Roosters team for the Grand Final: Anthony Minichiello, Daniel Tupou, Michael Jennings, Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, James Maloney, Mitchell Pearce, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Jake Friend, Sam Moa, Aidan Guerra, Sonny Bill Wiliams, Frank-Paul Nu’uasala. Interchange: Daniel Mortimer, Mitchell Aubusson, Isaac Liu, Dylan Napa.
Boyd Cordner has not been named, nor has Luke O’Donnell, but many are assuming Boyd at least will be named after the Dally M Second Rower of the Year ran well in training on Tuesday.
A lot was made of SBW sitting out training but failing some new injury in the coming days he’s a certain starter. Mitchell Pearce is expected to fully recover from flu-like symptoms in time for the decider after he was quarantined Monday from the rest of the team.
Jared Waerea-Hargreaves did not play in the club’s 4-0 win in week one over their Sunday opponents, and his return is a welcome one for the Roosters: they conceded 1,700+ running metres in the first week while making just over 1,100 themselves. In his last regular season game against Manly, JWH ran it 21 times for 180 metres and made 26 tackles without a miss. In one word: BEAST.
After losing to the Cronulla Sharks and Gold Coast Titans in rounds 24 and 25 — which many people saw as evidence the Roosters had peaked — the Roosters have returned to their dominant, defensive best in their past three games, all wins. They’ve conceded just four tries in that time, two from kicks last week versus the Knights, and all the wins have obviously come against teams in the top eight.
Their attack returned to its exhilarating best last week when they put 40 on the Knights, 32 of which came in a 34-minute span.
They scored one try off a spill and the others off a combination of set plays and broken field explosions. They are number one in the NRL in both attack and defence, but just two tries ahead of the second-placed team in attack: namely, the squad they play this weekend for all the cookies.
As many expected might be the case, Shayne Hayne and Ashley Klein put away the whistle last week and refereed the contest much like an Origin game. They did let in a forward pass from SBW to Napa that ultimately led to Michael Jennings’ first try but called a lot more things correctly — even not penalising JWH for the hit that knocked Danny Buderus out. And so they should have; it was a case of Bedsy getting his head in the wrong spot.
But it was a refreshing sight to see JWH not go on report because someone around him got injured.
How they’ll play
The Roosters made not a single line break the last time the Roosters played the Sea Eagles — a stat we have heard ad nauseam since round one. They scored their lone try from the unlikeliest of plays, a grubber kick in-goal from James Maloney to Roger Tuivasa-Sheck who scored within an inch of the dead ball line.
To wit, the Roosters have scored 110 tries all year, but just 13 off kicks. Two of those have been scored in the finals, including the brilliant kick for Tupou’s spectacular put-down. It’s a tactic they will have to continue to employ in the GF as the defence tightens and scrambles better.
Tupou comes up against David Williams who can come in defensively and isn’t quite the athlete Tupou is (an understatement). The Roosters haven’t really employed the kick-to-his-wing play with any regularity all year and he’s only scored three of his 13 tries from the tactic this season. Where his try against the Knights differed was that the kick from the BBQ was lower and more of a stab than MP7’s usual high hanging bomb.
Given the matchup, they should use it again.
There will be space to be had, especially down that side — Manly conceded an early try against the Bunnies through Nathan Merritt who had room to have a picnic out left. The Eagles can play at compressed defence at times but seemingly not against the Roosters. While Jamie Lyon can read a defence with the best of them, Williams can be caught off his wing and the Roosters will attempt some spread attacks on the fourth or even fifth tackle from as close as 30 metres out with some quick hands or with a cutout from the Barbecue.
If Cordner does indeed play, the left-side double decoy play again becomes a threat if Boyd can shake off the rust early. As a reminder of that play — which hasn’t been deployed as much since Boyd went down — here are a couple of gifs.
The first one involves Boyd as the second decoy runner at the line. Mitchell Pearce takes it right to the line and can pass in it to Boyd, as he does here:
And this one involves a dump back to Maloney who can either put it through the hands or throw the cutout to Toops, as he does here:
The play was unstoppable before Boyd went down, and it may be a risk if the rust is evident in Cordner’s game. But the dump back could still be on as Boyd would revert to merely being a dangerous decoy, forcing Williams to come in and make a decision as the forwards inside have to commit to Boyd and JWH.
The Roosters need to be relentless in attacking the angles off Pearce at every opportunity. Aidan Guerra was unstoppable last week and needs to hit the angles on the right as he did last week to the tune of four line breaks, 12 tackle busts, two tries and 218 metres. If he can get half those numbers, or even a quarter of the line breaks and tackle busts, then the Roosters will be in good shape.
That relentlessness also means Jake Friend hitting the big forwards at the line and picking out the lazy markers — which he has done without fail for the past three months in what has been his best season BY FAR.
But most importantly, the Roosters need to get to their kick. In a game that’s expected to be as tight as a dolphin’s arsehole, the Roosters cannot afford to gift the Sea Eagles easy possessions through fundamental handling errors.
I was never confident in 2000 when we lost to the Broncos; I was just happy to be there, and I remember more from the GF qualifier against the Knights that year than anything from the Grand Final save for Luke Phillips’ brilliant game when he was best on field in the loss.
I was supremely confident in 2002, and even one of the greatest Grand Final tries ever scored by Warriors halfback Stacey Jones never made that confidence falter. Ok, well, maybe just a little, until Morley cleaned up Richard “Dick” Villasanti.
I was talked into being confident in 2003 and that confidence faded with Sattler’s tackle, but at the start of the game I was a nervous wreck as we were playing a bogey squad that doubled as the minor premiers.
I was as calm as Andy Dufresne walking into Shawshank in 2004, confident we had the personnel and the mental edge to win, but a late ankle tap scurried those hopes. And we were never going to beat the Dragons in 2010 — we were too young, too raw, too erratic. And the Dragons were too good.
But this year I am confident. Maybe not as confident as in ’02, but more confident than in ’04 and certainly more confident than in any of the other Grand Finals.
While there is very little splitting these teams as discussed, the Roosters have swarmed in defence and scrambled better than any other team in recent times. They can hold a team to nil just as easily as they can score 40 points in a game. And while both those scenarios are unlikely against a team that doubles as this rugby league purist’s second-most enjoyable team to watch, the Roosters have the slightly better defence and — on its day — the far better attack across the park with a more dangerous forward pack.
After last year it’s hard to say a loss would be a disappointment, and any Grand Final loss is tough for fans to get over (even though we’re probably used to it by now). And there is no shame in losing to this Manly squad: above all else, they deserve to be where they are and their commitment to every play has converted this hater to a… well… not a lover, but a respecter.
(I’m aware it’s not a word.)
However, I truly believe this is the Roosters’ best chance to win the trophy since the ’02 GF, and I think they will. They have the game’s most explosive forward playing potentially in his last game of Rugby League ever, and he’s been in sensational form; mixing in the grunt work with the spectacular, and only when required.
It’s a 1-12 game whichever way you slice it, but I’m slicing it the Roosters’ way. They’ve lost their last three Grand Finals, meaning losing the big one has become convention. But they’ve been bucking convention all year, and it’s time to buck it one final time.
The Clive Churchill Medal, should the Roosters win, will be Jared Waerea-Hargreaves — but SBW could blow that prediction out of the water with ease.