The Roosters travel this week to Penrith to a stadium that has as much character as an armpit but has been a graveyard for the Roosters in the past thanks to the curse of Freddy and Sing.
It’s the Roosters’ second straight week on the road and they’re missing their biggest strike weapon thanks to suspension, but they play a bi-polar team led by a halfback who runs less than Leutenant Dan.
The club from the foot of the mountains sports a team of Whoevers, Blahs and Mehs, and lack that one player who can break a game open on a consistent basis outside of James Segeyaro. But they’ve played as a team this year and on their day can get hot and beat anyone — just not lately.
They were the darling of the mid-season when they rattled off a bunch of wins but are falling faster than an old lady down an escalator following two drubbings against teams the Roosters drubbed.
The Roosters are conversely higher that Woody Harrelson on 4/20 after winning their fifth straight game and with the very sponsors of the stadium they’re visiting on Friday installing them as favourites for the premiership.
Whether that equates to a win, we’ll discuss below.
Team for Round 21
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, Mitch Aubusson, Frank-Paul Nu’uasala. Interchange: Daniel Mortimer, Aidan Guerra, Sam Moa, Isaac Liu.
Sonny Bill Williams has been suspended for two matches following a high tackle on Willie Mason on Sunday. Mitchell Aubusson will start in his place, while Guerra has also been named despite falling off the bench against the Knights with Isaac Liu being promoted from 18th man.
The Roosters have won five straight and conceded just 42 points in that span, including two shut-outs. The last time the Chooks played Penrith they walloped them 30-6, but this was before Penrith at least found their niche as an erratic-yet-dangerous-on-their-day team that every season of NRL seems to have.
Lately the Panthers have been dogshit-awful while the Roosters have been so hot that a poor game by their standards resulted in a 16-point win against the Knights — the Roosters actually conceded more penalties than points in that game, as they have for the two weeks prior.
Wait. It gets better:
When fellow Twitteratti Dan-Free Sonny-Dan (@damadary) made the great point that if it were the same team year-to-year you could say “OK” and accept it, but it’s a new team almost every year. Brad again came to bat with this:
Bryan Fletcher said on the Matty Johns show that the Roosters get picked on because “they’re the Roosters”. Looking at the figures above, can anyone really argue?
So, yeah. The defence would rest, but it can’t. It’s always conceding penalties.
How they’ll play
The Roosters will again need to attack the left edge. Jennings comes up against Dean Whare who, while being a solid defender, is weaker on that end than his centre partner in Lewis Brown.
The gaps have to come out this way if they are to spread it wide, and Jenko scored two tries down that side in their round eight clash. He’s returning to Penrith who are expected to give him a royal spray, but as SBW did twice this year against the Bulldogs, Jennings should be able to step up again.
To further prove the weakness of the Panthers’ right-side defence, Sosaia Feki scored a brace and Gordon nabbed another out left for the Sharks in their demolition job of the Mountain men last round.
And when in doubt — especially with SBW serving a suspension — why not go to Jenko? He has 54 tackle busts this year, with 12 tries, 11 line breaks, 8 line break assists and five try assists in 17 games this year.
Mitch Aubusson provides the hole-running on the right in the absence of SBW that Boyd Cordner is providing on the left, and with so many decoy runners and options Mitchell Pearce (second in the NRL with 18 total try assists) could potentially have a field day with his ability to hold his pass off until the very last minute.
Jake Friend has been on fire in the past five weeks, and has put three forwards over in the past three weeks close to the line. He’s causing havoc with everything he does and is, needless to say, in career-best form. The Panthers employ slow boppers such as Tim Grant, Mose Masoe and Sika Manu, and Friendy could exploit slow marker play following quick play-the-balls from Cordner and JWH.
Team for Round 21: Matt Moylan, James Roberts, Lewis Brown, Dean Whare, David Simmons, Isaac John, Luke Walsh, Jeremy Latimore, Kevin Kingston, Tim Grant, Clint Newton, Sika Manu, Adam Docker. Interchange: (From) James Segeyaro, Cam Ciraldo, Mose Masoe, Ryan Simpkins, Josh Mansour.
Impressive winger Josh Mansour has been named to an extended bench after spending time off with injury, while Mose Masoe has also been named to face his former team.
Sam Anderson drops out to the surprise of the 10 people who know who he is.
Other than that, the lineup remains the same to that which was thumped by a hot Cronulla squad over the weekend.
The Panthers have been in a slump after many picked them as a sleeper for the eighth spot. They’ve been thumped by 28 and 18 in the past two weeks and only barely beat the Eels the week prior to that (17-10).
They’ve scored an average of just 12 points in the past two weeks; the Roosters have conceded 12 total points in their past three, with two of those wins coming against the teams the Panthers were flogged by (Cronulla and Newcastle).
How they’ll play
I said this in the round eight Panthers preview, but this team truly lives and dies by the will of Luke Walsh, He kicks almost exclusively for this club and he has 13 try assists this year.
He’s made a living this year kicking to the size of David Simmons. The right-side winger has scored 15 tries this year (second in the NRL) and has experience under the high ball and with attacking kicks. He may be nullified somewhat by the size of Daniel Tupou, but that won’t stop the Panthers attempting it.
The Panthers are sneaky good at heading out to the right early, and Whare is a good draw-and-passer. The former Manly flyer has 13 line break assists and just five line breaks this year, proving he’ll give it up when he needs to. He’ll come up against Jennings though, whose defence this year still boggles this writer’s mind: just 10 misses in 17 games and 31 one-on-one tackles.
The Panthers have a bunch of average players who together are greater than the sum of their parts, but the Roosters in the past two weeks have blown two fifth-placed teams off the park, teams that had won three straight each.
The Panthers have lost two in a row, convincingly, to those very teams.
The Roosters still have talent across the park even without their star, as Aubo can come in as he did two weeks ago against the Sharks and provide one of the best hole-running games for a second-rower in rugby league.
So with all that in mind, really only 13+ will do, and anything less than the 30-6 scoreline from round eight in this game, even with Sonny Bill out, would be a disappointment.
It’s a toss-up for Man of the Match between Pearce, Jennings and Friend — with this writer leaning towards Pearce who has been in great touch in the past two matches since returning from Origin.