Pearce's return has young Rooster crowing
The only person happier than Mitchell Pearce about the Roosters halfback's return to the NRL Telstra Premiership was Jackson Hastings, the man wearing the No.7 in his absence.
Hastings had a dream start to his NRL career, winning 14 of his first 16 matches with the Tricolours from Round 26, 2014 to the same stage of the 2015 season, mostly coming off the bench.
But it all went south after that with the Roosters losing nine of their next 11 games. Eight of those came with Pearce out of the side, while the other defeat saw the NSW Blues halfback come off at half-time in the preliminary final loss to the Broncos with an aggravation of his hamstring injury.
With Pearce stood down for the first eight rounds of the 2016 seaon - and James Maloney at the Sharks - Hastings had to go from understudy to conductor in one of the steepest learning curves imaginable.
The youngster admitted the weight of playmaking responsibilities took its toll on him over the first two months of the season, with many on social media blaming him for the club's 1-7 record.
But that all changed when he saw Pearce's name on the team sheet for Round 9.
"I thought I was going to go grey at the start of the year," Hastings revealed to NRL.com following his side's clinical 38-0 win over the Knights in their most recent fixture.
"I copped a lot of flak over the first couple of rounds and I didn't think all of it was fair, but you've got to ride those waves in footy.
"So when 'Pearcey' came back I had a big smile on my face during the week leading into the game. A couple of the boys came up to me and said 'it looks like you're going to have a lot less pressure on you' and they were right."
The result was Hastings's best game for the red, white and blue. The 20-year-old appeared unencumbered by the strains of leading the team around the park, setting up a try, producing two line breaks and kicking a perfect seven goals from seven attempts.
The only danger was for Hastings to step back and allow Pearce to do all the work, but the Roosters No.6 said he was never going to let that happen.
"I definitely thought about that [taking a back seat] during the week knowing Mitchell was going to come back. He's our on-ball half, he's our leader and he's the playmaking general," the former Junior Kangaroo said.
"It could have been very easy for me to play second fiddle and do nothing out there against the Knights but I wanted to make sure I took a lot of pressure off him by playing my natural game.
"It was great to have him back and let him steer the ship which allowed me to play off the back of what he did. Having him there was a massive lift for me."
"I think we linked really well and our combination together is really pleasing. It's something that we'll keep building on and it can only get better."
In an ominous warning to the rest of the competition, Hastings revealed the Roosters still had plenty of improvement in them despite their recent 38-0 win.
"The scary thing for us is that the 38 points was good, but we weren't near our best," he said.
"We still have a lot of things that we can improve on. We could have been a bit more ruthless but it was the first game back for a couple of boys so that will be something we can build on."
Roosters coach Trent Robinson said in the immediate aftermath of the Newcastle match that Pearce's return had made a significant difference to the way Hastings approached the game.
"Mitchell is really important as far as thinking about end of sets while he's still supporting and directing around, whereas that allowed Jackson to be a lot more on ball and follow the ball a lot more," Robinson said.
"That's where he's more of a traditional five-eighth and he did that really well. That's why he was so involved and I was really happy for him.
"I know it sounds funny but that's what happens when key players are so important to your team. Mitchell Pearce allows Jackson the freedom on the goal kicking as well.
"Jackson obviously put them all over – and it's not just Mitchell being there – but having Jared (Waerea-Hargreaves) in the sheds or Boyd (Cordner) coming back, they do make differences."