Nicholas Janzen,, NRL.com
The resurgent Sydney Roosters might be coasting comfortably in fourth place on the premiership ladder – having turned their previously leaky defence into one of the hardest lines to crack in the competition – but, in a warning to St George Illawarra who they meet in the traditional Anzac Day clash on Thursday, club insiders are certain even better performances lie just around the corner.
After a disappointing 2012 season when the club finished 13th and conceded an average of 26 points per game, the boys from Bondi Junction have rebounded this season under new coach Trent Robinson, conceding a miserly average of 11 points after six games of the 2013 competition.
Impressively they have completed three shutouts of oppositions in their past month of football, defeating the Broncos 8-0 in Round 3, annihilating Parramatta 50-0 in Round 4 before muzzling the Bulldogs 38-0 in their most recent hit-out a fortnight ago.
However, assistant coach and club legend Craig Fitzgibbon warns other premiership contenders the tri-colours are not resting on their laurels and are focused on improving a number of ‘areas of opportunity’.
“We’re mindful not to get ahead of ourselves and we’re wary of opponents thinking we’re going okay and aiming up,” Fitzgibbon tells NRL.com.
“At this stage, as staff, we’re happy the boys are working hard for each other and working hard at getting better each week. You have to [improve] in this comp because there are so many good teams out there – it doesn’t take much to get knocked off and caught on the hop. So far we’re comfortable with how we’re going but we know we’ve got to get better yet.”
Fitzgibbon is not prepared to compare the Brian Smith era to the new reign of Robinson at the Roosters, but admits his boss – the former Catalans Dragons head coach and a former assistant of Smith’s – has brought a great culture to Roosters HQ. It’s a culture Fitzgibbon and the other assistants at Bondi Junction, including Jason Taylor and Paul Green, are helping implement.
“He’s really good, he’s a really hard worker and he learned a lot from Brian,” Fitzgibbon says of Robinson.
“He certainly picked up [Smith’s] work ethic and that’s rubbed off on him. He’s very thorough and the boys really like him – he certainly knows how to control [the balance of] being a good bloke and being a coach.
“His strength is he’s very thorough. We’ve got Jason Taylor behind the attack and I’m doing the defence and Robbo’s the boss – and Paul Green’s full-time with us and coaches the -20s too. It’s a really good forum to throw some ideas around and at the end of the day Trent decides which way we go. “
The former Steelers, Dragons and Roosters back-rower noted there have been a number of improvements at the club – particularly defensively – since Robinson’s arrival at the end of the 2012 season. The improvements, however, are ongoing.
“[They include] a combination of things, but I really don’t want to get caught comparing,” Fitzgibbon says.
“What’s happened has happened, but we’re just doing our own thing at the moment as a group. We’ve worked really hard. Robbo’s navigated us through that and improvements… ultimately you need a response from your players and thankfully for us as a coaching staff, what we’ve thrown at them defensively they’ve really responded to and worked hard for each other.
“A lot of that stuff is ethics-based and having the mindset they have to work hard for each other. A lot of that is going okay but we’ve had some lapses there and some performances that have been strong and some that haven’t been up to scratch.
“Again, we feel like we’re improving at it but sometimes at this stage of the year the competition’s still evening itself out and I’m sure we’ve got some very hard games coming up.”
The 2002 Clive Churchill medallist in the Roosters’ grand final triumph against the Warriors says the team’s new recruits have brought a high level of professionalism to the club that, combined with the hard work, determination and dedication of the other players, has the Roosters in a good position a quarter of the way through the regular season. And he’s not just talking about Sonny Bill Williams’ irresistible form, either.
“All the recruits – Maloney’s been great, Michael Jennings has been outstanding, Sonny, Michael Oldfield did the trick for us when we pulled him in against Canberra and Sammy Moa’s been playing strong as well – are doing their role and they’ve bought into the club and they really want to work hard for the club,” Fitzgibbon says.
“That’s great for everyone at the club, to see new guys coming in and adapt to a new set-up. When they go to a new club, they want to put their best foot forward and earn the respect of their teammates and they’ve done that.
“The players have got to be there for the right reasons and again the players are just really taking it on board, they’re driving it and helping us adapt to the change to the competition in the play-the-ball speeds and the ruck areas and things like that.
“It just helps that the players have really bought in and the players are working really hard for each other on game day.”
The Roosters’ assistant coach, who focuses mainly on defence, admits his team is satisfied with the efforts far this season – particularly the shutout victories against the Bulldogs, Eels and Broncos – but insists the onus is on the players to keep performing throughout the season.
“You always like to get those zeroes but we’re still not resting on that – we’ve got to face some tough games starting Thursday with the Dragons who have won three games on the trot,” Fitzgibbon says.
“We’re purely focused on them and getting an improved performance. It’s going to be a big game – it’s Anzac Day – and they always rise to the occasion and we’ll have to rise too.
“Ultimately [the coaching staff are] at the mercy of them performing and we’ve got to do our best jobs to help them prepare during the week so they can do their thing on the weekend. We’re just so early in the season, we’ve still got a lot of work to do and we’ve got some really hard games coming up starting this Thursday against the Dragons.”