A FRIENDSHIP between superstar Manchester United captain Wayne Rooney and six-time Grand Final winner Ryan Bailey seems an unlikely alliance.
At first glance, you would imagine the only thing they have in common is the healthy amount of success each has had on the same Old Trafford pitch. Albeit at different sports.
However, a bond has firmly grown between the two after Rooney – a self-confessed Leeds Rhinos fan – met the hulking prop and his team-mates ahead of the Yorkshire club’s 2012 Super League decider.
And, as it happens, Bailey is also currently in the business of changing other preconceived opinions about himself.
After 14 success-laden years at Headingley, he begins a new career tomorrow with Hull KR, his first league game, typically, against his former employers.
Bailey, just one part of a ruthless machine at Leeds, hopes to emerge a more dominant influence in his latest surroundings with the forward, renowned as one of the sport’s most aggressive and volatile characters, showing a more mature and rounded approach.
But, first, what of that relationship with Rooney, someone who, admittedly, has also been known to betray a short fuse at times?
“He came to speak to us in Manchester before one of the Grand Finals,” Bailey told The Yorkshire Post.
“We messaged a few times afterwards and had a night out together. We had a good chat and he’s a down-to-earth guy.
“We messaged quite a bit and I went to a few of his games but, as I say, he’s just a normal guy like me.
“He’s from the normal estates. I’m from Bramley in Leeds and he’s from the same sort of place in Liverpool, the same sort of lifestyle...
“He’s had the same as me really – come from nothing – and I respect him.
“I’m a Man United fan and he supports Leeds (Rhinos) so that’s strange. He gets some stick for it but he’s into his boxing as well just like I am so we have a few things in common.
“He’ll have to change his team now, though, won’t he?!”
Whether Rooney swaps Leeds’ blue and amber for the red and white – more familiar, at least – of Hull KR remains to be seen.
However, to some, it still remains a shock that Bailey has made that switch himself.
The 31-year-old had spent his entire career at Headingley, celebrating his testimonial there last season, marking his 300th game for the club in the win at Castleford last May before finally adding a Challenge Cup winners’ medal when they beat the same opponents at Wembley in August.
Bailey was – is – part of their Golden Generation, winning six Grand Finals along with Kevin Sinfield, Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow and Jamie-Jones Buchanan, many of whom were in the same academy side there.
Indeed, he still had another year left on his deal when it was announced the ex-Great Britain prop would be joining Hull KR in October.
Leeds had been hoping to bring in England prop Lee Mossop from Parramatta and both Bailey and fellow long-established front-row Ian Kirke were told opportunities would be limited in 2015.
Leeds colleagues this week admitted they had been stunned at the time – Kirke left for Wakefield while Mossop eventually went to Wigan – but was Bailey surprised?
“Yes and no,” he said, having been restricted to just nine starts last season.
“I needed a change anyway, a change in environment and a change in lifestyle.
“I think I got a bit too comfortable at Leeds and was going a bit stale there.
“I thought that with my personal performances. Plus I want to be a big leader and it was hard at Leeds as there was so many great leaders at the club.
“Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock... I respect them both. But it meant it was hard to shine.
“I want to come here and show I can do a leadership role.”
Hull KR coach Chris Chester, who has brought in 13 new players for his first full season in charge, hopes Bailey can transfer some of that champion quality to a Rovers side who were far too inconsistent last term when slipping to ninth.
His key asset is that robust, no-nonsense attitude he brings in both defence and attack but the experience, too, could be invaluable.
Bailey is relishing the chance and said: “They’ve made me feel welcome since day one.
“It’s a fresh team but you can feel the tightness already.
“It’s exciting with half-backs like Bobby (Maurice Blair) and Alby (Albert Kelly) while Campo (Terry Campese) the captain came over from Australia, too, and as soon as they got here the team started buzzing.
“And, as soon as we get out there, I think we will surprise some teams this year.
“You couldn’t have written the script with it being Rhinos first but as soon as I put that shirt on and the hooter goes it’s a different story. I’m 100 per cent Robins now and looking to get the first win and start off with a good win over Leeds.”
Bailey has signed a two-year deal but, given the longevity of two of his former team-mates, he hopes to be playing on for some time yet.
Fellow props Peacock and Kylie Leuluai are 37 and 36 respectively and he said: “You look at those two and think you’ve got another good 10 years.
“JP’s 40 now, isn’t he!?
“I’ve got a good 10 years under my belt!
“No, as long as I stay fit, I’ve a good chance of having a good run here and who knows it could be for the next four or five years.
“I learned a lot off those two; just how to play on when you’re tired and just looking at the little extras they do and how they maintain themselves and stay fit.
“Little things off the pitch over the year turn into big things. That’s what happens with JP and Kylie. Look at them. They are still going strong.”
It will be fascinating to see Bailey, for once, locking horns with that formidable pair tomorrow although the chance to “smash” his best pal Brett Delaney will have to wait as the second-row has been ruled out with an ankle injury.
And how did things end with Leeds head coach Brian McDermott, who, as a gnarled prop himself with Bradford first faced a teenage Bailey in 2002?
He has been his boss for the last four years but, ultimately, decided to let him go.
Bailey said: “He was good. He got the best out of me.
“I’m a hard person to understand at times but he understood me and we knew how to bounce off each other.
“I respect him as a coach but it was just my personal performance I wasn’t happy with and I needed a change.”
Whatever happens with Hull KR, Bailey can look back on a fine career with pride.
You sense there is still more to come though, and Rovers could certainly be the chief benefactors.