As a junior Roberts played for the Mascot Jets in the Souths juniors competition. He made his first grade debut with the Rabbitohs in the 1986 Winfield Cup season. By the age of 21, Jack Gibson had described him as "the best front rower in the game," and in 1988 Roberts made the first of five appearances for City Origin team.
Despite not having yet played for either New South Wales or Australia, Roberts signed a contract with the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles in 1990. At the end of the 1994 NSWRL season, he went on the 1994 Kangaroo tour.
After moving from the Rabbitohs to Manly he quickly justified his value with State of Origin selection and a Test debut against New Zealand. Roberts finally made a Kangaroo tour, leading up front in Australia's Ashes winning 23-4 Third Test victory at Elland Road. Not long after, Roberts signed with Super League despite his club and coach Bob Fulton remaining loyal to the Australian Rugby League. He played in Manly's loss to the Bulldogs in the 1995 ARL season's Grand Final.
Roberts sat out the 1996 season due to injuries and a contract dispute related to the Super League war. In 1997, Roberts signed with the North Queensland Cowboys and moved to Townsville to captain the side. His career wound down in 1998 under the increasing weight of injuries.
Roberts made nine appearances for the New South Wales State of Origin team between 1990 and 1994. He was an enforcer in the NSW forward pack. A fit athlete, he collapsed from exhaustion after a tireless effort in game one of 1993. The Blues won six of the nine matches in which Roberts played.
In 2000, Roberts was awarded the Australian Sports Medal for his contribution to Australia's international standing in rugby league. He served on the National Rugby League's judiciary during the 2000s and in 2004 was named by Souths in their South Sydney Dream Team, which consists of 17 players and a coach representing the club from 1908 through to 2004. In 2005, he was named one of the 25 greatest ever New South Wales players.
Roberts came out publicly in 1995, discussing his sexuality in magazines and on television over the following year. The rugby league world was generally very supportive, with other players commenting that it was important to be "true to yourself". The NRL Footy Show principals Paul Vautin, Peter Sterling and Steve Roach appeared in a poster campaign against homophobia conducted by the Lesbian and Gay Anti-Violence Project. He was praised for helping to question prevailing myths about gays and sport.
In 1999 Roberts was taken to court by Garry Jack over an on-field brawl that occurred in 1991. Jack stated he was taking a stand against a beating he received from several Manly players. He attempted to sue Roberts for $100,000 in damages, alleging he suffered shock, traumatic injuries to his face and eyes, cuts, headaches and numbness, and was embarrassed by scarring to his face. Jack and Roberts eventually settled the dispute out of court with Roberts handing over more than $50,000.
Roberts gave evidence to the State Coroner of New South Wales in regard to the murder of Arron Light, a street prostitute who was set to give evidence against a paedophile syndicate. Light disappeared in 1997, and his remains were recovered in 2002. This story was the subject of an episode of the Australian TV program Australian Story, entitled "The Lost Boy", which first aired on 26 September 2005.
Early in 2005, Roberts appeared in the second series of the Australian television series Dancing with the Stars, dancing with Natalie Lowe. He was runner up in the competition, losing out to Tom Williams.
Roberts appeared on the 17 April 2007 cover of The Advocate magazine in an exclusive interview with Canadian author and journalist Michael Rowe, along with a photo layout by celebrity photographer Eric Schwabel.
In September 2010 Roberts publicly criticised Australian swimming star Stephanie Rice for calling the South African rugby union team "faggots" on Twitter, branding her "a complete idiot".
Roberts finished playing professional rugby league in 1998, and began studying at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney.
In 2005, Roberts had a brief cameo in the Australian film Little Fish, starring Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving, playing an ex-rugby league star. He appeared in the 2006 motion picture Superman Returns as Riley, a henchman of Lex Luthor.
In 2009, Roberts appeared in the Australian television mini-series Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities, which retells real life events of the drug trade in the New South Wales town of Griffith between 1976–1987. The mini-series is a prequel to the 2008 mini-series Underbelly, which was about Melbourne gangland killings. Roberts has a role as a body guard for George Freeman (played by Peter O'Brien). The series began airing in NSW on 9 February 2009. Also in 2009, he starred in The Cut on ABC1 and had a small role in the film Cedar Boys. In 2012 Ian landed his first starring role in the film Saltwater, starring opposite Ronnie Kerr, which is also Ian's first role playing a gay man.
Ian Roberts: Finding out by Paul Freeman
Hardcover: 325 pages
Publisher: Random House Australia (1997)
Amazon: Ian Roberts: Finding out
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