So Brad Fittler is back, wearing the Red, White and Blue. Something just seems right about it.
No doubt the game has changed since he last played a game worth a damn, all the way back in the Grand Final loss of 2004. Players are quicker, but they can’t punch you anymore. The defensive line is stronger and swifter off the line, but can’t shoulder charge you into next year.
Nor can they pull a Villasanti and ram-raid your noggin with an oversized forehead.
But my only question on the whole matter is this: does Freddy walk straight into the captaincy?
It would seem a tad strange for him not to retain it, given he’s the greatest captain that the Roosters, NSW and arguably Australia have ever had. It would also be a heckuva sight seeing him confront Ashley Klein for the head-high tackle Jared Waerea-Hargreaves is no doubt going to be accused of, even though he won’t play.
This writer quotes Shawshank a lot, and for good reason. It’s the greatest movie ever made, and the quotes often pertain to the greatest club in the game’s existence. But this Shawshank quote is pertinent:
“If you’ve come this far, perhaps you’re willing to go a little further”.
If the Roosters have dusted off the footy boots of the greatest player to ever lace them up for the club, it’s not too much to ask for him to yell at Shayne Hayne.
But if not him, then who else takes it?
I’m glad you asked, because to determine that, we need to determine who will fill out the squad and thankfully, Freddy spilled five of the beans during a must-watch interview over at the Chooks site.
Any Roosters player who played in the Rugby League World Club Challenge has an exemption that the club can action, and Trent Robinson has already indicated the Roosters’ focus is on the following week when they take on the Wigan Warriors for the World Club Challenge.
Up for exemption are the following players: Sonny Bill Williams, JWH, Frank-Paul Nu’uasala, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (also injured), Samisoni Langi, Kane Evans, Michael Jennings, Boyd Cordner, Anthony Minichiello, Aidan Guerra, Remi Casty, Dylan Napa, Daniel Tupou and Sam Moa.
However… Freddy let it slip that both Napa and Guerra were set to make the trip, meaning players who represented the minnow nations look like they are eligible. But let’s get to the speculation later.
Here’s who we know is heading over to Auckland (cheers Brad!), including a bit on how their game will suit the exhibition tournament.
The Nines So Far…
Position: Five eighth/centre/lock.
Career Stats: 336 games, 122 tries, 14 goals, 10 field goals, 526 points.
Many people are worried that the legacy Freddy built at the Roosters — four Grand Final appearances, exceptional captaincy, highlights galore and a 2002 permiership — might be tarnished if he is shown up at the Nines. But I’m less worried having watched his interview over at Roosters HQ where he looked so relaxed there was a greater fear he might fart on camera.
For one, he’s been training and will continue to do so up until kickoff against the Eels in the first match. It’s also nine-minute halves; I’m sure he gets a more intense workout at boot camp or playing around with his young family. And finally, the skills needed in the Nines are far different to those needed in the NRL.
He will be rusty, no doubt. But you don’t instantly lose the ability and vision of a cutout, which when he played was the best in the competition.
It’s the one play I guarantee he’ll have practiced during the sessions.
He’ll have enough left of that famous step to be able to at least bamboozle a disinterested defender, and while the speed won’t be there to follow through for a massive break he’ll have the support from teammates to be able to pass off.
His biggest strength though was his power near the line. Will he be able to replicate that against fit, NRL-level competition? Time will tell, but I doubt Chris Sandow will be able to stop him.
I just want to see him score a try. A memory I will never forget is seeing him cross for the final try in his last Origin, and to see him score at the age of 42 would give this chap and every Roosters fan another memory to die with.
Career Stats: 156 games, 44 tries, 2 field goals, 179 points.
If there is a tournament Pearce could dominate, this is it — pending the naming of the outside backs of course.
Along with Jarrod Mullen — who this writer is looking forward to seeing in this tournament as well — Pearce possesses the best long passing game of any halfback in the NRL. He takes it to the line and can throw a face-ball three-man cutout and hit his open outside back on the chest. He can also play short and hit decoy runners as well as anyone in the league.
He’s a strong one-on-one defender and his long kicking game jumped up a notch after a disappointing Origin period.
He will be the lynchpin of this mob — and he’ll need to be if the Roosters have any chance of taking home the significant bounty on offer.
Position: Second row/centre.
Career Stats: 64 games, 20 tries, 80 points.
Guerra represented Italy, who did not make it past the pool rounds. Thankfully for the Chooks in this tournament he’s been allowed to play, because his form at the end of the season was as good as any second rower’s in the premiership — and that includes Sonny Bill.
Against the Knights in the Grand Final qualifier he made four breaks, 12 tackle busts and over two hundred metres. He also scored a double. In the GF he scored a try, and in the first game for Italy in the RLWC he scored another brace.
He runs like Gumby but scores like Stiffler’s mum thanks to that awkward gait of his. Defenders cannot grasp which way he is going to spin or turn, making him the most unpredictable ballrunner in the game.
He could carve this tournament up, and I predict he’ll be the top try-scorer among the forwards.
Position: Second row/Front row.
Career Stats: 7 games, 0 points.
Macklemore also played in the World Cup — three games for the Cook Islands — yet has also been allowed to play. He instantly becomes the greatest red-head ever to play in a rugby league Nines tournament.
What Napa brings to the Nines is infectious energy, brute strength and an ability to knock the living shit out of ball-runners.
But mostly, I’m looking forward to a massive one-on-one hit from this chap on some shitty out-of-his-depth forward, preferably another ranga so he can keep adding to his hit list of red-head scalps.
You know, like he did with James Graham.
“ARGH YOU FOOKIN TWAT” is as ingrained in this writer’s psyche as Michael Jennings’ Grand Final Try.
Can’t. Fucking. Wait.
Career Stats: 120 games, 15 tries, 60 points.
Is it shocking to anyone else that Friend is only 23? It feels like he’s been around at the club forever, but in reality that length of memory is just our witnessing this kid grow up before our eyes.
Sacked and then resigned, and much maligned earlier in his career — “too small”, “works hard but players still make metres running at him” and “not creative enough” are but three critiques that I’ve heard of Friendy over the years — he has since matured, gained confidence and played so well in 2013 he was being talked about as the eventual successor to Cam Smith for Queensland.
His strength in this tournament will be his creativity, deceptive speed — remember his breakaway try against the Knights in the GF qualifier? — and ironically his size. And not in the way you think.
In a defensive line of nine, he will still look like the player you’d want to run at, but his one-on-one tackling ability should mitigate breaks that come through him.
That size and deceptive ability to bring down players twice his height might be enough for teams to be tempted to run at him, rather than go around anyone else which is the obvious advantage of the Nines.
Friendy being there could be the Trojan horse the Roosters need to spring a few upsets.
Career Stats: 149 games, 84 tries, 3 goals, 342 points.
Regardless of the criticism he may have copped last year, or the year before, or the year before that, Skiddzy will go down in Roosters folklore as a hero, having played 65 minutes of the Grand Final with a broken jaw.
In that time he defended as well as anyone in those circumstances could, and scored the try ultimately (with a conversion) that gave the Roosters a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
And the Nines are built for SKD, especially if he concentrates on getting around his man rather than stepping through them.
We saw in his Grand Final try the pace he possesses, especially if the Roosters hit him on the fly. If the Roosters are able to play him wide with a bit of depth, he should make a killing with the extra space afforded to him, and also with the likes of MP7 and Freddy throwing passes on his chest.
This tournament offers SKD the chance to start round one with nothing to prove, and with a bit of confidence up his sleeve.
But after what he did for the club in the GF, I could give a baker’s shit what he does in this tournament. He’ll never be forgotten in these four walls.
Who else is there?
26 Rounds will do another preview once the full Nines squad is announced… but far be it for me to leave the article without at least speculating who might be included, right?
Backs up for selection:
Jonathon Reuben, Nene McDonald, Daniel Tupou, Sio Siua Taukeiaho.
Toops may be a stretch given his RLWC commitments, and Nene may be too young for the tournament.
But Reuben? Why the heck not?
Signed from the Raiders and set to graduate to NSW Cup with the Newtown Jets this year, Reuben possesses the speed and power to be a factor.
Also, if Roosters fans are tuning in to watch glimpses of the past in Freddy, they may also stick around for a taste of the future in Jonathon Reuben.
Meanwhile, it could be a good opportunity for the club to show off their new unheralded signing in Sio Siua Taukeiaho. Poached from the Warriors, he debuted in the last game of the year for the Aucklanders. He’s 100 kilos and could, in theory, bump off the opposition like a dodgem car.
In the Nines tournament, the team with the most speed has a major advantage, so the more wingers with try-scoring nous, the better.
Forwards up for selection:
Kane Evans, Mitchell Aubusson, Isaac Liu.
All three are a possibility. Although Evans played for Fiji in the RLWC, who made it all the way to the final four, it may be a good opportunity to blood the kid into a Tricolour jersey.
And he could destroy the opposition, possessing the strength, unnatural (for his size) speed and the height to offload at will.
Aubo should be a certainty with his utility value and repuation as one of the game’s best line-breaking forwards.
Liu will also come under heavy consideration, with his underrated late footwork at the line and a good hole-running line.
Utilities up for selection:
Daniel Mortimer, Samisoni Langi, Jackson Hastings.
You’re damn right I said Hastings.
Daniel Mortimer is the likely option here, with his ability to fill in at the halves or at hooker in a pinch. His support play could work wonders with Freddy who may need all the support play he can get, what with being 42 and all.
And the Roosters have the option of resting Langi, who played for Tonga and will graduate to NSW Cup this year.
But perhaps the Nines poses the interesting opportunity for Hastings, the 17-year-old son of Horrie, to nab the utility spot off the bench for the Roosters.
The competition is nowhere near the NRL and it would give him the slightest of tastes of the top grade — but not enough for him to stop trying for another.
He’s a big part of the future at the club. Snagged from the Dragons, pundits see him as a can’t miss superstar who can fill in anywhere in the backs or halves, and at hooker. He possesses all the necessary skills to excel at each one, and he can kick goals too.
And would there be anything better for Roosters fans to see a Hastings and a Fittler on the one field — even if they are separated by the age of the halfback they’ll play alongside?