This article was first written for and published by The Roar.
With their 12 points to four victory over the South Sydney Rabbitohs at Allianz Stadium on Saturday night, the Sydney Roosters have booked their place in the 2018 NRL grand final.
This game was set up as a blockbuster from the outset. The final rugby league game ever at the Sydney Football Stadium. A rivalry almost as old as rugby league itself. And plenty of trash talk between the teams in the lead-up, particularly around one of the Bunnies’ key enforcers, Sam Burgess.
Plenty of big names were thrown around as being potential game changers – Luke Keary, Cooper Cronk, James Tedesco, Damien Cook and Greg Inglis. And all of these men played their part.
So too did some unsung heroes, like Mitch Aubusson, who made his presence known in key moments, particularly in defence. Likewise Roosters stand-in centre Paul Momirovski, who scored the Roosters’ third and matchwinning try. Paul was told he was getting the call up to the starting line-up only that day after coach and captain had spent time deliberating about his inclusion during the week.
But there’s one man whose role in the victory I wanted to particularly highlight, and that’s Roosters coach Trent Robinson.
When teams are performing poorly, so much blame is levelled at the coaches and their staff. Interestingly, when a team is performing well, often the role of the coach is quickly forgotten.
The Roosters had tickets on them from the start of the year. With some key signings made last year, including Cronk and Tedesco, the play was clear – the tri-colours wanted a premiership.
But the start of the season left many disappointed. By Round 6 the Roosters were sitting on a 50 per cent win ratio with losses to teams many predicted would finish at the bottom of the ladder, like the Wests Tigers. In Rounds 7 and 8 the team slumped to back-to-back losses to the Canterbury Bulldogs and the St George Illawarra Dragons. They bounced back by just two points against the Manly Sea Eagles the following week.
Their attack looked clunky. The combination between James Tedesco and Cooper Cronk hadn’t clicked yet, and the team’s attack was also being stifled by an insistence on playing structured and ordered footy. Several players were under fire, but none more so than Roosters hooker Jake Friend.
Looking back now, it should have come as no surprise to us that the new combinations struggled in the early rounds. Many of us forget that last year was an exceptionally long season because of the Rugby League World Cup, with some players returning to preseason only in mid-January. It’s hard to form a combination in key positions in less than two months, so perhaps the Roosters deserve some leniency for taking some time to settle into their season.
But the structured footy was harder to cop and painful to watch.
It was after the loss to the Dragons that we started to see the Roosters change their approach to attack. Robinson apparently took the team away after that game and decided they needed something fresh. The Roosters lost the structure and started playing more free-flowing football. The results started to come.
This takes courage on the part of a coach. We see so many coaches in the NRL stick to one approach and refuse to change things up until it’s too late.
One example that immediately comes to mind from this year is Paul Green at the North Queensland Cowboys. Despite the Cowboys offering very little in attack for most of the season, Green refused to blood any young players until their season was well and truly gone. Many of these youngsters will be the players that the Cowboys look to build around in the coming seasons, and I wonder why they weren’t brought in much sooner.
I also wonder what impact State of Origin had on the Roosters squad.
So often we talk about Origin as a drain and a period which can really have an impact on where a team finishes on the ladder – particularly those teams that have plenty of rep players. It certainly had an impact on the Dragons this year. I wonder whether Paul McGregor regrets taking the players advice and not resting them after Origin.
But for the Roosters, Origin seems to have really boosted some of their players, particularly Latrell Mitchell and Tedesco.
Many questioned whether Mitchell was ready for Origin – he was guilty of form slumps, defensive lapses and not being willing to put in the hard yards when his team needed him most.
Origin seems to have transformed him, and he finished the year as one of the copmpetition’s in-form players. His addition to the Roosters squad next week will be a welcome one.
Let’s talk about next week.
The grand final qualifiers on the weekend were games full of drama featuring one of the oldest clubs and one of the newest rugby league rivalries in existence. But the lead-up to this fgand final has drama of its own.
The big questions are: will Billy Slater play after his shoulder charge on Cronulla Sharks winger Sosaia Feki? His appeal to the judiciary this week will be one of the most closely watched appearances of the year.
What about Cooper Cronk, the man the Roosters brought over to win them a premiership? Despite a heavy knock in the game on Saturday night courtesy of an Adam Reynolds tackle, Cronk gallantly played on, with his left arm hanging limply by his side. The severity of the injury is still unknown, but I daresay Cronk will be given every opportunity to prove his fitness for this match.
The of course there’s increasing speculation about Cameron Smith and whether the game on Sunday will be his last in the NRL.
It wouldn’t be grand final week without some drama, and as always, rugby league has delivered.