A year ago prop Richard Villasanti was leading from the front in a Vodafone Warriors team riding high in the NRL. Now he founds himself thrust back into action for a team desperate to get back on the winning path against the Cronulla Sharks at Ericsson Stadium on Saturday.
"I haven't played for the Warriors since the Grand Final nine months ago, which has been frustrating. And I haven't had a real decent hit-out since," admits the 23-year-old. "But the run of injuries in the team and the lack of form has opened the door for me. I've got to grab it with both hands and put on a good show against Cronulla."
The big-hitting Villasanti had a barnstorming season with the Warriors in 2001 following his move from Wests Tigers. At the start of 2002 the Australian-born player was talked about as a prospect for New South Wales.
He would have been the first player from the club to don the sky blue jersey in State of Origin had he done so. But a niggling shoulder injury worsened as the season wore on, and his form suffered. "I actually kept playing with a dodgy right shoulder for five to six months. It restricted my weight-training regime and I needed a needle to get onto the field each week," he says. "I knew months out from the end of the season that I needed corrective surgery."
The plan was to have the surgery early in the off-season and ease back into 2003 playing in the National Bartercard Cup competition. Just three minutes into his first match for the Canterbury Bulls, however, Villasanti was forced off with a knee injury.
Adding to his frustration is the Warriors' lack of form in recent weeks. The defeat in Penrith last weekend was their fourth in five matches. "Not being able to help the guys out from the slump they?re in makes me feel even more guilty."
Villasanti sees it as his job to re-ignite the energy levels of his team-mates, which he believes has waned because many of the team went on the Kiwis end-of-season tour to the UK and France and haven't had a decent break. "For me, first of all, it's about doing the little things right and getting my timing back," he says. "I love the confrontational stuff and it's up to me to put my hand up and try and lift the aggression stakes. Last year we were a team no one wanted to play because we were big and aggressive. We haven't really seen that since beating Brisbane in April. We've got to get that back again."
Villasanti's last memorable appearance for the Warriors was the nailbiting victory against the Sharks last September that got them to the final. A similar result on Saturday will suit him fine. "Last year's result counts for nothing. A lot has happened to both teams ?in terms of personnel and form ? since that semifinal. They're still obviously a good side with Brett Kimmorley and David Peachey back to form, but nothing less than a win will do for us."