And now we return to regular programming.
It’s been a while between drinks here at 26 Rounds. Ol’ Jakey has suffered from a severe case of writers block mixed in with a shitload of emails at his day job and a general malaise/hangover from the holiday period.
That ends now, and over the next few weeks I’ll publish a series of questions made up by myself and answered by myself. It’s the written version of having advanced delusionary schizophrenia with involuntary narcissistic rage (10 points if you can guess correctly the movie that’s from). Plus, I imagine these will be the most pressing questions many of you will ask as we head into the 2014 season when the Roosters begin their quest to become the first team in a unified competition to win back-to-back premierships since the 1992-93 Broncos squads.
Will they repeat as premiers? What will the bench look like? Will Kane Evans get a run, especially with Remi Casty on the books and Dylan Napa and Isaac Liu more established at this stage? Will SKD be able to rekindle his once-deadly attack and mesh it with his much improved defence in a contract year? Can we have another dream run with injuries, and do we have the depth to cover it if we don’t?
These things don’t really keep me up at night as much as the possibility that the Rabbitohs might win a premiership this year, but they are still questions that gnaw away at my mind like a termite on pine.
And the first question I really want an answer to is….
Who will be the Roosters fullback in 2014?
At the start of 2013 it seemed only a matter of time before Roger Tuivasa-Sheck became the fullback for the Roosters — within the season. He was killing them from the wing while at the same time being somewhat wasted out there; a superstar shackled as close to the sideline as possible.
He has the rarest blend of pace off the mark, the game’s best step and an ability to make something from nothing; an x-factor that it seemed most premiers needed.
Meanwhile, Anthony Minichiello started a little slow out of the blocks. He rarely broke the line, rarely set up tries the way many fullbacks in the great sides do and really struggled with grubbers in goal, so much so that teams began to use the tactic of rolling one in, with the chance that Mini might completely miss it on the cards.
He even acknowledged publicly that The Sheck was bound for the fullback role, and all but conceded that he may have to shift to the wing in 2014 to accommodate the freakish talent and make the most of it.
Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald towards the end of June and with a new contract still up in the air, Mini said:
“There’s no doubt [Tuivasa-Sheck] is a fullback and if I do stay on next year I’d definitely do what’s best for the team in that department. He’s ready, he’s a class player, he’s the future of the club … a future superstar.”
Then he got injured, and The Sheck got his chance and… well… he didn’t blow us all away like we thought he would. He had the occasional error in him mixed with flashes of brilliance, and clearly struggled with positional play after kicks.
People began to realise what Mini brings to the table — positional exceptionalism, defensive reads and calls, superb captaincy and an ability to play within his means — rather than focus on what he purportedly takes off it: namely, a lack of speed, agility and line breaking ability.
Mini returned the next game and was beaten big-time by Anthony Don (yes, Anthony fuckin’ Don) down the right flank before chasing down Nathan Merritt in the tackle of the year a week later.
The Roosters didn’t lose again in 2013.
But 2014 means he’ll be a step slower, while RTS has to be a step closer to the number one jersey. There was plenty of discussion in league circles on Mini acquiescing the fullback role this year in favour of letting RTS blossom into the position he is bound to play for the rest of his career, with Mini to play out his career where it started: on the wing.
Will that be the case though?
For one, it’s hard to captain from the wing. Just ask Luke Covell (OK, bad example: I’m faster than Luke Covell — and every time he went in to dispute a decision he was so slow they’d already packed the scrum or kicked for touch).
Secondly, he trains his arse off, is a club and coach favourite and the last time he played fullback for the Roosters they won a Grand Final. He’s also been in six of the damn things.
While it’s hard to compare wingers and fullbacks as their parts of the field have different advantages and disadvantages, lets have a stab at it anyway with a statistical comparison of the two from the first 26 Rounds of the 2013 premiership.
Nicknames: RTS, Dodge, The Sheck, Sheck Mate, Shimmy Shimmy Sheck, The Nightcrawler, The Matrix.
2013 total stats: 22 games, eight tries, two try assists, 18 line breaks, 64 tackles, 11 one-on-one tackles, 14 missed tackles, 89 tackle busts, seven offloads, 22 errors, 2,985 metres gained, 331 runs.
2013 averages per game: 0.36 tries, 0.09 try assists, 0.82 line breaks, 2.91 tackles, 0.5 one-on-one tackles, 0.64 missed tackles, 4.05 tackle busts, 0.32 offloads, 1.0 errors, 135.68 metres gained, 15.04 runs, 9.02 metres per run.
Nicknames: Mini, The Count, The Italian Jesus, The Mountain Cat.
2013 total stats: 21 games, six tries, one try assist, four line breaks, one line break assist, 77 tackles, four one-on-one tackles, 17 missed tackles, 53 tackle busts, 11 offloads, 17 errors, 2,383 metres gained, 278 runs.
2013 averages per game: 0.29 tries, 0.04 try assists, 0.19 line breaks, 3.67 tackles, 0.19 one-on-one tackles, 0.81 missed tackles, 2.52 tackle busts, 0.52 offloads, 0.82 errors, 113.48 metres gained, 13.24 runs, 8.57 metres per run.
The Sheck had it all over Mini statistically last season, but a few things really stand out that could make The Sheck’s case for fullback a concrete one: incredible tackle-busting and line breaking ability, and an incredible work-rate from 22 games, of which 19 were on the wing.
He made an extra two runs a game on average over Mini, who in theory should return the ball more and get more involved through the middle of the field.
He made an average of 1.53 more tackle busts than Mini and broke the line 0.63 more times a game. He made 20 more metres a game and half a metre more every run.
Heck, he even has more sick nicknames than Mini and he’s only 20.
These are the stats that matter for the fullback role. The Roosters bucked the trend last year, but typically to win a premiership in the modern game you need a tackle-busting or line-breaking fullback who can chew metres, worm out of tackles and can make a break, or you need a ball playing fullback like Manly has with Brett Stewart.
Based on those figures, the Roosters have the former in Tuivasa-Sheck and neither with Minichiello. But lets compare RTS’ stats to what he did in his three full games at the back; admittedly a small sample size, but that’s all we have to work with.
They battled to a win over the Raiders in his first full game there and he ran it just 13 times for 81 metres — but did take Blake Ferguson over the sidelines with a beautiful tackle. They then destroyed the hapless Tigers with RTS running it 17 times for 182 metres with seven tackle busts and an exhilarating mid-field break from a kick, before they got slaughtered by the Sharks in the first half with RTS left limp and ineffective before he exploded in the second half to finish with 14 runs for 149 metres with seven tackle busts. Oh, and this:
And although the Sheck’s talents seem wasted on the wing, he actually gets involved more with dummy-half runs and the space out wide. He had some absolutely monster games on the flank — a 20 run, 170 metre, six tackle-bust masterpiece against the Bulldogs, an 18 run, 139 metre, three offload and five tackle bust effort in the loss to the Titans in Mini’s return, a hat-trick and eight tackle busts against the Eels in a 50-0 whitewash and a 19 run, 144 metre effort in the Grand Final qualifier, a week in which he’d come under enormous pressure thanks to a doping scandal that the NRL already knew about and weren’t investigating.
Compare these efforts to the 13 runs he made against the Raiders, 17 against the Tigers (which shouldn’t count because they’re the friggin’ Tigers) and 14 against the Sharks. Did he do enough in those three games — mixing those performances with the sheer talent the kid has — to dislodge the premiership-winning club legend?
Personally, I think he did. His second half against the Sharks, when the Roosters were down 26-0 at half time, was mesmerising and just a taste of what he can do. I remember thinking at the time: “he’s learning, he’s getting it. He is beginning to understand what he needs to do back there.” He and SBW worked together to help claw the Roosters back to within striking range, when they had no right to do so. He also had a try disallowed through horrible refereeing, you may recall.
With the right grooming and training, the ability he showed to pop up out of nowhere and take advantage of broken field play will become more regular and far more deadly — especially once the combinations start clicking, and especially a combination with Sonny Bill Williams.
And while I love Mini — who will go down as one of my all-time favourite Roosters — the mere thought of what RTS could do at the back makes me go full Burgundy.
The Roosters will have 26 rounds to get him up to speed in the role should they indeed embrace the future while trying to go back-to-back, and make no mistake: this kid is the fullback to lead this club into the next decade even with Jackson Hastings and Nene MacDonald in the Holden Cup. He has it all, possessing a unique mix of ball-handling, awareness, speed and the game’s most intoxicating step.
The positional awareness is something that can be learned through trial and error, and RTS seems to be a pretty quick learner — remember, he only started playing league two years ago. The Roosters could throw him in the deep end and force him to swim and — given how easily the new game has come to him — by round 10 he could be doing the butterfly.
However, the Roosters finished first in attack, defence and the standings in 2013. Is it worth messing with the present to prepare for the future, especially when the present is the best in the NRL? And is it worth weakening a strength, with the Roosters at present possessing the best young winger combination in the NRL alongside Daniel Tupou?
What may also hold him back is the broken leg he suffered in the World Cup Final, which should keep him out until the World Club Challenge on February 22. This will give Mini the full offseason to train in the role while robbing RTS of his chance to learn it with the pressure off.
It will be interesting to see whether they go down Sheck Street this year or stick with Mini it what may be his swansong. After all, Mini will be a step slower and a year older, but a year wiser. And Trent Robinson has a conundrum on his hands by choosing between stalling the fullback career of the NRL’s next great one or letting him loose and allowing him to grow into the role — even if the results may be erratic to start with.
If this were a down year, you’d say RTS is the fullback, no question. The Roosters could afford to let him learn on the fly with nothing really at stake.
But with a back-to-back push on the line and just one season left with SBW, Trent Robinson has a choice to make: whether to begin preparing for the future and hoping the future is sooner than it appears, or playing the safe card and putting the x-factor potential of The Nightcrawler at the back on hold.
He’s only 20 years old. This will be his third year in rugby league, and he’s the reigning winger of the year. After winning a premiership and with a repeat on the cards, it’s more palatable than it seemed mid-2013 for the future to wait.
Patience is a virtue afforded to winners, after all.