FIRE DOUSED | After returning to finals action in 2015, the St George-Illawarra Dragons struggled un...
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I remember going to this game. Round One, 2003. Fireworks to kick off the new season, the pressure was on. The hunter was now the hunted, the Sydney Roosters were now defending their premiership. Anything could happen. Wouldn't you know it, crazy things happened that night. Parramatta Eels prop forward Nathan Cayless scored the first try of the new season, only for his brother, Sydney Roosters prop forward Jason Cayless to score the second. A strange, strange night.
It all became real that night, the Roosters were there to defend their premiership. To those with a goldfish memory, they came ever so close in the end, eventually falling 18-6 to the Penrith Panthers in a very wet Grand Final. I know it's been eleven years, but Todd Byrne...just...
As they did eleven years earlier, the Roosters will run out to their first game of the season against fellow premiership contenders and main arch rivals South Sydney Rabbitohs with a new tag hanging over their shoulders, putting on the weight of the world. They are the defending premiers. It has been more than twenty years since a team successfully defended their title. Headlines revolving around the sport include sentences such as "Roosters best chance in a long time for a team to defend premiership." I'm not here to write a headline, but the pressure-filled tag will stick with the Roosters throughout their new season.
After a number of seasons in the shadows following their rollercoaster Grand Final appearance four years earlier, the red white and blue are back in the spotlight. No doubt the hate has returned. Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles and Melbourne Storm have taken the grunt of the hate over the last few seasons thanks to a great deal of success...but...that was originally our hate. The nicknames have returned. The Latte Sippers.
The famous one, the Transit Lounge. The Roosters pre-season last year definitely didn't help that nickname. The club welcomed Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles winger Michael Oldfield, Hull FC journeyman Sam Moa and New Zealand Warriors five-eighth James Maloney. The side was building, especially with respected rookie coach Trent Robinson taking the reigns.
The pre-season is really where the shape of the side finally took place. First came the news that former Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldog superstar Sonny-Bill Williams could confirm his long awaited return to Rugby League with the club. The side managed a few surprise signings afterwards, gaining Penrith Panthers flying superstar Michael Jennings and Huddersfield Giants big man Luke O'Donnell. All of a sudden, a side that were peering towards a return to the top eight were now searching for so much more.
The side has most certainly settled in. Only Luke O'Donnell will not return from the squad that won the Grand Final. The retirement of the Legion of Doom cost the Roosters the chance to become the first team in thirty-one years to retain their entire Grand Final team. His position already has three worthy contenders. Isaac Liu, currently injured, proved his worth during a surprising debut season. Dylan Napa, the firey redhead has already been described as a future Queensland Origin star. Not many rookies have a successful hit list quite like his. New signing, French international R'emi Casty who joins the club from Trent Robinson's former Super League club Catalans Dragons will also be fighting to this position.
Casty has already experienced what Robinson can do as a coach. The newly crowned international coach of the year made a similar impact to the Catalans Dragons when compared to the Sydney Roosters. The bonding of players to form a unit turned them from cellar dwellers to genuine title contenders within one year. Fluent in the local language, Robinson made sure that international players were accustomed to the lifestyle. The unit was successful. Casty joins the Roosters as a prime example of what Robinson is capable of doing. Big words have been made about the new signing, his coach believes that he was the best player in the Super League. A decent showing in the World Club Challenge proves that it may have a spark of truth in it.
The Roosters style of play was simple. Defence wins games. You can trust the guy to the left of you, you can trust the guy to the right of you. The attitude in defence lead the Roosters to a new nickname, the Bondi Brick Wall. This brick wall saw no less than six teams remain scoreless throughout the season. The attitude around the club has turned around completely. It doesn't feel like it did in years past.
Who could believe it was just four years ago that the Roosters were Wooden Spooners. Coach Brad Fittler was a mate more than a mentor. Troubled results on the field, troubled results off it. The turnaround has been proven by the clubs number nine, Jake Friend. Friend was constantly in trouble off the field, to the point when his three strikes saw him sacked from the club. He returned to play in the successful 2010 campaign, but continued to be in constant bother for another year to come. Things have turned full circle. He has been constantly tagged as Cameron Smith's successor to the Queensland hooking position.
The pre-season of the Roosters showed positive signs. It all began at Morry Breen Oval in Wyong, in front of a small crowd. A free show to the audience, the Roosters surprised many by bringing plenty of starpower to take on a reserve grade strength Newcastle Knights outfit. Sonny-Bill Williams, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Anthony Minichiello wowed the crowd, amongst others. A 32-4 victory ensured that night, the first graders taking the field for the first half of the game.
The Auckland Nines would help the Roosters in little ways. Mitchell Pearce starred for the club with his passing game. Jake Friend and Aiden Guerra also had strong showings. But who cares? The second game against the Brisbane Broncos provided Roosters fans with two moments they may never forget. Club legend and aforementioned former coach Brad Fittler managed to steal a wayward pass from David Stagg to run for a seventy metre intercept try. Not long after he managed to chase down and take down former Dally M winner Ben Barba (sadly, a high tackle).
Then the big moment came. Just like they did in 1976 and 2003, the Roosters managed to win the World Club Challenge. Held in Australia for the first time in twenty-one years, the Roosters defeated a star studded Wigan Warriors 36-14 in front of a packed Allianz Stadium. Hooker Jake Friend starred, winning the Man of the Match. Centre Michael Jennings became the first player to score three tries in the history of the contest.
A major hit-up to begin the new season, this may spur the Roosters onwards as they continue to prepare for their opening match. For the twelfth time in thirteen years, the Roosters will begin their new campaign against arch rivals South Sydney Rabbitohs. The side lost this fixture 28-10 last season, the new foundation at the foundation club will ensure that this doesn't happen again.
On the most recent injury news, the Roosters will go into the season carrying a pair of injuries to the top squad. Boom backrower Isaac Liu is out indefinitely following a knee injury suffered during the Auckland Nines. Centre Tautau Moga, who had an injury plagued season in 2013 is also set to miss a chunk of the new season with injury. Internationals Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Shaun Kenny-Dowall are set for a Round One return. Tuivasa-Sheck fractured his right fibula in the early stages of the World Cup final after playing an impressive tournament. Kenny-Dowall famously played the majority of the Grand Final with a broken jaw, which has drawn famous comparisons to John Sattler.
Where They Can Win It
No different from the way they were able to win it last season. It's no secret for big games such as State of Origin that defence wins. Always. While Queensland have the attack to score a billion points (it seems) against the Blues, their attitude is what takes them that extra step. The attitude of the Roosters to win these defensively-based games constantly elevated them to a different level. When the wheels of the Bondi Brick Wall fell off, everything fell off. This was evident late in the season when the side lost badly to impressive performances by the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks and Gold Coast Titans.
Six times the Roosters kept their opposition to zero during the season - a new league record. It happened three times in four weeks against the Brisbane Broncos, the Parramatta Eels and the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, who - let's be fair - were underperforming at the time. Late in the season they managed the feat against the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks and St George Illawarra Dragons. Their biggest and most memorable shut-out occured in the first week of the finals. They managed to beat Manly-Warringah 4-0, keeping them scoreless for the first time since a 28-0 loss to the St George Illawarra Dragons in the same week of the finals in 2010.
Where They May Struggle
The Roosters lead the competition in many factors throughout last season. The biggest one of note was conceeded penalties. They barely won a penalty count in 2013, and by the looks of things, the trend is set to continue in the new year. Throughout the last five or six seasons, the Roosters have been the most penalised team by a fair margin. Despite losing penalty machines Luke O'Donnell to retirement and Martin Kennedy to the Brisbane Broncos, this factor will most likely stick with the Roosters during their defending season.
Another period of struggle may be the difficult State of Origin period. The Roosters will play three matches without the services of a few players. This could include Michael Jennings, Mitchell Pearce, James Maloney and Boyd Cordner. There are a number of others on the verge of selection as well after bolting seasons.
Last season the Roosters managed one of their most famous victories of the season against the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs. Without their starting halves and their most devastating backliner, the Roosters managed to pull a 20-18 victory out of the hat. Sonny-Bill Williams and Daniel Mortimer were able to step up into the roles as makeshift halves. This year however the Roosters could go through this period a bit better. Jackson Hastings could prove ready for the spot, as could Tongan international five-eighth Samisoni Langi.
We can all sit here and say that James Maloney and Mitchell Pearce, the current incumbent State of Origin halves pairing will be vital to any potential Sydney Roosters success in 2014. That is true. We can talk about that international strength backline. We can talk about all of those players with two surnames. We could talk about the Bondi Brick Wall.
But...putting on my Channel 9 jacket here...we can't.
However, we can talk about Sonny-Bill Williams.
One of the best athletes to play the game of Rugby League, Williams made his long awaited return to the code in 2013. The last we saw of him in the code was a shadowy figure walking away from the game (and country) to play French Rugby Union. The impact Williams made to the club was instant. The cliches have been surrounding him since his return. He's the first to start training and the last to leave. They all look up to him.
This will be most likely the last season that Sonny-Bill will play in Rugby League. He will be returning to Rugby Union in 2015 with the Chiefs and All Blacks. Even in his worst games of 2014, he still managed to have some sort of impact.The Grand Final being the most notable example of this. After an error-riddled first half, Williams came out and put on two big players which turned the match on it's head, favouring the Roosters.
The backrower/centre/five-eighth/probably everything will continue to have a major impact in 2014. Once again where he goes, the cameras will follow. As long as we don't have to listen to his thoughts, we'll be sweet bro.
Rookies To Watch
I'm pretty sure the last few years when I've written this particular article, I will always mention Kane Evans. May that prediction somehow come to fruition this year? Roosters fans - do you happen to remember a kid by the name of Ryan Williamson?
The Roosters have gone with a strategy, some may even go as far to call it new. What they've done is signed a young halfback who is the son of a representative legend. Not a bad idea, eh?
Jackson Hasting's performances in the inaugral Auckland Nines had Roosters fans preparing to be excited about the prospect of what could happen. A signing from the St George Illawarra Dragons Holden Cup squad where he spent the 2013 season excelling in an underperforming team, the fullback/halfback will be looking for time in the top grade when James Maloney and Mitchell Pearce potentially find themselves a bit too busy wearing sky blue jerseys.
The Roosters may have found another young signing that has the potential to take the Holden Cup by storm. Eighteen year old Curtis Naughton has travelled from the Bradford Bulls Academy to continue his promising career with the Roosters. There has been notable hype around young Naughton, who has already made a debut Super League appearance.
The Big Plays
The comments are starting to come thick and fast about the prospects of the Sydney Roosters in the new season. Every comment bases itself amongst the statistic that it has been twenty-one long years since a team successfully defended their premiership in a united competition. The Roosters may be in a wonderful position to accomplish this increasingly rare feat, but they have some incredible teams waiting in the wings to take them off the premiership perch.
What about the second year syndrome, that old classic witches tale. After an outstanding debut full season, various players such as Daniel Tupou, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Isaac Liu and Dylan Napa will have the weight of the world on their shoulders to continue their development. Coach Trent Robinson will share the same weight. After winning the presitigous Coach of the Year award at NRL and international level, it will be intriguing to see how he handles different situations throughout the new year?
Likely Team - Round 1 vs South Sydney
1. Anthony Minichiello (c) 2. Daniel Tupou 3. Michael Jennings 4. Shaun Kenny-Dowall 5. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck 6. James Maloney 7. Mitchell Pearce 8. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves 9. Jake Friend 10. Sam Moa 11. Boyd Cordner 12. Sonny-Bill Williams 13. Frank-Paul Nuuausala
Interchange: 14. Daniel Mortimer 15. Aidan Guerra 16. Mitchell Aubusson 17. Dylan Napa