Crowing Roosters: The Future Looks Bright for the Chooks
The Sydney Roosters won back-to-back premierships across the 2018 and 2019 seasons, but 2021 might be the year where they've really shown their class.
Captains have retired, key players have missed most of the season to injury, and somebody seems to fall over with a mid to long-term injury every week. Their ability to plug the gap for the remainder of a game before finding a serviceable replacement for the following week continues to amaze. Remarkably, they're still a top four side and will more than likely play at least two games beyond Round 25.
Roosters captain Boyd Cordner hasn't been able to play a single minute this season and has since retired following a string of concussion issues. His replacement, Jake Friend, suffered the same fate after Round 1.
Luke Keary lasted only two weeks longer before being ruled out for the remainder of the season with an ACL injury. The key playmaker in the spine, Keary finished the 2020 season sixth in try assists (18) and left a massive hole in the Roosters attack.
Disaster struck again for the Roosters in Round 8 with both Brett Morris and Lindsay Collins ruled out for the year. Morris was on a record-breaking pace with 11 tries in seven games while Collins had come into his own as a consistent first-grade prop following his three State of Origin appearances at the end of 2020.
Sam Verrills, Adam Keighran, Lachlan Lam and now Josh Morris, Dale Copley and Nat Butcher have all spent lengthy stints on the sideline while Victor Radley has run a season-long battle with the judiciary to miss eight games already.
But despite the log-jam in the rehab room, the Roosters have continued to produce on the field.
They remain as one of the best attacking teams in the competition scoring 26.3 points per game. Structure is so often talked about negatively in rugby league. The talking heads have taken over the word and applied it only to struggling teams. However, the Roosters wouldn't be so successful with their next-man-up approach to this season without well-defined and a well-drilled structure in place. The same can be said for their defence which concedes the fourth-fewest points at 19 points per game.
While Trent Robinson's genius over the last five years has prepared the Roosters for this tumultuous period, they wouldn't be navigating it quite so well without a handful of players stepping up.
James Tedesco, Sam Walker, Joseph Manu and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves have been exceptional in keeping the Roosters towards the top of the ladder this year.
Tedesco Turning It On
James Tedesco has put the team on his shoulders and done everything he can in attack. He has increased his involvement and worked a distributor more than ever before. After setting a new career-high in touches with 34.7 receipts per game in 2021, Tedesco has averaged 37.1 receipts per game across the last ten rounds.
Tedesco hasn't crossed the line at the rate he did last season. The 28-year-old scored 11 tries in 19 games in 2020 but has managed just eight meat pies in 18 games throughout 2021. He has, however, beaten his previous career-high in try assists (15) to already have 19 heading into Round 24.
It hasn't always looked natural for the fullback. He typically plays his best football when popping up in the attack or taking possession out the back of shape on the edges. But with Keary out, a 19-year-old in the halves and the Roosters in desperate need of an on-ball leader, Tedesco is getting his hands on the ball closer to the ruck and passing players onto the ball in yardage sets.
Tom Trbojevic has filled the headlines this season and is arguably the best fullback right now, but Tedesco isn't being left behind. His ability to change his game and find different ways to influence a result is why he is still one of the best players in the world in a season many would consider relatively quiet.
With Tedesco taking on a lot of the management aspects of the Roosters attack, Sam Walker has been allowed to step into first grade and do what he does best - create.
The 19-year-old wasn't meant to play this year. In an ideal world, he would have spent the 2021 season developing his game in reserve grade with one or two first grade appearances if Trent Robinson got desperate.
Robinson's desperation set in after only four rounds and Walker has looked at home in the #7 jersey ever since.
Walker recorded three tries and nine try assists in his first five NRL matches. Stepping into a structured attack with clear roles and expectations, Walker used his greatest skill to create points as his long-ball wreaked havoc with unsuspecting defences. The technical aspect is impressive enough, but the fearlessness to release these passes so early into his career is what has so many people tipping him to one day become one of the best halfbacks in the game.
As the opposition begins to play for Walker's pass, the youngster is adjusting. He possesses a strong running game. While slight in stature, his footwork allows him to avoid heavy contact. After averaging just 55 running metres per game across his first nine matches, Walker has picked up 80 metres per game in his last seven starts.
Coaches don't always plan for everything. Injuries have forced Walker to spend a lot more time on the field than Robinson would have liked. However, the 20 games Walker will play this season - including finals football - will put the Roosters in a prime position to contend for the premiership when the troops return to full strength in 2022.
Joey & Jared
Joseph Manu has been Robinson's Mr. Fix It throughout the year. With 14 games in the centres, four at fullback, two at five-eighth, two on the wing and countless mid-game moves across the field, Manu has popped up everywhere.
The nine tries he has scored this year equals the career-high he set in 2020. Meanwhile, he is closing in on his career-high nine try assists in 2018 with seven so far this season. While a handful of games at fullback have helped, Manu's general involvement in the side has seen him run for 143 metres per game - another career-high.
He has taken it upon himself to crowbar his way into games when he feels the Roosters need it. Perhaps inspired by Tom Trbojevic's role at centre for the New South Wales Blues, Manu has been moving into the middle of the field from his right-centre spot and floating around the ruck, looking to get his hands on the ball or act as a decoy for somebody else.
In a side that has lost so many attacking players throughout the year, Manu has capably filled the void more often than not.
A lot of what Manu has been able to do has come behind a Roosters forward pack being led by Jared Waerea-Hargreaves.
The 32-year-old has done everything asked of him this year.
Named on the bench for Round 1, Waerea-Hargreaves looked to be transitioning into a backup role after starting every match he had played in since Round 11, 2018. His 132 metres per game off the pine provided Robinson with superb go-forward through the middle across the full 80 minutes, but when Collins went down with his injury, Waerea-Hargreaves took his game to another level.
In the 11 games he started between Round 9 and 20, Waerea-Hargreaves averaged a monster 163 metres per game. He cracked 200+ metres three times throughout that 11-game spell after hitting the mark just seven times throughout his 245 prior performances.
The Roosters needed a metre-eater, a leader and a physical presence in the middle as they played out tough injury-riddled periods. Waerea-Hargreaves has provided the lot in spades across one of the best seasons of his 13-year career.
While the Roosters have impressed throughout the year and achieved things most teams could only dream of heading into Round 1, they're not premiership contenders. They will be doing it tough to keep their place in the top four over the next fortnight and the Stats Insider Futures Model marks them at just 4.9% to lift the Provan-Summons Trophy.
However, the future looks bright for the Chooks.
Sam Walker and Joseph Suaalii have been provided with valuable first-grade experience that will help them through another offseason and into 2022.
Egan Butcher and Fletcher Baker have both proven themselves to be effective bench players at just 21-years-old and have spent more time on the field than they would have had the injury bug not hit.
Sitili Tupouniua has quickly become one of the most versatile players in the competition which gives the Roosters their new Mitch Aubusson following his retirement last year.
The pack has still performed well despite missing key players and will significantly improve next season. Father Time has clearly skipped past Jared Waerea-Hargreaves for another year too.
If Billy Smith, Adam Keighran, Lachlan Lam and Sam Verrills can keep healthy, and Victor Radley can avoid the judiciary, the Roosters will have a young and eager group to push forward with alongside the established veterans at the club.
It may not seem like it right now, but 2021 makes for an encouraging foundation to build upon towards a premiership-winning campaign in 2022.
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