team at the moment.
"Hopefully I've got my 'passport' into the Shire now – I've been here for a year and a half. It's a great place and the people are really welcoming."
For Robson, arguably the competition's most effective 'legs' tackler, there are further links between himself and both the Sharks and Manly. The coincidences are uncanny – like the fact he made his NRL debut for the Sea Eagles against Cronulla in Round 11, 2004, and when he eventually found his way to the Sharks in 2012, his first outing in the black, white and blue was against – you guessed it – Manly. For the evergreen No.7, that maiden NRL appearance against his current side seems a long time ago, though.
"I reckon I would've had a lot more hair then when I made my debut than I do now," Robson, 31, laughs.
"I remember my debut well… coming up against the Sharks, 'Gal' (Paul Gallen), Jason Stevens and I think even Brett Kimmorley was running around back then.
"I couldn't believe how fast the game was, compared with reserve grade. I came off the bench and played hooker; through the middle on the field the game was that quick – I think I was blown out after 15 or 20 minutes.
"It's funny [how it worked playing my first game for Cronulla against Manly] – it was Round 3 last year and I think we won that game. It was at Shark Park, it was a tight game but good to get a win.
"I've been around for a fair while now and been at a few different clubs and you always seem to run in to a few guys you've either played with or against and clubs you've played with and Manly are one of those. Justin Horo's [at Manly] now who I played with at Parramatta and he's playing really well for them."
This week, though, under-rated Robson is pushing his north-side ties aside and focusing entirely on the big role he needs to play for his side on Friday night at Allianz Stadium. Without the services of influential five-eighth Todd Carney, who hasn't been named after re-injuring his troublesome hamstring, Robson knows the attacking pressure falls on his shoulders for the do-or-die clash.
"[Carney's] obviously a key part of our attacking game but if he's not there a bit of onus comes back onto myself and our hookers to score some points I suppose," Robson says.
"I'll definitely be ready to play and put my hand up to fill that void if need be. We've got a couple of good replacements if Toddy doesn't play in Wade Graham or Luke Lewis – whoever slots in there we know will deal with it and hopefully play some good footy."
It's not just in attack that Robson will be tested though – as a left-side defender he faces the challenge of coming up against the league's most dangerous right-hand-side attacking unit.
"Our defensive game is really going to need to be on song, especially our side of the field on the left up against Glenn Stewart, Daly Cherry-Evans, Jamie Lyon and 'The Wolfman' (David Williams)," Robson says.
"They've been scoring a lot of points and setting up a lot of tries on that edge. We're definitely going to need to have our heads on and be ready to make some tackles.
"I think we're a good defensive team and if we turn up ready to play and defend like I know we can I think we'll go a long way to giving Manly a run for their money and go close to winning the game.
"I'm really looking forward to it. We've trained really hard all year. It's been a tough year for us but we're in good shape and I'm looking forward to playing the old team-mates – I've still got a fair few good mates who play there so it'd be nice to get a win up against them."