Penrith Panthers 20 (Watene-Zelezniak, Martin, Blake tries; Soward 4 goals) bt Sydney Roosters 16 (Mitchell 2, Ferguson tries; Hastings 2 goals) at Allianz Stadium.
The hardest part of losing another tight game — that’s four close losses by this writer’s count — is that, had the Roosters won, there’s a good chance that they carry that into the Anzac Day clash and the possibility of a three-match winning streak and a record of 3-5 after eight games, with their halfback still to return.
Instead, they head into that game at the bottom of the table at a reasonably unfair 1-6. This club, as they showed in the second half, is more committed than that. They’re better than that. This game showed what is possible once they get key players returning, which is a mere week away with their dominant half returning a week later.
Yes, their attack needs some work. They scored a try that was as spectacular as it was lucky — but no-one was fooled into thinking that was a set play. Their other two tries came from barging runs rather than anything resulting from real attacking structure.
In reality, the Panthers should have beaten the young Chooks comfortably in this one, but it was lost in the first half… and jeeeeeeezus, that first half was a bludger.
In the wet, the Roosters had no respect for the ball coming out of their own end, dropping it repeatedly as if it were a wet bar of soap. Unfortunately, on the footy pitch as it is in jail, if you drop the proverbial wet bar of soap you’ll get punished. Hard.
To wit, the Roosters completed just 14 of 21 sets in that first half and were forced into 34 extra tackles, but it was where they dropped the ball that sucked. It wasn’t from bombs, or from enterprising play; it was from loose carries and unfortunately that’s become standard.
Daniel Tupou looked like an error waiting to happen, and he was, with two easy drops in the first 40 from simple soft carries — and in that kind of weather that’s suicide. You can’t hold the ball the way he does in the wet, and in Monday night’s conditions, those white Steedens become as slippery as Christopher Skase. He came up with four errors in total, with the two critical ones in the first half.
Latrell not playing the ball properly is another — and while that play in question was a 50/50 penalty (don’t worry, i think the Roosters should have gotten it for hands on the back), in inclement weather safety is first. Don’t tempt fate.
It’s the third time this year Latrell has been punished not playing the ball properly, and it’s cost the Roosters big time. Yes, he’s young, and we saw him almost try the quick play the ball a few times in the second half but he held back and played it safe — so maybe he’s learning through trial and error.
Then they start the second half with another error and a breakaway try in which Waqa Blake resembled Reece Robinson in EA Sports Rugby when you could use the joystick and pull off figure eights without being tackled. And that was effectively game over; a 10 point lead on a sloppy track is typically enough against a team that struggles to score with structure.
The defence was superb in the second half otherwise, but old mate Jamie Soward effectively won the Panthers the game by forcing three repeat sets near the end and through superior kicking (both at goal and in-field) in a game that was three tries apiece.
The Roosters are getting there. They’re committed and they bust their arse. But hands are letting them down, and an inability to find the line naturally through set plays has been their undoing this season, and ultimately that’s what cost them in this one.
Man of the Match.
It’s a tight one between three forwards… and all have a valid argument to each walk away with the $20 Sydney Fried Chicken Man of the Match Voucher this week, but only one can take home the imaginary goods.
So was it Dylan Napa, again? Sure, he wasn’t as dominant as last week. How could he be? That performance last week belongs in the Pantheon of forward performances, after all. But what he did this week taken in a vacuum separate from last week, was phenomenal, with 16 hit-ups, 162 metres and 41 tackles per NRL.com. His running game, which has always looked a little awkward albeit bruising, is catching up to the grunt his defence is made of, and he’s chewing ground like a buffalo.
Opponents fear him now, and when Jared Waerea-Hargreaves returns — likely this week — will there be a more aggressive, more feared front row than the one at Bondi, once JWH gets back to full strength?
Or was it his back-up, Kane Evans, who was fantastic during that middle third of the match? He looked the forward most likely to break the game open with a quick play-the-ball or sneaky offload, or what’s becoming his trademark: that late pass at the line. In 36 minutes he had 13 runs for 136 metres with four offloads and a line break assist. It was a game which underlined how dominant he can be when he’s on.
Or was it Aidan Guerra, whose second half was nothing short of incredible and led to an amazing total of 22 hitups for 217 metres, with 37 tackles and a line break, and he even forced a repeat set with a deft little grubber in an attacking movement?
It had to be the latter.
Aidan set the platform in the second half in which the Roosters lifted their completion rate and made easy metres down the middle, with Guerra finding himself with the ball on almost every set and making an impact each time. His defence on occasion was shirt-grabby and he’s still prone to a drop, but credit where it’s due: Guerra was dominant in that second half and gave the Roosters a chance that through errors and silly play they had no right to have.
All three in their own way were deserving… if only we had three SFC vouchers to hand out at 26 Rounds. Alas.
The lack of attack. Does Pearce fix it?
The Roosters really struggled to put anything resembling an attacking passing game together, and a lot of it comes down to them perhaps being too used to how Mitchell Pearce plays.
They play flat, and Pearce is a fantastic exponent of getting to the line and throwing the ball just at the point of contact. Hastings is not that kind of player, and when it looks as though an attacking overlap is on he’s giving it up too early or defaulting to the kick.
And Jayden Nikorima, for all his talent and the bright promise of his future, is getting the ball too flat-footed on every occasion. Connor Watson, albeit in his very, very brief stint, looked more comfortable in the attacking line in one play than Niko has so far this year — and that’s not a slight on Niko. He’s young, fresh out of high school, at a new club in a new city playing far earlier than anyone envisioned thanks to Pearce’s suspension.
And it’s clear that Jake Friend doesn’t yet trust them fully on last tackle plays. It may not be a conscious distrust, but it certainly seems real: too many times in this game he overplayed his hand on the 5th and took it upon himself to kick or pass — including once when he had to break free for a clearing kick despite having Jacko in his outside, and another when he attempted a crash ball to Guerra but instead was intercepted by Te Maire Martin.
When Pearce does come back, it’s likely that Niko falls out of the squad, and that’s probably the best thing for his development at this stage. Pearce, in theory at least, fixes the passing issue because that and his running game are his strengths. It’ll free Jacko to stick to doing the short kicking, which is his strength. In theory, that’s a balanced halves combo.
So it’s all going to be OK.
So what the hell is next?
It’s the Dragons, on Anzac Day. It’s always the best game of the year in terms of atmosphere, pomp and the sense of occasion, and for both clubs it’s become a must win.
The Dragons have looked horrible in attack every time Benji Marshall has pulled on a jersey, and they haven’t won with him this year. Though the Roosters have only won the solitary game more than Benji this year, so that’s nothing we can really brag about — but here’s hoping he plays on Monday next week.
The Roosters are better than their last place suggests, and every game has shown some form of improvement in at least one aspect of their game. This one? They showed grit in that second half and forced their way back. They never once dropped their heads and gave themselves at least a chance through improved effort in defence and committed running.
Put Boyd Cordner, JWH and MP7 back in the squad and this team will begin climbing up the ladder. The Roosters could have been 5-2 had a few things panned out. They didn’t, but they could have.
Those records — the real and the hypothetical — highlight the difference between an experienced team and one relying on players with extreme inexperience. And the good news is that within two weeks, this team gets its experience back.
(Acrrued from NRLstats.com; click to enlarge)