Tom Trbojevic ‘the smartest bloke in the room’

Trbojevic is genuinely confused when I tell him the coach thinks he’s got the biggest brain in the room. “Intelligent?” he says, deflecting. “I’m good at maths.”

What Trbojevic most certainly has is instinct and his command of the opening match of the series, which the Blues won 50-6 with the Manly star scoring three tries, underlined that very point.

It was the perfect storm: the breakneck speed of the game under the new six-to-go rules on a rock-hard surface; Fittler’s philosophy of not over-coaching his star players, telling them to “go and play”; the emergence of the greatest crop of fullbacks in the code’s history, each pushing the other to new standards; and then the simple fact Trbojevic has always been this sort of player, dating back to his junior days at the Mona Vale Raiders when he was intelligent enough to combine his skill, size and athleticism to demolish opposing teams.

Good judges on the northern beaches still recall one of his first matches for Manly in the under-20s against Penrith. Trbojevic came off the bench, slotted into the backline, carted the ball up for two carries in the one set like a front-rower, then for the rest of the match scattered the Panthers through the middle of the ruck.

It was déjà vu all over again (pun intended) when, in game one in Townsville, he carted the ball up twice in the first set, working in perfect tandem with fullback James Tedesco through Queensland’s middle.

The first glimpse of the two fullbacks working hand in glove came in game two of the 2019 series when Trbojevic returned from injury and lit up Optus Stadium in Perth, sending the series to a decider in Sydney, which the Blues won.

There’s a belief that Trbojevic and Tedesco are revolutionising the way the game is played. Again, the man himself downplays his influence.

“I don’t think it’s us — it’s the rules,” Trbojevic says. “Quicker game, a lot more opportunities. The game is evolving. A bit of it is by design but it’s also just the way I like to play footy. I’m an on-the-ball player. When you’re able to do that at speed, like you can now, you can do that a lot more.”

Nevertheless, you only had to listen to Billy Slater in commentary for Channel Nine last Sunday, when Trbojevic engineered a remarkable second-half comeback against the Titans, to understand how infectious his form has become.

“Wow,” Slater oozed more than once, which makes you wonder how the retired Storm champion himself would’ve fared under the new rules.

Slater was the best fullback of his generation for many reasons, but not least because he spent hours poring over video of opposition teams, knowing where defenders would be before they arrived.

“I do watch a lot of video about how teams defend,” Trbojevic says. “What they like to do in certain situations, so you’re prepared for it. But a lot just comes down to instinct. The more footy you play, the more footy you watch, the better you are at it.”

Trbojevic didn’t always look so comfortable in sky blue, however. When he and older brother Jake were added to the 2016 squad as development players, he seemed more like nervous ballboy than superstar-in-waiting.

“He was very quiet, a little bit awkward,” Laurie Daley, the Blues coach at the time, says. “He didn’t feel like he belonged. You knew each time he stepped onto the training paddock that he was going to be a good player — but you didn’t think he was going to be this good.”

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Daley says injuries prevented Trbojevic being selected for the Blues during his tenure. Fittler knew in early 2018 the Manly fullback had to be somewhere in his backline and wing seemed like the best spot.

Others weren’t so sure.

“I remember a lot of people telling me he couldn’t bring the ball out of the back,” Fittler reveals. “I was like, ‘Really?’ I hadn’t thought about it like that. He wasn’t, as they say in footy terms, a ‘strong carry’ out of his own end. Then he did.”

Trbojevic had heard the noise, too.

“I didn’t start 2018 playing the best footy,” he says. “I don’t really know why but sometimes it just doesn’t work out for you.”

Since then, Trbojevic’s developed into one of the most potent players in the game with injury the only thing holding him back.

When he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in September last year, Jake’s emotional press conference a few days later revealed genuine fears about Tom’s longevity.

Again, Trbojevic deflects: “I knew I’d be back. I’m a process person.”

When he injured his hamstring again on the eve of the season after slipping in the shower, Fittler was concerned that he’d lose some of his confidence.

A healthy rivalry between the current crop of fullbacks has assuaged those fears. When the Storm’s Ryan Papenhuyzen dazzled in the first match of the season against Souths, some asked if he was now as dominant as Tedesco.

The Roosters fullback told those close to him that he was going to end that argument straight away. Two nights later, he blew a Manly side missing Trbojevic off the park, scoring two tries.

Tom Trbojevic and Nathan Cleary celebrate a try in Origin I.Credit:Getty

“Fullback is the glory position at the moment, and they are all trying to be the best,” Fittler says. “And they all believe in the way they play. They’re all different. Latrell doesn’t try to be Papenhuyzen. He tries to be Latrell. Turbo just tries to be Turbo.”

Fittler is smart enough to not get in their way. At this level, managing men is more important. To that end, Fittler and Trbojevic have developed a strong bond.

“He’s definitely a dork sneaking under the radar as an athlete,” Fittler laughs.

Trbojevic will spot Fittler in the team’s downtime and simply say, “Good coaching”, a reference to how Fittler apparently doesn’t do much coaching at all.

After the hatchet job the Blues did in game one, why would he?

“Hopefully we’re coming into an era when coaches start looking at their team in terms of the players they’ve got instead of putting a cage around them and telling them how to play,” Fittler offers.

Tommy Turbo has certainly stepped out of the cage, out into the light.