AT the peak of his powers, if Ian Roberts wasn't the best forward in rugby league, he was certainly in the conversation.
A giant of a man, he was also a remarkable athlete, capable of playing front row with the pace and skills of an outside back.
In defence, he hit so hard that opposition forwards would note where he was in the line and run on the opposite side of the ruck, out of fear that he might snap them in half.
And back in an era long before the NRL outlawed punching, if push came to shove, he could fight like a threshing machine. Just ask former Balmain fullback Garry Jack.
Roberts started his career at South Sydney in 1986, alongside the likes of Les Davidson, Mario Fenech, David Boyle and Tony Rampling. Tough men who on game day would eat raw steaks for breakfast, washed down with a bucket of blood.
He then switched to Manly, where under the late, great Bob Fulton, he helped establish the Silvertails as a dominant force in the mid-1990s.
Along the way, Roberts played nine State of Origins for NSW, helping the Blues win three series, and 14 Tests for Australia.
While he was blessed with a rare combination of size, speed and endurance, what overshadowed Roberts' natural gifts was his courage.
To my knowledge, he is the only player in the history of Australian rugby league to come out and reveal he is gay. That surely required unprecedented bravery.
That news broke way back in 1995, and it's fair to say it changed perceptions.
Many were incredulous. Surely a player as fierce and hard as Ian Roberts couldn't possibly be one of them.
But he was, unashamedly, and his teammates knew long before it became public knowledge.
They accepted him as he was, not just because he could help them win games, but presumably because they regarded him as a good bloke. He was a player they would rather have had on their side than in the opposition.
The question I find myself asking this week, after the well-documented events at his former club, is if Ian Roberts had been born 30 years later, would the seven Manly players who boycotted the rainbow-striped "pride" jerseys refuse to play with him?
I think we could all hazard a guess as to the answer.
I get that this was poorly handled by the club's administration. A heads-up at some point would surely have been common sense.
And I understand that the players are deeply religious and did not want to compromise their beliefs.
But I still can't get my head around it. It's just so baffling, and so devastating, on so many levels.
In the 27 years since Roberts came out, no other Australian rugby league player has done likewise.
If you do the maths, there are 16 NRL clubs, and if each of them fielded, say, five debutants every season, over the past 27 years there must have been at least a couple of thousand new players pass through the NRL.
It strikes me as slightly inconceivable that none of them have been gay.
In other words, if there have been any, they haven't felt comfortable enough to be open and honest about it.
And after this week's events, what chance is there of anyone following in Roberts' footsteps in the next 27 years?
What if there is a future superstar out there, rising up through the junior representative ranks, knowing deep down inside that he is gay? Why would he disclose that to anyone, if he fears that his teammates might shun him?
What sort of terrible impact could this have on a person's mental health?
Likewise, how must members of the LBGTQIA+ community who support Manly - or the NRL in general - be feeling right now?
They are entitled to have formed the view that certain players might prefer it if they followed another team, or even a different code.
Then, of course, there is the damage done to the reputation of not only rugby league, but also Australia in general, after a shameful episode that has created international headlines.
As English diver Tom Daley, an Olympic gold medallist who came out in 2014 and carried Queen's baton into the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, told the Sydney Morning Herald's Andrew Webster: "I had no idea that such homophobia still existed in Australia."
Fair or not, this reflects poorly on all of us.
Last but not least, consider the impact the stance these seven players have taken has had on Manly's season.
The depleted Sea Eagles fought gallantly on Thursday night in a 20-10 loss to Sydney Roosters, and now find themselves two points adrift of the top eight.
That defeat might be the difference between them qualifying for the finals and missing out. Their teammates are entitled to be disappointed, to say the least.
Yet for reasons that escape me, there has been a degree of sympathy for these players that was largely absent when Israel Folau was ostracised.
The bottom line is that I don't see what harm it would have done for them to wear the jersey. Was it really that big a deal?
I just don't get it. All I know for sure and certain is that, if Ian Roberts was playing today, not one of those seven players would be fit to lace his boots.
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