Mitchell Pearce readily admits the nightclub incident that cost the Roosters star his place in this year’s NSW team was a catalyst for him becoming the No.1 halfback in the NRL on recent form.
Pearce, who was stood down for the round 10 thrashing in North Queensland after being arrested outside a Kings Cross nightclub, heads into Friday’s semi-final with the Cowboys at Allianz Stadium as the best-performing halfback of the past five weeks.
According to a detailed analysis provided by Sportsdata, Pearce is in career-best form. At present Pearce ranks as the top halfback in the game, ahead of South Sydney’s Adam Reynolds, North Queensland’s Johnathan Thurston and Penrith’s Jamie Soward.
It is a massive turnaround from earlier in the season, when Fairfax Media revealed on the eve of Origin selection that the 25-year-old was ranked 15th among halfbacks, based on Sportsdata’s contributor value rating system.
Pearce was subsequently dumped from the NSW team of which he had been a regular member since 2010. There is little doubt he would be recalled if a team was chosen now, as his recent performances have been far superior to Canterbury’s Trent Hodkinson, who ranks as the ninth-best halfback in the NRL for both the season and the past five weeks.
The 2013 premiership-winning halfback said the fallout from the off-field incident in May had been a turning point for him this season. “After that incident it was definitely a big focus for me,” Pearce said. “I knuckled down and ended up working real hard, as the whole team has. The reason you play well is because you work hard, so that is what we have all done as a team. And that is why we are in a finals position now.”
Undoubtedly a key reason the Roosters are still in contention to become the first team in more than 20 years to win back-to-back grand finals is Pearce. In his past five games, against Wests Tigers, the Warriors, Melbourne, South Sydney and Penrith, he has committed two errors, while scoring three tries, being responsible for six try assists and making 20 tackle breaks, five line breaks and eight offloads.
He has also made 112 tackles, including a try-saving effort when he chased down Greg Inglis in the 26-22 win over the Rabbitohs that secured the minor premiership for the Roosters, and missed just 12 tackles.
Such statistics show great composure, given the amount of times that Pearce touches the ball in a match as first receiver for the Roosters. Pearce said his relationship with Alan Bell, who worked with Warren Ryan at Newtown and Allan McMahon at Newcastle as a mentor to playmakers such as Andrew and and Matthew Johns, had helped him to become better at decision-making.
“He has been around the game a long time and he is really smart,” Pearce said. “He is one of the smartest guys I have spoken to about footy and my individual game. A lot of stuff with the mind and preparation has been really helpful for me and I feel like I have been playing a bit better footy, so it has been great, and I am really grateful for the time he has given me.”
Legendary boxing trainer Johnny Lewis, who worked with the Jets in the early 1980s, introduced Pearce to 71-year-old Bell about three months ago.
“I have been talking to him on the phone a fair bit. It started off we just had a bit of a brief chat and he has been really passionate, helping me out and giving me advice here and there,” Pearce said.
“As a halfback, if you can keep getting pointers from guys who have a smart analytical brain, you would be silly not to open your ears and listen.”
Pearce has also been working closely with Roosters assistant coach Jason Taylor, a former leading halfback with Western Suburbs, North Sydney, the Northern Eagles and Parramatta, and club insiders say his recent upturn in form had coincided with him becoming more decisive about when to run, pass or kick.
Fairfax Media was told whereas Cooper Cronk was a structured halfback who played within a system devised by the Storm coaching staff, Pearce plays more off-the-cuff. But his decision-making can be confused as he considers the best option.
However, in recent weeks Pearce has been sticking with his initial decision. When he has chosen to run the ball, he has caused havoc with opposition defences – as evidenced by the try he set up for Daniel Tupou against Souths and the one he scored last Saturday night to put the Roosters ahead 14-8 against Penrith.
While Pearce ranks eighth overall among halfbacks this year, his season can be broken down into three parts: before Origin, until round 22, and the past five weeks, including the 15-14 qualifying final loss to Panthers at Allianz Stadium.
His CVR per match for the season is 322.42. Thurston, who will play opposite him on Friday night, ranks as No.1 overall with a CVR of 420.26. But until round 23, Pearce’s average CVR was a mere 260.1. He scored as low as 61.3 in round one, 66.4 in round seven and 124.3 in round eight. Before round 14, he had only recorded a CVR above 300 – considered a good score for a halfback – on one occasion, but since then he has had just three matches below that figure.
In the past five weeks Pearce has had a CVR above 600 – 704.5 against the Tigers in round 23, 601.2 against Souths in round 26 and 646.8 against the Panthers last weekend, while in the other two matches he had a CVR of 401.8 against the Warriors in round 24 and 442.7 against the Storm in round 25.
In comparison, Hodkinson – who ousted Pearce for the NSW No.7 jersey in this season’s historic Origin series win – has a CVR of just 263 per match in the past five weeks, which has been boosted by a score of 403 in last Sunday’s surprising 28-4 elimination of Melbourne – his highest score since round eight. Soward’s average for the past five weeks of 323.1 is well below Pearce.