If Hull Kingston Rovers face the expected struggle against relegation straight out of Super League this season, they will do so in the company of a man who has fought and won bigger battles. Hull KR, who play their first-ever game in Super League against Wakefield this evening, have deliberately stocked up with tough, durable forwards. None of them, however, has had to prove his resilience quite like Michael Vella.
The Australian Test prop was preparing for another season with Parramatta two years ago when he was diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid. If the prognosis was, at the very least, apparently career-ending, Vella defied expectations by getting back on the field quicker than you might after a bad hamstring.
"I was back playing eight weeks later. It's somehow more comfortable to be playing football; you think there can't be too much wrong with you," he says. "I got all the treatment out of the way and I always knew I was going to be back playing. I wasn't negative at all and now I don't even think about it any more."
What he is thinking about is the role that he can play in helping Rovers defy their prognosis by staying in Super League. "It's forwards that will win us games," he says. "I know we've got plenty of pace in the backs, but you've got to have the forwards to lay the platform - and I'm confident that we have."
Vella points to battle-hardened individuals like Mark O'Neill and Danny Ward as the type needed and he falls firmly into that category himself. Apart from nine seasons with Parramatta, he has played seven times for New South Wales and five Tests for his country.
It is the Parramatta connection that has brought him to East Hull, because it was there that he played with the Rovers coach, Justin Morgan. "When I debuted at Parramatta, Justin was one of the senior props," he says. "He was always a very smart footballer, so I'm not surprised by the success he has had in coaching."
Rovers' scrum-half, James Webster, is a former team-mate at Parramatta and he has also played a part in persuading Vella to throw in his lot with the promoted club. So far, he has no regrets. "It reminds me a bit of Parramatta, in that it's a club with a lot of history," he says. "And the fans are mad. I mean that in a nice way and it really gives the boys a lift."
Many of those players, like Webster, have been kept on from the Robins' promotion side and the key to survival will be how well they adapt. "It's a step up for everyone, but Justin wouldn't have kept them if they couldn't do it," Vella says. "He has shown a lot of faith in the boys."
Vella has shown his own confidence in the club's future by signing on for three years and an extended stay in Europe will give him the chance to research his family's roots. "My father's Maltese. In fact, there's more Maltese in Sydney than in Malta," he says. "I'm hoping to go there, because I'm told it's a very nice country with beautiful beaches."
There is plenty of hard work to be done before sampling those pleasures, not least in four games against Rovers' high-flying city rivals, Hull. "Whenever I played for Parra against Balmain or Wests-Tigers there was that great derby atmosphere and about 20,000 there. I'm expecting that plus more."
But unlike some on Humberside, Vella will not be treating it as a matter of life and death. Confronting his own mortality has seen to that. "It puts life in perspective," he says. "There are a lot of things more important than football, although football's pretty important."Reuse content