Heath L’Estrange lived up to his nickname "stranger" so well when he arrived at the Roosters that one of his international teammates asked another if the balding hooker was actually a member of the coaching staff.
Now the Roosters finals hopes rest on the well-travelled 29-year-old who will start his first NRL game at hooker against the Titans on Monday since September 1, 2007 after replacing Jake Friend – whose hamstring injury ends his 113 consecutive game streak.
“Most of the boys were on World Cup duty when I started pre-season,” L’Estrange said. “When Roger Tuivasa-Sheck got back he asked Jared Waerea-Hargreaves; ‘who is that fella? Is he one of the coaches’?
“I’ve been away for four years. A lot of these boys are only kids and have never seen me play which is fair enough. I’m just thankful to be back and able to play in a premiership winning side and hopefully go back to back with them.”
L’Estrange spent four seasons at the Roosters between 2004-2007 before switching to Manly where he featured off the interchange bench during his two-year stint.
His time at Manly was highlighted by playing in their 40-0 grand final win against Melbourne in 2008.
While he was unfamiliar to Tuivasa-Sheck, L’Estrange wasn’t totally foreign to all his Roosters teammates having played alongside Waerea-Hargreaves at Manly and Mitchell Pearce during his first stint at the club.
But four years with Bradford – where he was co-captain – meant he was virtually unknown to the bulk of the squad.
Despite having a year to run on his contract with the English Super League club, family reasons brought L’Estrange back to Australia.
He and his wife Jess struggled trying to conceive a child during their four years of marriage. When Jess fell pregnant on a holiday to Australia , L’Estrange knew there was no way he wanted to return to the UK.
“She finally became pregnant through outside help,” L’Estrange said. “We came home after the season to have the baby and realised that we wanted our child to grow up around our family.
“[Then Bradford coach] Francis Cummins was involved in everything that was going on with Jess and I in the past couple of years. He just said he would support whatever I needed to do.
“We enjoyed our time in England. I met some wonderful people and some life-long friends. We wanted our daughter to grow up around her friends and family. To go through so much heartache over three years, away from our family we wanted happiness.
“As soon as we arrived my wife was eight and a half months pregnant and everyone was happy. I made my mind up to try and get a club here or give it up and do something else. Jess followed me to England and we had a great four years there. She sacrificed her friends and family to come over to me. I thought it was time to repay her.”
Little Grace was born in October, and about 24 hours later L’Estrange had his playing future secured when he re-joined the Roosters on a two-year contract.
“She’s unbelievable,” L’Estrange said. “Every morning she’s beautiful and brightens everything.
“I went from having a little baby girl to signing with the premiers, it was the best 24 hours of my life. No other club rang me back. The Roosters were the only ones so I was thankful for that. They said that I’m going to be behind two great players but I told them that it didn’t matter, I wanted to be here and fight for my place.”
A staph infection during the Christmas break led to L’Estrange missing the first six games of the season. After returning with Newtown in the NSW Cup, L’Estrange completed his NRL comeback in round 16 relieving Friend following Daniel Mortimer’s switch to the Titans.
He finds in himself on track to play finals football, in stark contrast to his former teammates at Bradford who sit second last on the premiership ladder and will be relegated from the Super League at season’s end.
“It’s the best decision I’ve made,” L’Estrange said. “I’ve got a chance to show Trent Robinson and my middle teammates how important I can be. I’m not going to be Jakey Friend – he is a freak at the top of his game and someone who is going to play for Queensland and Australia.
“I know I’ll keep playing once I get the tap on the shoulder and told no more first grade. I’ll go back to (junior club) Hills District and have 10 years back there. I just love playing footy.”
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