Step up: Jared Waerea-Hargreaves enjoys his new leadership role. Photo: Anthony Johnson
IN career-best form and as one of the Sydney Roosters "coco pops", as the club's four vice-captains are called, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves is still learning some of the finer points of rugby league.
Like what happens at the pre-match coin toss.
"I was captain against Canberra and I got to do the toss before the match but I had no idea what happens," said Waerea-Hargreaves, whose only interest in league before joining Manly in 2008 was watching present teammate Sonny Bill Williams play. "I just said 'heads' and it was heads. Then Terry Campese said the direction and I asked, 'Do we kick off or do we receive?' They said, 'Mate, you receive, they chose the direction.' The refs were really good about it."
Having been sent off and suspended for a total of six matches this season, including a one-match ban that forced him to watch the Roosters' epic 4-0 defeat of Manly in their opening finals match from the sideline, Waerea-Hargreaves almost takes delight in telling how helpful Gavin Badger was to him before the round-22 clash.
The responsibility given to him by new coach Trent Robinson at the start of the season has made the 24-year-old enforcer think more about the game and the effect his actions can have on his teammates.
Not just the cheap penalties he admits are "embarrassing" when highlighted by Robinson at video review sessions but the positive impact he has when he charges into the defence or comes up with a big tackle. "I think I have changed," he said. "I think I have grown up and matured this year and the form I have been in is by far the best of my career.
"I have realised that I have a bit of potential to be a leader here at the club, so I have had to make a few changes. I guess getting that responsibility made me realise, 'This is a bit of a big deal.' There were a few tough times earlier in the season on the field and you just know you have got to step up and hopefully the boys will follow."
Called into Robinson's office just before the start of the season, Waerea-Hargreaves was "pretty shocked" and "humbled" when told he had been appointed vice-captain along with halfback Mitchell Pearce, back-rower Boyd Cordner and hooker Jake Friend.
"I didn't really know what to say, to be honest with you," the usually animated Waerea-Hargreaves says in a serious tone that indicates how highly he regards the role. "I had just plugged along in the off-season doing my best and trying to avoid as many fitness sessions as possible, so when Robbo called me into his office and said I am going to name you vice-captain along with the other three – the four 'coco-pops', we call it – I was like 'wow'. I was shocked and I was also pretty proud."
Imagine, then, the pride felt by Waerea-Hargreaves, who had grown up in the rough part of Rotorua with his mother Karen and UN peacekeeping father Wayne, when Robinson again called him into his office last month and told him that he and Boyd Cordner would be co-captains against the Raiders.
"I was shocked again. It was like that meeting in the pre-season all over again," he said. "I was honoured and privileged to get the opportunity, and ringing my mum and dad was probably the best thing.
"To captain a great club like the Sydney Roosters was probably the highlight of my career so far. It was a hell of an experience and something I won't forget."
With skipper Anthony Minichiello nearing the end of his career, a knee injury that sidelined the 33-year-old fullback for three weeks gave Robinson the opportunity to trial his vice-captains in the role and Waerea-Hargreaves again shared the role with Pearce the following week.
"All four us have completely different qualities of leadership and mine sometimes could be vocally or it could be just laying the platform on the field, which I like to do," Waerea-Hargreaves said. "I am not a man of many words when the team is together but when something needs to be said I don't mind saying it."
A teenage golfing protege-cum-schoolboy rugby union star then a New Zealand Test prop, Waerea-Hargreaves has always been a leader off the field and he is the Roosters' nomination for the Ken Stephen Medal at Monday night's One Community awards for his work with the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children and contributions to other charities. He is also studying to become a youth worker and wants to start his own charity.
However, like South Sydney's Sam Burgess, Waerea-Hargreaves adopts a different personality when he steps on the field and he is one of the most competitive and aggressive players in the NRL.
Sometimes he can go too far and Waerea-Hargreaves has been suspended in each of the past three seasons.
"That is something Robbo has had a couple of good chats to me about this season," he said. "Controlled aggression is what I need and it is just knowing when to use it.
"I have worked hard on it because I hate letting the team down. When you give away penalty after penalty, you know you are letting your teammates down and it sucks when you do your review the following week. It is not a good feeling."