Phil Gould once described his first impression of Mitch Aubusson by saying “if he was a horse in the parade ring at the sales, I doubt he would’ve attracted too many bids based on appearance”.
His smaller, skinnier frame coming through the grades may not have caught the eye but the compliments have come far and wide this week for the versatile, reliable, consistent Mr Fix-it of the Tricolours.
He will become the 40th player to join the game’s elite 300 club and 16th player to do so at one club on Thursday night when he runs out for the Roosters against the Dragons in Wollongong.
It should come as no surprise he wanted to keep the occasion as low key as possible. No fuss and minimal attention.
“But I’ve always believed in that because it’s the truth,” Aubusson told NRL.com.
“What’s happening this week is the Roosters are playing St George Illawarra and whatever has happened in the last 300 games, I’ll try and keep it as low-key as I have throughout my career.”
Roosters coach Trent Robinson offered a wry smile on Wednesday morning when asked if Aubusson had been any different leading into the milestone match.
“No different at all,” Robinson said.
“It’s funny for Aubo and hard for him these weeks because he gets put to the forefront and so he should.
“He just wants to get on with it. It’s uncomfortable for him but he should be recognised. It’s an honour to coach him and an honour to see him run out there tomorrow.”
Never a standout
From humble beginnings playing junior rugby league in Ballina on NSW’s north coast to the bright lights of Sydney’s eastern suburbs, Aubusson was never the biggest or fastest player in a team.
Signed by Immortal Arthur Beetson on a scholarship, he arrived at Bondi Junction with no guarantees.
“I remember as a 15-year-old growing up thinking I’d love to just play one game of first grade,” Aubusson said.
“I just wanted one shot, and then you play the one and you’re addicted and want to go again, and again, and play as much as you can.
“I’ve never been the biggest guy in the team but I think I had to play a style and work with what I had.
“I’m not a James Tedesco or a Luke Keary – guys who also work hard every week, I don’t want to discount that – but are in the team every week no matter what.
“I worked on technique and what was the best way for me to play this game and that’s why it’s such a great game because everyone has a place in it somewhere.
“Sometimes you’ve got to stand up and go after something. If you’re not big you have to act big.
It’s such a great game because everyone has a place in it somewhere.
“It shouldn’t matter how big you are but when it’s your time you have to step up. That’s been stuck with me for a long time.”
“It’s something I’ve had to prepare for and work to make sure I’m available for selection as I could. No matter if it’s in any position, for 80 minutes or 10 minutes.”
From a boy to a man
Roosters great Anthony Minichiello recalled a quiet Aubusson coming onto the scene and making his NRL debut against South Sydney in 2007.
“I remember his brother James because he had a bit more flair,” Minichiello said.
“Mitch was quite reserved, unassuming … pretty quiet, and who would’ve thought a kid who didn’t necessarily have a huge physique on him would get 300 games.”
The Roosters finished 10th in his maiden season before finishing with the wooden spoon two years later.
If anything, those difficult periods became career-defining for Aubusson, who learned the hard way early.
“I’ve seen so much change over the years here,” he said.
“From coaches to players – which happens everywhere over a 15-year period – but I know with this club is it demands success and demands for you to be at your best.
“Some players can take that the wrong way but for me, that was what I try to do every time I put a training shirt or jersey on.
“The club has shown me how to act in the right way. I’ve seen how it’s gone wrong with acting in the wrong way – the early years there was some trouble around and you pick up on things that guys do right and wrong over the years.
“I think that’s going to serve me well for life outside of football.”
Loyalty goes both ways
Aubusson is adamant he never got close to departing the Tricolours throughout stages of his career despite reports linking him to the Gold Coast Titans and St George Illawarra Dragons on big-money offers.
His 300-game one-club loyalty is set to be rewarded with Roosters supremo Nick Politis eager to keep him on board in an off-field role once he decides to retire.
“I had conversations with family to see what they thought about moving on and going to different places in the past but that was about it,” Aubusson said.
“In my own mind I was pretty set that I wanted to be here and I knew success was demanded here and I was going to get the best out of myself.
“From those early days, I’ve been proven right. If I had have left and missed out the last few years of success and growth I’ve had as a person I would be kicking myself for a long time.
“There’s no money that can be put on that. The club has stuck by me and I’m forever grateful. It’s been there when I’ve needed to lean on in my tough times in life and that’s what a club should be.”
The Fitzy influence
Aubusson’s first away trip wasn’t what he expected when he was paired up to room with now Roosters assistant coach Craig Fitzgibbon.
But they have since built a lasting friendship that all started at a hotel in Townsville.
“The first thing he told me to do was clean his boots so I thought that was ironic,” Aubusson laughed.
A look back at the 2013 grand final
“I grew up watching that guy in grand finals and winning Clive Churchills so it was such a big kick for me.
“I was sharing a room and getting ready to play an NRL game with a guy I looked up to my whole junior life.
“And like he’s seen me do, I’ve seen him come on leaps and bounds as a coach and person. He’s one of the best leaders of men I’ve seen in my time.
“He’s a big reason why I am here today. He’s a good family man as well and that’s his reason why.
“That’s one of the most important things … to have a reason why – his was his family and mine is my family. I take a lot away from our friendship.”
The representative footy travesty
Minichiello is adamant Aubusson would’ve made a great utility off the bench for NSW particularly during the years Queensland dominated Origin.
“The perfect player to cover any position, you’d select him first in the squad at the Roosters,” Minichiello said.
“He would’ve been a great fit for the Blues.”
Aside from two appearances for Country in 2016 and 2017, the representative honours never came.
“Without trying to dismiss it I’ve always seen it as it’s out of my control,” Aubusson said.
“What I enjoyed most was when those representative guys did go away they were the club games I loved with others making their debuts or guys getting more minutes than they usually would.
“When you win those games with a depleted team it’s what it’s about – guys under pressure and backs against the wall stuff.
“When you’re looking around after a game at blokes who have just had a dig and won a game for the club under any circumstances it’s a feeling you can never buy elsewhere.
“If I could bottle it for someone else I would.”
The best moments of the 2018 Grand Final
The wildcard smoke screen
Since Trent Robinson’s arrival in 2013, Aubusson has been part of three premierships and three preliminary final finishes.
He recently labelled the week leading into the 2018 grand final – where he was named at halfback as a cover-up for Cooper Cronk’s shoulder injury – as the most intense week of his life.
Cronk’s heroics were well documented but the Roosters knew they could rely on Aubusson to at least do a job if the champion halfback was ruled out – or better yet, take the heat off any pressure on a rookie coming into the position throughout the week.
“Robbo gave me a call and said, ‘I’m going to name you at seven,’ and I went, ‘This is a joke?’,” Aubusson said.
“He said, ‘Coops is a small chance of playing, I’m going to name you at seven, everyone will think it won’t happen but it’s going to happen’.
“I was thinking it could end badly. As the week went on, I got my head around it. Then at captain’s run he [Cronk] gave us the nod and said, ‘Boys, I’m going to play,’ and I’ve never been so relieved in my life.
“I thought if this guy is going to do this for us, then we’ll lay it on the line for him.”
Robinson knew Aubusson would stand up if he had been required.
“That’s why he’s a teammate, that’s why he’s Aubo and why people love standing next to him,” Robinson said.
“It’s team first, the club first and his ability to change roles is about understanding what is the need for the team.
“He then goes about specialising in that position and really wants to work as hard as he can to get the best out of himself and the teammates around him.”
It was a highlight of several other grand final moments for Aubusson, including scoring a try in the 2010 grand loss to the Dragons.
Images of Grand Final day
“I gave away a penalty try in the 2013 grand final as well and injured my knee in last year’s grand final, so there’s been something in every grand final for me,” Aubusson said.
“But that’s why you play this game. You prepare yourself for any scenario and things are either going to right or things are going to go wrong.
“It’s how you and the team react to that. It’s why the sport is so addictive.”
Bittersweet time to join 300 club
Away from the paddock, Aubusson has endured a difficult year with his father Brian dying unexpectedly in May.
The sudden passing remains very raw within the tight-knit family – none more so than for Mitch, with his old man a passionate supporter throughout his career.
“It’s been a really tough year,” Aubusson said.
I feel there’s a bit of my old man in them watching me run out.
“I know he’d be really proud of me at this time and my brothers [James and Nathan] will be there which will be really good for me.
“Through these circumstances, we’ve become really close and I feel there’s a bit of my old man in them watching me run out on Thursday for sure.
“The people who have supported me and been there in game 110 or 176 have been there for me and will be there again. I’ll appreciate that, like I always do.”
Aubusson’s milestone is set to kick-start a month of celebrations should he go on to pass Luke Ricketson (301 games) and Minichiello (302 games) as the most capped Roosters player of all-time.
“If there’s one person who could take the record I would like it to be him because he’s such a good guy and deserves it,” Minichiello said.
“It’s an amazing achievement, he deserves it with all the hard work he’s put in. I couldn’t be happier for him.”
But the last word on Aubusson goes to wife, Laura, a journalist, who wrote an article for Kidspot.com.au on why their daughter Daisy was lucky to have a role model like Mitchell as her father.
“If you asked those who call him a role model why they look up to him they would talk more about character and less about footy,” she wrote.
“It would be about his self-assurance and focused mentality, his commitment to be accountable and thorough, his ability to adapt, his loyalty, and the way he sets positive examples as a leader. All traits you need in life to be successful, as well as a good person.
“When my daughter says her dad is her role model it won’t be because he shows her some old DVDs or rings. It will be because he put work in and made it, in a motivating way.”
Tributes to ‘Aubo’
Past and present teammates, plus the NRL CEO
Andrew Abdo: “Mitchell has been an incredibly important player in a remarkable era of success for the Roosters.
“He’s the type of player every teammate wants to have in their team. He leads with his worth ethic, versatility and reliability. To play his entire career at a club as successful as the Roosters says everything about Mitchell’s standing as one of the great ambassadors of the game.”
Blake Ferguson: “Aubo’s an absolute legend and he’s played every position on the field. 300 games is massive for a single club and he’s done it in good style.
“He’s won three comps and he’s one of the guys that I respect over there at the Roosters. I wish him so much luck this weekend. I reckon they’re in for a big game.”
Luke Keary: “He’s one of the best people in rugby league I’ve come across in my time in the game. The regard he’s held in around this club is right up the top.
“He’s not a very public person, he’s very private, cares about his family and friends, cares about this club. He’ll be held as one of the greatest to pull the Roosters jersey on and he’ll probably finish with the most amount of games. He’s held in very, very high regard around here.”
Brendan Elliot: “Mitch is a great fella. I was really young when I was at the Roosters so he gave me a lot of guidance and shared his wisdom with me. I wish him all the best for this weekend.”
Tariq Sims: “I played and trained a bit with Mitch through Country, obviously a legend of a bloke and club man of the Roosters. They’re going to be up for it.
“It’s a credit to his dedication, he’s been through the thick and thin of it at the Roosters. He’s a quality player who can fill different positions for them. They’ll be drumming the occasion into the team all week.”
Zane Tetevano: “An absolute gentleman. First a foremost a great family man, a great dad, husband, and on the football side being a one-club man I’ve got so much respect for how much work he’s put in.
“I can’t say anything bad about the man. It was an awesome few years I got to play alongside him. I cherish those moments. I’m happy he gets to do what he loves and 300 games is a massive achievement.”
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