Well, that wasn’t the plan.
A second straight grand final looked promising, especially after Mitch Pearce stepped one of the top five players in the comp and in the process validated what we have all witnessed in the past five weeks: a player hitting his prime early, and becoming the star we always hoped he could be.
Then we dropped the ball, gave away penalties and leaked some wing tries to let them back in before Sam Moa was pulled down just short of the line in a play that probably epitomised the game and the season: one club was simply more desperate, more motivated when it mattered, and the other was just a fraction off.
So the Roosters didn’t win the premiership, let alone make the Grand Final. You can mark it down as a disappointing season if you want, and I wouldn’t blame you one bit. After all, we lost just one player from our premiership squad and replaced him with a younger French international. We should have been better all season, and regardless of finishing with the minor premiership or not, this team was erratic almost from the start.
A round one loss to the Bunnies is nothing new, a 50 point win over the Eels is standard and a close win over the Broncos is about right. But after those first three weeks this team never hit that form they essentially held all of last year when they led the premiership in attack and defence, held six teams to nil (including the runners up in a finals game) and generally crunched the opposition.
And outside of a five match winning run to finish the regular season, this team never hit those heights of yesteryear.
Can’t be as hungry when you’re full — full of trophies.
There’s one big difference in this year’s and last year’s teams: motivation. Last year’s team hit an unstoppable patch of form because almost everybody had a little something to prove.
Sonny Bill Williams needed to prove he could still dominate the game he grew up playing, while silencing those who doubted him and changing the perception of others following his exit from the Dogs.
Michael Jennings had to prove he was worth the money he was on after his former club let him go claiming he wasn’t. James Maloney had to prove his 2011 Grand Final appearance with the Warriors and spectacular play that year wasn’t a fluke after a dodgy 2012 resulted in him finishing almost out of first grade. Luke O’Donnell had to prove he wasn’t cooked as a player as this writer — and others — suspected.
Moa? This writer asked the question: “who is Sam Moa” when he signed. He not only had to prove he could play after flaming out following just one game for the Sharks, he also had to show fans he was worth the roster spot. Mini had to prove he could captain the club and that he wasn’t just there on ceremony, especially with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck in line for his spot.
SKD had to silence the haters (this one included) who thought he couldn’t read a graphic novel let alone a defence. JWH had to start delivering as a player. The list goes on and on, down through the entire squad.
That “perfect storm” (fuck that movie, except for the easily referable analogy) of motivation — and, let’s face it, one incredible squad — helped this team reach the heights in one of the more remarkable turnarounds in rugby league, rising from 12th to first in the span of 12 months.
This year, it seemed the slog — combined with the target on their backs and an fractured offseason — got to them.
It was as if the club was a beautifully crafted watch that would eventually regress to telling the time late, because the cogs just didn’t seem to work together as planned.
Almost everyone had a down year. JWH was nowhere near his best, mixing a low workrate with a return to the silly penalties of two years prior — culminating in a silly clash with Ben Te’o on Friday, one that could and should have been avoided.
Aidan Guerra wasn’t as big for us as he was for Origin. Sam Moa had dominant games mixed in with low-run counts, and it wasn’t until he started coming off the bench that we saw the 2013 model Moa click into gear. Mini was up and down, more down. Mitch Pearce and Maloney lost their Origin spots and didn’t really find their feet until the last two months of the year — and it can be argued that Jimmy only found it in spurts before losing it again.
Compared to last year, almost everyone took a small step back at some point — probably a step that can be measured in motivation, somehow. This club, by and large, was missing that hunger to get to the level of a year prior.
The good? Yes, there was a shitload of it.
However, there were some huge positives to come out of the year. For one, Shaun Kenny Dowall’s improvement across the board must be applauded. Fans overwhelmingly thought last year that he would be the weak link that could cost us a premiership. Instead, he played with a busted jaw, earned out respect in the process, and this year battled the constant Ferguson rumours, shifted to wing and back, and played the most direct he has ever played while becoming a decent defender — or certainly a much better defender than last year’s version of the backpacker. He won a man of the match from the wing and looked like he finally had returned to that form from 2010 when he won the Dally M Centre of the Year award.
Jake Friend overcame what is a now-typical slow start to rattle off a series of performances that will probably earn him the Roosters’ Player of the Year award. His grubber kicking added an element of unpredictability to his game, and he showed how intelligent a player he is with timely long kicks, brilliant offload support, and leading the second phase play better than perhaps anyone else in the NRL.
Oh, and he came back two weeks after losing 40 per cent of his blood and nearly dying to make 42 tackles in a one-point win over the Cowboys in the Finals. So there’s that.
And Mitchell Pearce? My God. His finish to the season reminded everyone why he was so highly touted coming into grade. His running game was outstanding, he found grass on most long kicks — even if the forward pack was struggling as it did against the Cowboys — and he was putting grubbers behind the line for repeat sets, something we hadn’t seen since 2009. Defensively he made strides as well, and his passing game remained as dangerous as ever.
So while it may seem shitty right now, the window hasn’t closed for the Roosters, not for a season at least. People look at Mini’s retirement and SBW’s return to rugby as the closing of a two-year window, but those departures aren’t the end of this club, far from it.
That draught you feel is the from the open premiership window.
For one, RTS moves straight into the fullback role. We know the kid can step, but he is already a better ball player than Mini ever was and should be more dangerous in attack. While he has a bit to learn about positional play and his hands could use some work, he’s the future there.
Blake Ferguson replaces Mini’s spot in the roster and brings (hopefully) his incredible skills, a work ethic to prove everyone wrong, and nothing else. He’ll move into SKD’s centre spot with SKD to return to the wing.
Sonny Bill was an X-factor-in-waiting, but let’s be honest: we waited a bit for that X-factor to show itself, and it can be argued it didn’t. This is not to say he had a poor season at all: he would still give you over 100 metres a game with excellent defence and on occasion he’d act as a second five-eighth on the right edge.
But he barely broke the line this year (just four compared to 12 last year), scored just three tries (eight last year), his offloads were down (2.28 a game this year compared to 2.57 last year), his errors were up and his productivity was down.
I will never forget the Sonny Bill era, but losing him is not the equivalent of, say, the Rabbitohs losing Surgii at the peak of his powers and replacing him with Glenn Stewart. The Roosters have Willis Meehan and a host of youngsters willing and ready to step into the breach — and they can already start a backrow from current first graders that is pretty damn good, with Guerra, Boyd Cordner and Mitch Aubusson/Frank-Paul Nu’uasala, and the versatile Isaac Liu off the bench.
So what does next year hold, really? Should we take as dramatic a step back as many are envisioning, do we tread water or do we improve?
I say the latter.
We blooded the future in Kane Evans and Jackson Hastings, the latter of whom contributed to the minor premiership victory in round 26 and set up a blind side play on the fifth tackle a week later in a loss to the Panthers. He should immediately fill that old Daniel Mortimer role off the bench and then some: he has a confidence that will lead to superstardom in the years to come, and he’s only 18.
We also blooded the aforementioned Meehan, also 18 and whose tackle-busting will have many thinking this is a Taumalolo 2.0. We bring Fergo in and cross our fingers like we have never crossed them before that he treats this as his last chance.
We shift RTS to fullback where he might just be capable of this on a more regular basis:
We get further improvement from Cordner, Daniel Tupou, Friendy and the like. We hope Mitch has gotten a taste of the stratosphere and wants to return there. We pray that Jenko maintains the status quo and that Moa and JWH return to the mean.
Does that all sound good to you? To me, the window is wide open and the Roosters have a great chance to surprise some people.
It all comes down to motivation, though: here’s hoping a loss to the Rabbitohs a game short of the Grand Final after leading 12 nil should provide it.
This is 26 Rounds, signing off. Again. Fuck, I’m John Farnham.
There’s a good chance this writer won’t be around to document much of it; even the past two weeks was tough trying to find the time. We’ll see. At the very least the site will remain open as it has for the past three months, and should the need arise I could put the fingers to keyboard and clack away.
In the meantime, enjoy the long weekend and an offseason following an incredible two-year stretch we will never forget. We’ve seen a premiership, just the second in 11 years for the club after four losses in the big one since the turn of the century.
Eventually, we’ll be able to sit back and reflect on this two years, tell our grandkids about the time Sonny and the BBQ swooped in and saved the day, and when Jenko did this to send us all bonkers:
Peace out, again. I’ll see y’all on Twitter and Facebook and around the traps.