The Roosters have won their past four matches, accumulated 114 points, conceded 30, equalled a record and had their best forwards performance in a decade. They sport two players over the age of 30 and have been moved to outright favouritism by the bookies for the first time since 2004.
Meanwhile, the Knights have won three straight, moved up the ladder to fifth position following a year when a Wayne Bennett-coached squad missed the finals for the first time since 1989 and signed some of the best State of Origin players from that year. They now run out with an old Wille and two players just a year younger than the Roosters’ coach.
They’ve also lost their best front-rower and replaced him with a guy who, within a three-year period, punched Braith Anasta, Jason Taylor and a guy in Florida.
But he’s a changed man now (probably) and so is his team in recent times, as the Roosters face their biggest test in three weeks up in Tinklertown.
Team for Round 20
Anthony Minichiello (C) ,Daniel Tupou, Michael Jennings, Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, James Maloney, Mitchell Pearce, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Jake Friend, Luke O’Donnell, Boyd Cordner, Sonny Bill Williams, Frank-Paul Nu’uasala. Interchange: (From) Daniel Mortimer, Mitch Aubusson, Aidan Guerra, Sam Moa, Isaac Liu.
Sonny Bill Williams has been named to return after sitting out the team’s 40-0 thrashing of the hapless Cronulla Sharks on Saturday. Michael Jennings has also been named despite coming off late in the game with what looked to be an ankle complaint.
The record-equalling Roosters have now won four straight contests and conceded just 30 points in that span, but in the past two weeks have conceded nothing.
Last week they managed to lose the penalty count for the umpteenth time this year yet despite this they did not concede a line break, dominated possession 58-42, broke the line themselves 11 times and ran the ball 792 metres more than the Sharks in one of the Roosters’ most dominant forward displays in 10 years. Don’t believe me? Check this shit out:
How they’ll play
Wow, you think the Roosters won’t target the wing of Akuila Uate with some choice bombs and attacking kicks? Uate, as dangerous as he is in attack can be found out quite easily in defence and under the high ball and gives up three inches to his opposite, Daniel Tupou.
Not only that, Uate is another winger who suffers from the Chris Walker disease — he comes in far too often and leaves an acre of space out wide.
While his defence this year has improved and is less a liability than it was last year for NSW when he was ultimately dropped for his poor defensive reads (averaging a little over one missed tackle a game this year), there is still the very real chance he will come in when the attack puts a deep play on. Plus, his hands remain as bad as they were last year: in 2012 he dropped the ball 26 times in 22 games; in 2013 he’s spilled his lollies 17 times in 14 matches.
The Roosters would be mad not to target his wing, either with a well-placed cutout from the BBQ, a mid-field bomb or an attacking chip. Space can be found on the other side as well, with former Rooster Joey Leilua fully capable of letting stuff in (averaging two missed tackles a game) and losing focus on reads.
But the Knights are a good defensive team, having conceded an average of just 14 points during their three-game winning streak, although those games were against the slumping Titans, epileptic Bulldogs and the unpredictable Panthers. In those three wins they have not conceded a try down the centre of the field, so the Roosters may have to look elsewhere for points than through the middle.
That could come on the fringes, with Boyd Cordner in sensational hole-running form. If the Roosters forwards set the platform they did last week, then Mitchell Pearce could pick them apart with his in-the-line pass.
Team for Round 20
Darius Boyd, James McManus, Dane Gagai, Joey Leilua, Akuila Uate, Jarrod Mullen (c), Tyrone Roberts, David Fa’alogo, Danny Buderus, Willie Mason, Robbie Rochow, Beau Scott, Jeremy Smith. Interchange: (From) Craig Gower, Chris Houston, Neville Costigan, Korbin Sims, Zane Tetevano.
Former Anasta nemesis David Fa’alogo has been named to start in the front row after Kade Snowden took the early guilty plea for raising his knee in their 32-14 win against the Panthers.
Meanwhile, this will be the first game for the artist formerly known as BJ, Joey Leilua, against the club that let him go prior to the start of the season.
This is the second straight week the Roosters play the fifth-placed team on a three-game winning streak and missing at least one of its star forwards.
It’s also the first game between Mitchell Pearce and Craig Gower since the former Penrith halfback returned to Australia. So, yeah.
How they’ll play
The Knights rely heavily on the Jarrod Mullen, and the five-eighth has five try assists in their three-game winning streak.
Kade Snowden is a huge loss for them: he was in terrific form for the Knights and gives the forward packs an offload and great go-forward, something Fa’alogo does not provide as a replacement (just two offloads in 12 games). So they’ll hit it up for five and kick to the fringes, with Mullen having a pretty good knack of targeting the centre on either side with accuracy.
The Roosters’ wingers, Toops and The Matrix, also need to be prepared for a kick on the third or fourth from Mullen who regularly attempts the 40/20 — he has kicked three this season — in an effort to get those wingers to drop back earlier in the tackle count late in the game. Once that attempt happens, Mullen will have no hesitation throwing an early cutout to Leilua or Gagai on ensuing sets.
On the ground they’ll target SKD, running the large frame and steppiness of Gagai at the centre. Darius Boyd has been in solid form in their streak, with two tries, a try assist, a line break and 12 tackle busts, and needs to be shadowed near the line.
Halfback Tyrone Roberts is crafty and a decent runner of the ball near the line, and strong for his size. He’ll run it on the fourth in the 10m zone using the likes of Robbie Rochow and Beau Scott as dummy targets before going himself.
Make no mistake, this will be the Roosters’ biggest test coming after two of their biggest wins of the year. The Knights have been in superb scoring form of late, scoring 18, 46 and 32 points in their past three wins respectively, while there is the chance The Roosters might take the Knights lightly considering the 76-0 scoreline they’ve racked up in the past two weeks.
But on current form, you can’t pick against the Roosters. They will be fully aware of the risk of a let-down, and welcome back their star second-rower who will be fired up after missing the tryfest last week.
I’m picking 13+ because the Roosters’ average winning margin is exactly 13 points, scoring 24.6 points a game and conceding just 11.6.
I don’t think this will be the week the Roosters break the record for holding teams to nil in a single season (five, which they equalled last week) because there are points in this Knights squad.
But if the Roosters forwards set the platform even half as good as they did last week when they ran the ball for more than 1,800 metres, they should win by a semi-comfortable scoreline.
I reckon a winger — yes, a winger — will be man of the match for the Roosters. Tupou is fully capable of scoring a hat trick against Uate, and defensively he has the size and talent to make a highlight out of shutting down his dangerous opposite.