The Roosters started slow in 2013, winning just three of their first five games, but lost just four games the rest of the way. Read that sentence again.
They won the minor premiership in the final game of the regular season in front of 60,000-plus people, some of whom called Roosters fans scum and implied we were forever in their shadow — despite the fact the only shadow cast was from the fucking banner it was on.
They set an NRL record by holding six teams to nil, culminatin in a 4-0 epic in the first game of the finals versus Manly in what will go down as one of the all-time great non-Grand Final games. They destroyed the Knights and Roosters nemesis Wayne Bennett, before winning their 13th premiership in one of the more exhilarating Grand Finals ever witnessed. They then destroyed the Wigan Warriors in the World Club Challenge despite a rusty performance, to claim the Australian version of the Triple Crown.
So… what’s next? What gets a team motivated to do it all again, especially after a dream season that followed a nightmare one?
One of the hardest things to do is get it up again after you’ve climaxed (ladies excluded), and the last team to do it was the Brisbane Broncos in 1992-1993. It is even harder to do when the win is so unexpected, so shocking and apparently from nowhere.
“We can relax. We over-achieved (seemingly). Surely people can’t expect anything more?”
Actually, yes, we can. And no club is better positioned in the NRL era to go back-to-back.
The projected top 17 — and a question of depth.
PROJECTED BEST 17: Anthony Minichiello; Daniel Tupou, Michael Jennings, Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck; James Maloney, Mitchell Pearce; Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Jake Friend, Sam Moa; Boyd Cordner, Sonny Bill Williams, Frank Paul Nu’uasala. Bench: Daniel Mortimer, Mitchell Aubusson, Aidan Guerra, Remi Casty.
The Roosters have lost just one player from their Grand Final squad — Luke O’Donnell — and replaced him with a younger, Frenchier version in Remi Casty.
And while they may have lost what appeared to be a fair bit of depth (notably Marty Kennedy, Michael Oldfield and Tinirau Arona, all of whom played first grade last year) arguably they have better, younger players in Kane Evans, Dylan Napa, Jonathon Reuben, Samisoni Langi, Nene McDonald, Kurt Kara and Rhyse Martin chomping at the bit.
And to be honest: they’ll need depth this year, especially compared to 2013.
The Roosters used just 25 players last year, which is unheard of. They had a favourable bye schedule, only missing their stars for one game to Origin duties. They suffered some injuries towards the end of the year from round 16 onwards, which had Roosters fans reaching for a paper bag to hyperventilate in — Cordner, Kennedy, Mini, SBW, Maloney Aubo and prospective first-grader Evans all went down, severely testing the depth chart. But thankfully by October 6 all was right health-wise.
That will NOT be the case this year. We have already lost Isaac Liu for 8-12 weeks thanks to knee surgery, while RTS is still recovering from a broken leg (although he returned for the Jets last week and is likely to be named this week).
They had a relatively dream run with SBW last year who, as you know, came into the season after tearing a pectoral muscle versus the might of Japanese rugby players, and had been injury-prone prior to his NRL return.
Maloney, meanwhile, came to the Roosters after a knee injury and is built like a wet cigarette, while Cordner has seen more surgeon scalpels than Debbie’s seen dicks in Dallas.
And the bye schedule? It’s fucked.
The Roosters play every single weekend in which Origin players are forced to stand down. And while we have a shit-ton of Kiwis to fill the breach, we are still going to lose some key cogs.
Cordner and Jennings are morals to don the Blue this year, and it’s pretty likely following their GF success that Maloney and Pearce will play again — especially after Adam Reynolds faded horribly in the penultimate game versus Manly last year. Meanwhile, don’t be surprised if Daniel Tupou gets a call-up for higher honours: He’s a New South Welshman, highly regarded, and doesn’t have much opposition for wing spots in the Blues squad, especially after he destroyed once-a-Blue David Williams in the decider.
Jake Friend is next in line for the hooking spot for Queensland, and is it out of the realm to see Napa in a Maroons jersey?
If so, that’s between two and seven players that will miss three games for the Chooks during a critical stretch in which they play the Knights, Sea Eagles, Sharks and a seemingly-rejuvenated Panthers.
In short: the Roosters will use a lot more players than they did last year, and with that comes the disruption to combinations that worked so well with time over the course of the season.
In the Roosters’ favour is that none of the top squads really improved in terms of talent depth over the off-season. Like literally, none of them. In fact, if anything, most took a step back .
Souths were expected to start Luke Keary, at five-eighth, meaning the surprisingly effective scrum-base duo of John Sutton and Reynolds was no more. But it looks like Keary is out for a while, and instead of reverting to the duo that had the Bunnies at the top of the table for the majority of last season (and Sutton in the Origin squad), it looks like they’ll instead shift Dylan Walker from the centres to five eighth.
They also lack that class and consistency in the backs, with only Beau Champion really standing out (unless you’re pro-Lote Tuqiri and Joel Reddy) and with Nathan Merritt another year older. They’ll play Issac Luke the full 80 again, a mistake because he could fade, and they depend far too much on Greg Inglis, a fullback that struggles when not fully fit. They have the same bye schedule as the Roosters as well.
Manly may be better if only because their halves are a year older and wiser. But they lost some real depth this year in Brent Kite and Richie Fa’aoso, while D-Will looks like he’s gone for a while with a knee injury. They’ll hope their improvement comes from within through the likes of James Hasson and Peta Hiku.
The Storm? Yeah, they’re getting on, man. And while you can never doubt a team with Bellamy at the helm because the structure they play is so conducive to winning rugby league games, the injuries will mount.
We’ve already seen Billy Slater struggle with knee injuries in the past year, while Origin will again take the Big Three away and tire them as it did last year.
While it can be argued they will be fresher this year because unlike in previous seasons the Storm didn’t have to contend with an elongated play-off run , countering that frame of thinking is the Rugby League World Cup campaign when all three of the Big Three played a vital role in Australia’s victory.
The Knights have lost Jarrod Mullen for the first four months(ish) with a hamstring injury, and they are a fuckload older thanks to the Dad’s Army policy instilled in Tinklertown. They’ve also lost their best enforcer in Neville Costigan.
The biggest threat is the Cowboys — and that threat at this stage is speculative. They have a new coach who will instill the same hardness in defence as the Roosters because he came from the stable at Bondi: Paul Green.
He’ll know the Roosters’ strengths and weaknesses, and he has the cattle to do it: Tariq Sims is a BEAST and set to break out this year, as will Jason Taumalolo.
They also have Thurston, who needs a premiership to cement a legacy beyond Origin and Dally Ms.
But again, that’s just an educated guess: the Cowboys have promised so much since Thurston arrived and delivered far, far less.
How they Roosters will play
This is a nearly identical team to last year, and there will be the temptation to play it the same as they did last season; a left-side dominant attack with flashes of brilliance on the right.
The have the double decoy play on the left, in which Mitchell Pearce can either hit one of the two forwards approaching the line (usually Cordner or JWH), or dump it back to Maloney who can either thread it to Jenko or throw the cutout to Toops out wide as these gifs show:
Going right they use a similar play but it’s a little less effective, usually involving Mini as the deep angle runner behind the play — but invariably the right-side attack comes down to what SBW and RTS (with the occasional cameo from SKD) can conjure up.
There has always been a lot of talk about the Roosters’ lack of a short kicking game: they were last in the NRL in repeat sets last season and the year before that, and if they DO manage a repeat set it’s not usually from a grubber. They tend to go for the high-kick just short of the line and hope to either push the winger back in goal or camp them down in the corner — before invariably letting them off the hook with a cheap penalty.
The two most important tries of their NRL season came from grubber kicks in goal: the RTS try in the corner during their 4-0 win over Manly in the first round of the finals, and Jenko’s incredible effort in the Grand Final. Both were planted down within centimetres of the line, but the fact both players never gave up on the kick shows the Roosters do practice the play and that their outside men are always ready for it.
Once is luck, twice is talent. You can’t consider them “lucky” — well, unless you’re a curmudgeon like Bob McCarthy.
Nor can you consider Maloney’s kick to Daniel Tupou for the Roosters’ first try in the GF lucky, and here’s why.
Many Roosters fans wondered why the halves rarely kicked high to Toops considering his natural advantage over every winger — fan Johnny Tobin (@JohnnyTobin) once told me on Twitter he’d had money on Toops leading the NRL in tries because the kick to the wings was a tactic the Chooks had deployed almost exclusively in years prior.
It’s because they were working on perfecting it. The Roosters employed former Sydney Swan Amon Buchanan to work on their “marks” and he’d begun reinventing how Tupou and RTS approached high kicks — rather than get to the spot and jump, they’d begun learning to wait and time their runs when the kicks were coming down. Sounds simple, but both wingers hadn’t really been taught the approach before.
In fact, it was only in the Finals that it all clicked for Tupou, culminating in this effort over a useless David Williams in the Grand Final:
With that in mind, the Roosters will deploy the kick to either wing a lot more than last year. I fully expect Daniel Tupou to now lead the NRL in tries thanks to the natural improvement he will show in broken field running and strength, combined with this new expertise and with a full off-season of training alongside Jenko for the first time.
They also showed a few new wrinkles during the World Club Challenge that may be effective this season. For one, the double-decoy play that works so well on the right was deployed twice during the WCC — but near the posts and using both front-rowers. Case in point:
We also saw SBW in a roaming second five-eighth role on either side of the ruck, and in pre-game warm-ups he was practising the cut-out to the right wing, throwing it at speed at the fences. Frank-Paul Nu’uasala ran the ball more than he usually does, and we may see more of this in 2014: SBW acting as a distributor more than a runner, picking his spots and saving himself for when he’s needed towards the end of the game.
Their defence, based on the WCC alone, still looks fantastic, but the left side remains a weakness, relatively speaking. Wigan did score two of their tries on the right but one was a mix-up, while their left-side try was a case of throwing it through the hands.
But what looked good was their defence on the line, especially in the middle.
‘Tis the (critical) season for…
…two players in the Roosters’ squad. But most of all, for Shaun Kenny-Dowall.
He’s been rumoured to have been shopped to the Sharks and on the outer all of 2013, but his defence improved as the season went on and he became a legend at the club after playing 65-odd minutes with a broken jaw in the Grand Final, in which he scored.
But he’s off-contract and his attack needs to get back to where it was if he’s a lock to secure a new contract with the Chooks beyond this season. He was also error-prone last year, accounting for 32 errors including one noticeable bombed try in a late-season loss to the Warriors. He just needs to improve that aspect of his game because his once-maligned defence came on in leaps and bounds in 2013.
The Roosters have a host of youngsters waiting with bated breath to get a shot at his spot — Reuben, MacDonald and the injured Tatau Moga — and the dropoff from his 2010 “Dally M Centre of the Year” season, in attack at least, has been noticeable.
It’s also the year that reported phenomenon, Kane Evans, needs to make his mark. Roosters fans have been calling for his debut for two years, yet at the age of 23 he still hasn’t played a single first grade game. There is clearly no doubting his potential — I have never, EVER seen a man that size move with such grace and agility combined with power and speed on a rugby league field — but surely by now he would have played at least ONE game of first grade.
If we are going on the WCC, he is seemingly stuck behind Casty and Napa for the bench spot. And while he will likely make his debut, at the latest, during the Origin period, is that enough to keep him at the club? And at this stage, should the Roosters sacrifice wins to placate a glimpse at a possible future that hasn’t yet eventuated?
The future of both players at the club depends on their performances this year. Both are off contract and likely in demand from other clubs, especially the latter.
Sonny Bill: the farewell
This is it, guys. Unless the big fella returns following the Rugby World Cup and the Olympics, we have between 24 and 28 games left to watch the superstar grace the Allianz turf.
He’s already delivered a premiership when we least expected it, and he’s now won as many as Andrew Johns and Brad Fittler and two more than Wally Lewis. One can only imagine what his legacy would have been had he stayed in the NRL rather than globe-trotting for the five years prior to 2013.
For all those who still doubt how special this athlete is, just remember: we don’t win the premiership without him. He led us to the minor premiership with a line break and a dominant performance against the Bunnies; and more importantly, when we were down 18-8 he threw the offload to James Maloney (an offload only he can pull off in a pressure situation) for a line break and eventual try, and broke the line himself to set up the plays down-field for the eventual match-sealer from Jenko.
He’s not going to win the Dally M, but that won’t be his fault: the judges simply don’t like him or his agent. Regardless, he has a season left to leave a legacy that not even Andrew Johns or Brad Fittler could manage by leading and starring in a third premiership.
He’s someone we’ll never forget watching at the Roosters, but if he wins another premiership for us, he’d go down as one of the great all-time Chooks — even with just two years under the belt.
Premiers, but it won’t be easy. They will get screwed by the schedule and a tougher draw (they play the Storm, Sea Eagles and Bunnies twice this year) and they firmly have the target on their back — although that is kind of an overrated storyline because they already had that target thanks to SBW.
They won’t lose just six premiership matches this year; something like eight seems about right — which given the state of the opposition will be enough for a top four finish.
We could play it safe and think someone is bound to step up out of the field (the Warriors and Cowboys worry me the most out of anyone outside the typical top four). We can argue that no team has done it in 20 years, so why should this year be any different?
But compared to the other contenders the Roosters simply have too much class across the board, and lost only one player from the GF squad. The Storm, Sea Eagles and Bunnies look slightly weaker than last year, while it can be argued the Roosters are stronger.
I won’t be the only person to proclaim this, but from a view 30 rounds in advance the Roosters shape as the overwhelming favourites to claim their second premiership in succession.