Jake Friend will rack up his 100th game this week in the Anzac Day clash against the Dragons, an amazing stat when you consider his diminutive size, the fact he’s just 23 years old, his defensive work-rate and his year out of the game when he tried his hand as a sandwich technician in Surry Hills.
Friend has literally come back from the rugby league brink and essentially seen it all in just 99 games, and it’s appropriate that the little warrior will bring up the ton on Anzac day.
What we’ve endeavoured to do here is a synopsis of his career to date, complete with the highs which turned to lows, which then turned into one of the better redemption stories in the game.
A solid debut…
Friend was first signed to the Roosters on scholarship when he was 15 years old from Noosa. In 2008 he progressed through the ranks in quick succession: he started with the SG Ball side before then being promoted through the then-Toyota Cup and onto first grade in just four months.
His debut was during the Origin rounds and came against now-teammate Sonny Bill Williams in June, at just 18 years of age.
Seriously, look at the two teams as they lined up that day according to the Rugby League Project, and tell me how the hell the Roosters managed to win it 24-14:
Roosters: Amos Roberts, Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Brent Grose, Iosia Soliola, Sam Perrett, Setaimata Sa, James Aubusson, Mark O’meley (c), Riley Brown, David Shillington, Lopini Paea, Frank-Paul Nu’uausala, Mitchell Aubusson. Interchange: Jake Friend, Sean Rudder, Mickey Paea, Anthony Cherrington.
Bulldogs: Nick Youngquest, Hazem El Masri, Daryl Millard, Tim Winitana, Heka Nanai, Arana Taumata, Ben Roberts, Jarrad Hickey, Corey Hughes, Fred Briggs, Sonny Bill Williams, Andrew Ryan, Reni Maitua. Interchange: Lee Te Maari, Danny Williams, Brad Morrin, Michael Sullivan.
(It was almost a month to the day after that defeat to the Roosters that Sonny Bill walked out on the Bulldogs mid-contract only to return five years later as a Bondi backrower. But I digress.)
Jake went on to play a further four games that year, all off the bench as the Roosters made the top four under coach Brad “God” Fittler.
He’d become a regular first grader the following year, and would make headlines – as would the club – for all the wrong reasons.
Spanked with a wooden spoon and then some.
On the field, Jake established himself as a decent first grader for the Roosters in 2009, playing 21 games including 11 starts for two tries. Unfortunately, the vast majority of those games were losses – 17 in all – as the club slumped to its worst season in recent history and collected its first wooden spoon since 1966.
But the bad news didn’t stop there, and unfortunately Friend was amid most of it.
In March he was charged with drink driving, and was disqualified from driving later that year.
In June, he and then-teammate Sandor Earl were charged with assault following a fight at Tank nightclub at The Rocks which included a woman suffering a concussion in the biff. They were eventually found not guilty.
But in a three-strikes-you’re-out move, the Roosters terminated his contract after police charged the young hooker in yet another incident. He was charged with using offensive language towards police and failing to pay his taxi fare after he was awoken by officers after passing out due to intoxication in a cab in December – just two days after he’d signed a two year extension with the club.
Roosters Chairman Nick Politis reportedly cried during an emotional board meeting in which the decision was made to sack the 19-year-old hooker after just 26 first-grade games. But their hand was forced after Friend was involved in three booze-related scandals in just 10 months.
Politis said following that meeting:
“He’s a lovely young bloke who’s got problems with alcohol like a lot of other teenagers in society. If there is anything – and I mean anything – I can personally do to help him, I don’t care what it takes, I’ll do it. We’re not just tearing up his contract and throwing him out. We want to help him. I want to see the boy playing football again. I’d like to think it will be at the Roosters, but I don’t care. I want to see him live his dream of playing NRL because he’s bloody good at it.”
It was hardly the only scandal to befall the club that year, one that included allegations of throwing their final game against the Cowboys. They led at 16-6 at halftime but let in 26 unanswered points in the second half of a game which doubled as the farewell of club legend and captain Craig Fitzgibbon – as well as the last NRL game God would coach.
At any rate, Jake Friend was gone… and he needed to find a new job.
Coffee, sandwiches and Joe Thomas.
Friend managed to score a gig working at a sandwich shop in Surry Hills. His manager, Steve Gillis, said at the time:
“His days will be something like this. 5.30am training. 8am start work and knock-off around 3pm. Get some counselling, do a bit of community work, and more training in the evening.
“The most positive thing is he is not running away from anything. He has burned around $500,000 in contract money, but there’s nothing to stop him turning it all around and continuing on with a most promising career because he’s still only a teenager.
“I rate him extremely highly as a person and I have enormous confidence in him succeeding in this challenge. I do expect him to emerge from all this bigger and better than ever.”
That training included sessions with former Bulldogs rake Joe Thomas. The sessions were just so he’d be in decent shape in the off chance he ever managed to score a new contract.
He didn’t have to wait too long.
A Grand Final and a good behaviour bond.
Five months after his contract was torn up, the Roosters saw enough during his exodus to offer Friend a new contract in 2010, and he played his first game in round nine – ironically against the team he last played, the Cowboys. The club was drubbed by an almost identical scoreline, 32-14.
In June he sadly found himself back in the headlines for the wrong reasons – this time thanks to two pills that were found on his person during a police search in Coogee on night. Police found two Valiums and charged Friend with two counts of possession of a restricted drug without a prescription. He’d face court at the end of the year.
He was building quite the reputation as a bad boy, but on the field he continued his renaissance and developed an almost instant combination with new five-eighth Todd Carney.
During the Roosters’ first finals match against the Tigers, Friend was instrumental in the Chooks coming back from 15-2 down. He had a dart from dummy half with around eight minutes to go, and lined up his opposite defender before sending Carney through a gap which led to Mitchell Pearce’s try – the Roosters’ second – and a 15-14 score.
We all know what happened next (scroll to 3:50 for MP7’s try):
He started at hooker during the club’s grand final loss to the Dragons. Oh, and he escaped the Valium charge with a two-year good behaviour bond.
Friend hasn’t been seen in the tabloids since.
In his redemption season, the nuggety hooker played 21 games including four finals appearances, with two tries and a ton of respect earned.
Redemption amid the carnage.
The next season was another beset by scandals and sackings – but none of it involved Jake Friend.
Todd Carney was sacked, Nate Myles was let go and the Roosters followed up a Grand Final season with a terrible 2011 – finishing with just 10 wins and 14 losses, a record cushioned by four straight wins to finish the year after both those players were stood down.
Regardless, Friend’s redemption was complete after he was awarded the Jack Gibson Medal as the Roosters’ best player at the end-of-season awards and was given a place in the Prime Ministers’ XIII which took on Papua New Guinea. He was then rewarded with a three-year contract extension which would keep him at the club until 2015.
He averaged a stunning 45.8 tackles per game and played every match. He was deserving of the award, given as much for his battle back into an integral member of the spine at the club and the feel-good story he generated during another season off off-field scandal.
The team stunk it up in 2012, finishing with just eight wins, but Friend continued his decent form.
His running and passing game took a leap forward, and according to the Roosters website he was credited with eight try and line break assists from dummy half, following nine during a more successful season for the Roosters a year earlier.
Defences continued to target the tiny rake and, while the forwards managed to make an extra metre once he hit them, he rarely fell off tackles and his toughness couldn’t be questioned.
He again played every game, scored two tries, had five line breaks and 18 offloads while averaging 38.4 tackles a game.
A century at 23 in 2013.
Friend has fended off calls for new coach Trent Robinson to give more minutes to his back-up, Daniel Mortimer, following a slow start to the season.
He’s shown some touches of pure class in the past three rounds for the Roosters. Against the Bulldogs, the club’s biggest test to date, the hooker had two try assists using a kick and a nimble in-and-away, while against the Eels he showed great awareness to set up the first of the team’s nine tries.
Teams will always target the kid, and given the size mismatch he faces against anyone who runs at him he should have fully-developed cauliflower ears by the time he’s 26.
But Robinson has figured out a good rotation to maximise the output of his two rakes, and it was near-perfect against the Bulldogs. Friend played 51 minutes with Mortimer splitting them during the middle of the match, and Friend was fresh enough to set up the final two tries.
His energy is up towards the end of the games as he’s no longer expected to play the full 80. Brian Smith effectively wore him down in 2012 by using him the full 80 on most occasions, as a hooker and running back rower. That’s not the case this year.
Happy 100th, Jakey.
We do forget that he’s just 23 years of age – he’s been around for five years already and most Roosters fans have forgotten that at one stage we used to go to war with Riley Brown.
He has plenty of improvement left in him. His kicking game long needs work and near the line he could be a little more creative.
At this stage though, he’s pretty good for a guy who could’ve been lost to the game.
The Roosters deserve a lot of credit for sticking by him and supporting his return to the game. That story which said Nick Politis was shedding tears when his contract was torn up shows how much spirit is actually at Bondi, and it’s safe to say that Jake Friend epitomises it.
He’ll continue to tackle guys a foot taller than him, he’ll always put in, and will always wear the tricolours with pride.