NRL.com Editor, Nigel Wall, NRL.com
With 2014 NRL pre-season underway, we're profiling each team's biggest strengths heading into the new season. Here are five reasons the Sydney Roosters could become the first back-to-back premiers since 1998.
1. Sonny Bill Williams
Any team boasting the best player in the world is bound to be a feared entity - that's the crown Williams wears heading into season 2014 after being named the International Player of the Year by the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) following his dominant contribution to the Tricolours' successful 2013 premiership campaign. Williams' first season back in the 13-man code since 2008 was a dazzling success, with mesmerising attacking skills and punishing defence wowing fans across the NRL. Williams' ability to draw in defenders yet still get away passes to promote second phase created headaches for oppositions every week - he finished the season ranked second overall for offloads with 62, just three behind Brisbane's Corey Parker. When he wasn't promoting for teammates he was bending back opposition lines, ranking above all other forwards in the NRL for line breaks. His versatility was further emphasised when he filled in for halves Mitchell Pearce and James Maloney during Origin and the Tricolours' attacking machine didn't skip a beat. Look for him to feed the likes of Michael Jennings and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck often as the Roosters continue their successful offensive formula in 2014.
2. Tough to hold out
If the Roosters finish in the ballpark of their 2013 points haul, chisel them in for a top-four berth again in 2014. At least. They scored more tries and points than any other team in 2013; they boasted the leading points-scorer in Maloney (252 points), the co-leading try-scorer in Jennings (20) and their scintillating mix of speed, size and fast-paced precision saw them figure in the Most Line Breaks In A Game In A Round stat an unparalleled four times during the regular season, punching out a whopping 11 each in outings against the Knights, Tigers, Panthers and Sharks. Jennings and Tuivasa-Sheck are two of the most electrifying runners of the Steeden while Jenning's centre partner Shaun Kenny-Dowall on his day is the equal of any three-quarter. Chuck in Daniel Tupou's aerial leap on the left flank, Anthony Minichiello's selective forays and the creative vision of Aidan Guerra and Boyd Cordner in the back row and Trent Robinson's Bondi brigade are sure to enjoy their fare share of running-riot moments.
3. Tough to crack
Boasting a top-notch attack is one thing. Marrying it to an impenetrable defence? That's a match made in heaven - and the Roosters hope to celebrate a second blissful anniversary of this union in 2014 after tying every other team in knots throughout 2013. The final stats analysis showed the Roosters conceded the fewest tries, fewest points and fewest line busts, missed the second-fewest tackles, conceded the second-fewest offloads and yielded just the second-fewest metres to oppositions all year. All of this while conceding more penalties than any team, and with just three sides making more errors per match than the Tricolours did on the way to the title. Yikes.
4. Right mix of rep stars
Success comes at a price, as most premiership-winning teams have discovered over the past few decades with their ranks decimated through deserving State of Origin selections. That should prove no different for the Roosters this year, with halves Pearce and Maloney, centre Jennings and boom back-rower Boyd Cordner seemingly certain of return call-ups for the Blues. But countering that is the fact the Roosters boast more Kiwi Internationals than any other NRL team - ensuring they have top-calibre troops in key position that cannot be touched by either New South Wales or Queensland selectors. Sonny Bill Williams, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Frank-Paul Nuuausala, Kenny-Dowall, Tuivasa-Sheck, Sam Moa... their availability year-round will ensure the team doesn't lose too much momentum during the representative period.
5. Perfect balance in the halves
Even though they have a squad blessed with individual brilliance, Mitchell Pearce's contribution to their attack deserves special mention. No player in the entire NRL had more success putting a teammate into space than the Roosters No.7 in 2013, with the often under scrutiny halfback tallying a season-high 22 line break assists. His five-eighth partner James Maloney was an adept provider too, ranking fifth overall with 16 line break assists. When the Roosters worked their way down to threaten the opposition try-line the pair swapped roles, with Maloney laying on more try assists than any other player (26), with Pearce ranked seventh (with 20). Further, Maloney's dogged and dangerous running game adds another dimension to the Roosters' attack - he finished equal eighth for line breaks in 2013 with 18, alongside teammate Daniel Tupou and one ahead of Michael Jennings. Significantly, every player above him on the list was a back-three player. Having a five-eighth who is not only willing to take on the line but also an excellent chance of busting it? Must help Trent Robinson sleep soundly.