Nigel Wall, NRL.com
1. Bouncing back
No question the ruffled Roosters suffered a severe letdown last year after their runners-up finish in 2010. Some of their fall can be attributed to injuries, some to the disruption caused by Todd Carney’s regrettable relapse and some to substandard individual efforts – but the fact is the tricolours have too much talent on their books for their stars to not shine again in 2012.
Two years ago Carney was devastating on his way to the Dally M Medal, making 21 line-breaks, 19 line-break assists and 20 try assists. Last year he added a meagre eight, five and four respectively. Overall the Roosters’ potency suffered: whereas in 2010 they scored the third-most points (averaging 23.3) they dropped a whole converted try to finish with the third-fewest points (17.4). Centre Shaun Kenny-Dowall never got out of third gear, making just seven line-breaks after smashing out 20 in 2010, plus his average metres plummeted from 128 to 107. And New South Wales Origin halfback Mitchell Pearce struggled under the weight of added expectation as Carney simply went through the motions. With stability in the ranks and a morale boost they’ll improve dramatically – in particular, watch them ‘bushwhack’ a bunch of home teams as they build on their NRL-low 2-10 away record from last year.
2. Tautau Moga
It’s impossible for coach Brian Smith to keep 18-year-old Moga under wraps after his impressive pre-season training and gifted touches in the Roosters’ trial victory over the Bulldogs yesterday. Plenty of fans wondered why the club didn’t try harder to keep developing centre Kane Linnett from signing with the Cowboys; now they know. A Moga/Kenny-Dowall combination would give the Roosters venom on either side of the field. Aussie Schoolboys representative Moga tore oppositions to shreds in his first year in the Toyota Cup, scoring 18 tries in just 13 games and averaging 10.5 runs for a whopping 136 metres a game. He smashed his way to 17 line-breaks and 106 tackle-breaks, too. Importantly for a strike weapon he made just seven errors all season. Smith has told the press he’s not sure how he’ll use Moga in 2012, as the teenager is still eligible to play another two years in the NYC. But quite possibly Moga’s form will demand that he plays first grade very, very soon. He’s set to join the likes of Chris Lawrence and Greg Inglis as teen centre sensations.
3. Mitch Aubusson & Martin Kennedy return
Aubusson’s absence for the end two thirds of last season was arguably the Roosters ’ biggest body blow: he is a huge threat hitting holes on the edges and without him the side struggled for options. In 2010 Aubusson made 16 line-breaks, the most by a back-rower, plus he crossed for the second-most tries (eight). In his eight games in 2011 he scored one try and added just two line-breaks. His ability to hit holes with good angles will bring out the best in playmakers Mitchell Pearce, Braith Anasta and Daniel Mortimer, who will all soar in confidence as a result. His ball skills will be valued too: last year the Roosters’ forwards made the fifth-fewest offloads and were ranked 10th for tackle-breaks. Meanwhile Martin Kennedy was sorely missed after similarly managing only eight games in 2011. The 23-year-old, 110-kilogram prop was their main go-to man before being injured, his 12 runs for 109 metres a game at the time behind only speedy backs Anthony Minichiello and Sam Perrett for impact. The Roosters needs stability in the engine room: they have aggression in the form of Kiwi representatives Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Frank-Paul Nuuausala, but Kennedy will offer them a dependable platform.
4. Youthful exuberance
The Roosters’ horror injury toll last year could prove to have a silver lining for the squad in 2012. Coach Brian Smith had to call on 33 players in 2011, the equal most by any team and the most used by the Roosters in a decade. But conversely and importantly it enabled him to blood seven rookies. That youthful theme should flow over into 2012, especially given the departure of some ageing members of the squad, including Mark Riddell and Jason Ryles. Anthony Mitchell played 10 games in the back half of the season after transferring from the Eels and he looks an able back-up for hooker Jake Friend, while new back-rower Jack Bosden gets to stake his claim with the forward rotation after playing three first grade games with the Dragons. While Anthony Minichiello and skipper Braith Anasta are their oldest players at 31 and 30 respectively, they have five players on their books born in the 1990s. Youth will get its chance.
5. Mitchell Pearce
If the New South Wales Blues’ No.7 gets some support outside him like Carney offered in 2010, look out. Even though he was bitterly let down by his playmakers and supports last season, Pearce still outshone a bunch of the premiership’s leading halfbacks. The Roosters put in a shocker, and Pearce seemed to be tarred by the same brush. But not so: the tricolours may have scored just the fourth-fewest tries but Pearce still tallied 19 try assists, the third-most by any No.7 – and more than Daly Cherry-Evans, Chris Sandow, Cooper Cronk and Scott Prince. Also, his 15 line-break assists were third most. Yes, his two line-breaks (third fewest) were way down on his eight from 2010 – but put that down to lack of opportunity given flat, lacklustre forwards and a navel-gazing Carney. If the pack regains momentum and Kenny-Dowall goes up a gear expect Pearce, and the Roosters, to have a huge season.