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'Changed my life': Roberts pays tribute to Bennett's rehab support

The "most influential coach" of his career and significant financial support from South Sydney have helped James Roberts rediscover his love for the game and find his feet at Wests Tigers.

Roberts comes up against the Rabbitohs for the first time since being released on compassionate grounds by his junior club last season, a crossroads that had him ready to walk away from the NRL for good as he struggled with his mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Tigers handed him a one-year, bargain basement lifeline for 2021 (with a club option for next season), that has helped Roberts return to the game in the best mindset he's enjoyed in years.

The influence of Michael Maguire and the Tigers in keeping Roberts on track can't be overstated.

But the 27-year-old is full of gratitude for Wayne Bennett and the Rabbitohs too, who will contribute a five-figure sum towards ongoing psychological support this year for him and his family since his departure from Redfern.

Rabbitohs v Wests Tigers - Round 6

"Souths have been so helpful with my recovery on and off the field," Roberts told NRL.com.

"I can't thank them enough. It's such a good club and they look after their players.

"They're a family club and they've always put people first, they've helped me whenever they can and still are helping.

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"I like to think everything happens for a reason. And I just needed to get out of that position I was in, I needed a change. They've helped get me to where I am today."

Bennett and Roberts share one of the more enduring player-coach relationships in the game given their time together at first Brisbane and the South Sydney.

The veteran coach's bond with Roberts has helped him through the lowest points of a career that has traversed alcohol and drug abuse at times, to the point in which Bennett said "there's not a player I've been more proud of to get an Origin jersey" when Roberts earned NSW honours in 2018.

Bennett was integral to discussions around the centre's release from Souths that led to a one-strike-and-out clause not being enacted when the speedster struggled with COVID-19 restrictions last year.

South Sydney officials also called out his management team of Warrick and Sarah Wright for credit in keeping his rugby league career alive.

"Wayne's been massive for me. He's changed my career, my life, a lot. More than once," Roberts said.

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"He's guided me through tough times and been there in a lot of good times too.

"He's been the most influential coach I've ever had for sure. They're going well over there at Souths and I still like watching them play, it's exciting when they get going and seeing the boys play really well."

The Tigers go into Saturday's clash with a 1-4 record after their upset loss to North Queensland.

Roberts's defensive combination alongside David Nofoaluma was found out several times in the clash, with the ex-NSW speedster still working his way back to full fitness.

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A pec rupture last July against Newcastle ultimately made that his last outing in red and green.

A minor shoulder injury related to that surgery still hampered Roberts at times to start this season, but mentally he is the happiest and healthiest he's been in a long time.

"I've had a few niggles with my pec and I have carried that a little bit," Roberts said, prior to the Cowboys loss.

"Mentally it can be hard to get past that, especially when it's season-ending like it was for me.

Here come the Wests Tigers

"It's feeling good now though so it's just about looking after it and getting strength in it. I try not to think about the injury side of things, my job is to get more involved every weekend.

"Mentally though I'm fresh and I feel good.

"I'm enjoying life away from footy and I'm grateful to still be playing it.

"Now I'm due for a meaty [meat pie, try]. I think the last one was against Tigers last year."

 

Help is available 24/7 for anyone who has mental health issues by calling Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14

For further information on the NRL State of Mind program, click here