A limited number of Australian rugby players are blessed with the talent to make the top grade anywhere around the country, and even fewer are lucky enough to be able to play rugby as their job.
So when you talk to someone who does play the game for a living, it’s instantly refreshing to hear them explain that they don’t really see the playing bit of it as what earns them their weekly wage
Greater Sydney Rams hooker Hugh Roach has been part of the Waratahs set-up now since 2014, and is one of only a handful of Rams players left in the squad from the inaugural season of the NRC that same year.
Speaking to him this week for RUGBY.com.au, I mentioned to him that it really looks as though he’s happy on the field, playing with an infectious smile on his face that seems to be shining through in his rugby, where he’s arguably the form hooker in the competition after the first month.In answering, Roach agreed that he was indeed really happy playing at the moment – not to say that he has disliked playing or anything like that in the past, but more that he’s embraced the NRC competition this season while also acknowledging that he has a few hurdles in front of him to achieve what he wants to achieve in the game.
And it was how he goes about his rugby that delivered the nugget of insight that floored me.
“I’ve always been someone who enjoys hard work,” he began.
“I’ve found that if you enjoy being under the pump and overcoming adversity, it’s easier coming up against hurdles and getting past them.”
“Rugby, at the end of the day, is only a job through the week. Your job is to prepare, study footage of yourself and other teams; that’s your job. But none of us would take a pay cheque on the weekend, we’d all play for free.”
I’d never heard it expressed that way before, that it’s only a job from Monday to Friday.
Plenty of players talk about putting in the hard yards, of not wanting to let their mates down, and all that sort of thing, but they’re almost always talking about playing the game itself as being part of the job.
‘It’s just part of the job’ they even say, in trying to deflect any praise for an outstanding game, or a particular skill that has produced the definitive moment in a game.
But here Roach was taking a slightly different tack - that what happens out on the field is the end result of all the hard work put in beforehand.
“I think if you’re thinking of rugby as a pay cheque, I don’t think I could get anything out of it thinking that way.” Roach said.
“Once I started thinking of it as a process, a step-by-step list of things to get through during the week, then you let the shackles go on the weekend, and it’s time for battle.
“I really enjoy that process. Some people might not enjoy it quite the same way, but that’s just the way I’ve come to look at it.”
Roach enjoyed a solid Super Rugby campaign in 2016, but then missed the entire NRC with injury.
This year, he’s found himself in a battle with Sydney Rays skipper Damien Fitzpatrick for game time with the Waratahs, but had a good season with Eastwood, and has really opened up in the NRC.
He admits it’s a chance to throw off the shackles to a degree, and just enjoy playing quality rugby.
“My specific thought is that now that I’ve been in and around rugby circles for some time now, and I always feel like I’ve been pretty consistent, playing pretty good rugby,” he said.“I’ve missed a bit of the NRC, and I’ve made it a bit of focus to go out there and show people what I can do on this stage, because obviously, people are taking note of the NRC.
"I feel like I’ve been doing that for a while now, but showcasing it at this level is always good.”
Roach’s natural game has always involved playing hard over the ball, but it feels like we’ve seen more of his running game and his ball skills in the NRC this season.
Roach says that part of his game has always been there, he’s just had to know the right time to bring it out.
“I think if people look back at my work at Eastwood, then they’ll realise that I’ve always had that running and hard over the ball focus, but when you go to Super Rugby level, those opportunities are very limited. You really have to pull the trigger very quickly and be in the right place at the right time to get those opportunities.
“I’ve always had that in me, but those opportunities come when they come.
"I don’t necessarily go out there looking to make turnovers, or make big runs or anything like that - I just focus on working as hard as I can on the field, and I find the harder you work, the more those opportunities come for you.”
The Rams find themselves in that group of five teams separated by just two points on the competition table, and Roach puts the tightness of the competition down to teams and players needing to make a rugby statement.
“I think a lot of teams - especially the teams we’ve played – have got a lot to prove,” he explains.
“There are a lot of guys playing with chips on their shoulders. They’ve got to lot to prove in the Sydney teams because they’re not franchise teams.
“Then you look at the franchise teams like Perth and Melbourne, they had their tussle throughout the year, and you throw Canberra in there as well, and there’s a lot of guys around on the fringe (of Super Rugby squads) who have a lot to prove.
“It’s anyone’s game on any particular day. We came out really strong against the Eagles, but then didn’t really put out a solid effort against Perth. It’s really up and down each game, and anyone can win on their day, I believe.”
After consecutive losses to Perth and Melbourne, the Rams will take the bye week to recuperate and to assess the extent of their mounting injury toll before considering the suddenly daunting prospect of facing the table-topping Fijian Drua at TG Millner in Sydney on Saturday week.
“I think the bye couldn’t have come a better time, because we’ve got a few key guys going down with injuries at the moment,” Roach said.
“We’ve got a few halfbacks on the injury list, and then a tough country guy in Mack Mason – who I’ve never seen go down in pain – went down on the weekend with what looked like a rib.
“We’ve got a few guys on the injury list or the niggle list at the moment, so I think we’ll have to get over that first, and then we’ll have a few meetings during the bye week about the Drua.
“For us, it’s not a time to relax, it’s a time for us to get some work done so that we can come up against a very strong Fijian Drua side who’ve been playing some really good rugby.”