The Sydney Roosters were renowned as the benchmark in 2004 in so many ways. They continued to set the standard in defence, with their fast moving defensive structure helping them concede the fewest points in the NRL. They were the benchmark off the field as well, setting the standard in astute recruitment of players and coaching staff. They also enhanced their reputation as a club opposition fans love to hate. Their record breaking Jersey Flegg side went through 2004 unbeaten and the Roosters also won the Premier League competition.

Yet there was one piece missing from the Roosters jigsaw, a first grade grand final victory. After being hot favourites in 2003 and losing to Penrith in the decider, the Roosters were not over confident going into the decider against a red hot Bulldogs outfit, but the club desperately wanted to avoid back to back grand final defeats. When Michael Crocker was ankle tapped by Andrew Ryan in the dying seconds of the game, the dream was over for another year and the Roosters again had to accept their runners up medals. The Roosters blew too many opportunities and it was clear that several players had off games, notably Chris Walker and Justin Hodges with their handling. They led 13-6 at halftime, but for the first time in 2004 they were run down after leading at the break.

Despite the disappointments, the Roosters were proud to have won their first Minor Premiership since 1981. Ricky Stuart?s outfit were able to keep their opposition scoreless on three occasions and displayed a greater ruthless streak than most in dismantling the weaker teams. On consecutive Friday nights we witnessed the Roosters destroy the Newcastle Knights 48-4 and the Wests Tigers 56-0.

The tough, mobile and skilful Rooster pack led by the likes of British enforcerAdrian Morely and work horse Craig Fitzgibbon laid the platform for the Brad Fittler and Brett Finch halves combination to weave their magic in the backline. Finch enjoyed his best season in the NRL and finished runner up to Danny Buderus in the Dally M Player of the Year award. Anthony Minichiello confirmed himself as the new Number 1 fullback in the NRL with Darren Lockyer?s switch to five eighth. Minichiello performed strongly for NSW and Australia. ?Mini? again led the way in ?tackle breaks? in 2004 with 118. Centre Ryan Cross enjoyed a better run with injuries and was equal top tryscorer with Minichiello with 18.

Champion five eighth and captain Brad Fittler did not receive the farewell he had hoped for, but he is still deserving of all the tributes that flow his way. ?Freddy? left Super League bound Penrith in 1995 pledging his allegiance to the ARL. The Phil Gould coached Roosters were the beneficiaries. The Roosters qualified for the finals every season during his stint at the club and have competed in four of the five grand finals, each with Fittler as captain. While the Roosters have won just one premiership in his time at the club they are far better off than they were before he arrived at Bondi Junction. The Roosters have a lot of talent in their ranks but replacing Fittler won?t be easy.

BEST PERFORMANCE: Hard to go past the Roosters crushing 35-0 win over the Bulldogs in Round 3. The Roosters were awesome with their fast moving defence and speed of the play the ball in attack. They simply blew the Bulldogs off the park. An honourable mention goes to their 44-12 win over 2003 premiers Penrith. The Roosters were coming off a bad loss to Cronulla, and Penrith were the unfortunate victims of a fired up Roosters outfit. They led 38-0 at halftime and gained some revenge for the 2003 Grand Final loss to the Panthers.

WORST PERFORMANCE: The Roosters had a really off day against Cronulla in Round 22. The Roosters fumbled their way to a 12-26 loss, committing a woeful 22 handling errors. It was a performance totally out of character.

PREDICTION FOR 2005: The Roosters should remain a force in the competition despite the departure of ?Freddy?. But will they remain enough of a force to win next year?s premiership? The biggest doubt surrounds the halves combination. The signing of Dragons half Brett Firman means they have two natural halfbacks in Firman and Finch but no specialist five eighth with first grade experience. The Roosters are excited about Jersey Flegg pointscoring machine Jamie Soward, who could make the step up if required. The losses of Shannon Hegarty and Justin Hodges are offset by the acquisitions of the NRL?s leading tryscorer in 2004, Amos Roberts and Joel Monaghan. The forward pack is still one of the best in the NRL and Ricky Stuart is a great coach. But I don?t see the Roosters as the benchmark anymore without a settled halves combination. Top four again but not premiers.

Match Records 2004

ROUND OPPONENT VENUE RESULT SCORE 1 South Sydney Rabbitohs Aussie Stadium WIN 26-16 2 Manly Sea Eagles Brookvale Oval WIN 42-20 3 Bulldogs Aussie Stadium WIN 35-0 4 Penrith Panthers Telstra Stadium LOSS 6-22 5 Brisbane Broncos Aussie Stadium LOSS 14-26 6 Newcastle Knights Energy Australia Stadium WIN 32-22 7 St.George-Illawarra Dragons Aussie Stadium WIN 11-8 8 Canberra Raiders Aussie Stadium WIN 28-8 9 Wests Tigers Aussie Stadium WIN 22-0 10 Cronulla Sharks Toyota Park WIN 38-18 11 BYE

12 New Zealand Warriors Aussie Stadium WIN 58-6 13 Bulldogs Telstra Stadium LOSS 12-40 14 BYE 15 Newcastle Knights Aussie Stadium WIN 48-4 16 Wests Tigers Campbelltown Stadium WIN 56-0 17 North Queensland Cowboys Express Advocate Stadium WIN 32-22 18 Parramatta Eels Parramatta Stadium LOSS 12-26 19 St.George-Illawarra Dragons Aussie Stadium WIN 18-14 20 South Sydney Rabbitohs Aussie Stadium WIN 22-12 21 Melbourne Storm Olympic Park WIN 26-10 22 Cronulla Sharks Aussie Stadium LOSS 12-26 23 Penrith Panthers Aussie Stadium WIN 44-12 24 Canberra Raiders Canberra Stadium WIN 38-22 25 New Zealand Warriors Ericsson Stadium WIN 30-24 26 Parramatta Eels Aussie Stadium WIN 48-10 Qualifying Final Canberra Raiders Aussie Stadium WIN 38-12 Preliminary Final North Queensland Cowboys Telstra Stadium WIN 19-16 GRAND FINAL Bulldogs Telstra Stadium LOSS 13-16

21 WINS, 6 LOSSES, FOR: 780 AGAINST: 412 POSITION: Runners Up, Minor Premiers

Sydney Roosters ? 2005 Player Movement

Gains: Richard Fa?aoso (Panthers, 2yrs), Joel Monaghan (Raiders, 3yrs), Amos Roberts (Panthers, 4yrs), Brett Firman (Dragons, 3yrs), Nigel Plum (Wests Magpies), Scott Hamilton (QLD Cup), Scott Porter (Sharks)

Losses: Brad Fittler (retired), Albert Hopoate (Has left rugby league to become a minister), Steve Crouch (Castleford mid season), Jermaine Ale (Raiders, 2 yrs), Todd Oliver (French Rugby Union), Shannon Hegarty (Souths, 3yrs), Justin Hodges (Broncos, 3yrs), Chad Robinson (Eels, 2yrs), Peter Cusack (Souths, 2yrs), Peter Taylor (Souths), Ian Henderson (Eels), Aaron Mercer (Wests Magpies), William Topou (Dragons), Ray Moujalli (Souths, 2yrs), Tevita Metuisela (Storm), Luke Dorn (Knights), Todd Byrne (Warriors, 3 yrs)

By Michael Allen ? Freelance Journalist