WITH just 40 minutes of football left in the 2010 season, the 2009 wooden-spoon Roosters were on track to complete a remarkable and historic premiership victory. That they were swamped by St George Illawarra and unable to pull of their amazing coup must still stick in their craw, but as the saying goes about grand finals: “You’ve got to lose one before you can win one.”

The Bondi unit looks even stronger heading into 2011, with some astute signings plugging their only key area of concern: the lack of support for hooker Jake Friend. Having released James Aubusson after a few disappointing seasons, the Roosters swooped on energetic bench hooker Anthony Watts from North Queensland. Then, when Watts injured his ACL joint early in the off-season, they snapped up former Dragons and Eels rake Mark Riddell from English club Wigan. Although Watts isn’t expected back until Round 10, they nevertheless will then boast a formidable three-man hooking rotation that will be the envy of the NRL.

There remains some doubt about the level of disruption to Todd Carney’s season after the Dally M Medal winner was forced under the knife in January for a persistent groin problem. And Anthony Cherrington’s horrible luck continued in February when he suffered a second successive season-ending knee injury.

But otherwise, coach Brian Smith is ecstatic to have the core of last year’s starting line-up intact.

Perhaps the only grey clouds could come on the morale front, with some doubt over the future of captain Braith Anasta. Already Carney’s meteoric rise has seen him shifted to lock; now there’s a chance he may even be shunted to the back row. Anasta has already been looking for a new home and any more shopping around could promote internal division.

How They’ll Play It… To their strengths. That means getting some good second-phase play from their strong, mobile pack, allowing halves Mitchell Pearce and Carney to take on the opposition line either themselves, or throwing it out the back where destructive runners like Shaun Kenny-Dowall (3,559 metres, sixth in NRL) and Anthony Minichiello can capitalise.

The balance between the Roosters’ halves is sublime: each player topped the club for try assists (18) and line-break assists (19).

No team is more devastating out of dummy-half than the Roosters, who thrive on an up-tempo return. And no player is better at catching sides napping than winger Sam Perrett, who topped the NRL for dummy-half runs in 2010 (210) and ranked third for tackle busts (158).

Expect Plenty From… Young prop Martin Kennedy. The 22-year-old played the final 15 games of 2010, all from the bench, averaging 81 metres and 18 tackles in his 34-minute stints. He has a good offload and can spot a gap – he managed to put team-mates into the clear on a few occasions – and his 24 tackle-breaks from limited time shows he has good power.

Mark Riddell, now 30, won’t be expected to dazzle as an individual but after working up to full fitness expect a high work rate in upwards of 40 minutes every game. Riddell is a keen reader of play at the ruck and will relish the thought of picking up strong runners like Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Mitchell Aubusson and Kenny-Dowall.

Kane Linnett was a revelation after cementing a position in the centres mid-season. He finished the year averaging almost 100 metres with 26 tackle-busts from his 13 games. His partnership with Kenny-Dowall is developing into one of the most blockbusting in the game.  

They’re Going To Really Miss… The old refereeing interpretation that allowed players to step over tacklers in order to get a fast play-the-ball, with the ref then “shortening” the 10 metres to favour the defending side.

New refs boss Bill Harrigan has announced his intention to crack down on the ruck area and players walking off the mark; it has the potential to impact adversely on a side like the Roosters, which thrives on darting out of dummy-half quickly.

Personnel-wise they won’t miss a beat though.

It’s Time To Stand Up… It’s harsh to single out anyone given how cohesive the Roosters were in 2010. But in terms of career awakenings, 2011 looks like the year local lock Tom Symonds could stamp himself. The Bondi United junior played just five games in 2010 (averaging 38 minutes for 31 metres gained and 14 tackles), having played eight in 2009, but will be called on more this season given Anasta may shift to five-eighth to cover for Todd Carney early in the season if he’s not ready and will definitely move there during the Origin period. Or, Symonds may even end up with the No.6 on his back.

The pressure goes on back-up No.7 Jonathan Ford to cover for Pearce – although coach Smith may also use either Watts or Friend in that role given they are well stacked with ruck directors.

Smith will call for a more determined effort from Kiwi Frank-Paul Nuuausala, who was used as a prop and second-rower last year. In 2010 he may spend more time at prop. He has size and aggression but tends to drift in and out of games. There’s no questioning his value as an offloader (a team-high 57 last year) but his average gain of just 76 metres in 50 minutes is way down on NRL expectations for front-rowers (he’s ranked a lowly 62nd among his fellow props).

Coach Watch… Brian Smith achieved a minor miracle taking the Roosters to within an inch of a premiership the year after the side finished rock bottom in 2009. He has three more years on his contract and will be licking his lips at the chance to consolidate with the squad he’s got.

The only danger to their season could be the weight of expectation – it proved too much for Parramatta last year and ended in metaphorical tears for their coach Daniel Anderson.

It will be interesting to see whether Smith continues his ‘new age’ transformation from an at-times grumpy mentor to the wide-eyed singer of praises he morphed into late last year. Certainly it did the trick for his players.

They’ll Be Boosted By… The arrival of Mark Riddell and Anthony Watts. Jake Friend had no alternative but to tackle himself to a standstill last year (club-high average 38 a game) but with some quality back-up he’ll now get the chance to add some attacking spark as well.

Ex-Raiders winger Justin Carney has been thrown a lifeline and will provide good depth should injury befall any of the back five backs.

Predicted Finish… The Roosters are expected to be a front-running side all season. Their results may dip a little during the representative period but they should still press for a top-four spot. We’ll say 3rd.

Under-20s… Having made an agonising exit in ‘straight sets’ in the 2010 finals, new coach Jason Taylor has the job ahead in 2011 after an exodus of talent to other clubs or with individuals who have stepped up to the main player unit.

With club TC Player of the Year Brad Murray off to Parramatta and Jacob Miller joining the Wests Tigers, insiders expect competition for halves positions to be keenly fought between Queensland pair Tom Guymer and Ryley Jacks and Wagga product Jack Littlejohn.

Comings… Justin Carney (Raiders), Mark Riddell (Wigan Warriors), Lama Tasi (Sea Eagles), Anthony Watts (Cowboys).

Goings… James Aubusson (released), Jason Baiteri (Les Catalans Dragons), Sam Brunton (sacked), Ben Jones (Cowboys), Nick Kouparitsas (London Harlequins), Jacob Miller (Tigers), Brad Murray (Eels), Lopini Paea (Les Catalans Dragons).