Sydney Roosters v Brisbane Broncos
Bluetongue Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

It may be only early in the season but already the Roosters find themselves desperately needing a win as they look to rediscover the form that took them all the way to last year’s grand final.

Three losses from their past four games – including an uncharacteristically sloppy performance in Auckland last Sunday – have the Roosters sitting outside the top eight and it won’t get any easier against an in-form Brisbane outfit this Saturday night.

There is no doubt the Bondi outfit has been out of sorts of late – particularly in the halves where their glamour pair have lacked their usual cohesion. While Mitchell Pearce has shown glimpses of his best, his kicking game has certainly lacked finesse; while five-eighth Todd Carney has struggled to make any meaningful impact of late.

On a positive note, off-field dramas can now be put on the back-burner and coach Brian Smith will be hoping the youngster can now fully focus his energies on playing the sort of football that won him the Dally M medal last September.

By contrast, it’s all smooth sailing for the Broncos who became the first side to notch four consecutive wins with their 17-6 result over Newcastle on Monday night.

The sustained form of premiers St George Illawarra and the drama surrounding Wayne Bennett’s future have allowed Brisbane to sneak under the radar somewhat but they find themselves sitting alongside the Dragons and Melbourne at the top of the ladder following a series of professional performances.

Not quite the flashy outfit they once were, the Broncos have shown a propensity to grind out victory with gritty wins over Canberra, the Gold Coast, Penrith and Newcastle.

And it’s been a real team effort, with forwards Corey Parker (116 metres and 43 tackles per game), Scott Anderson (107 metres), Ben Hannant (95 metres and 38 tackles) and Josh McGuire (98 metres and 28 tackles) all standing tall.

Prop Jason Ryles has been named in the starting side for the Roosters with Jared Waerea-Hargreaves dropping back to the bench. Tom Symonds has been drafted in to replace Frank-Paul Nuuausala in the second row, with the latter joining Waerea-Hargreaves on the bench. Coach Brian Smith has named a six-man interchange with Mose Masoe, Daniel Conn, Phil Graham and Tinirau Arona among the others fighting for spots.

For the Broncos, usual back-rower Ben Te’o will start at centre, as he did last week against the Knights, with two-try hero Jack Reed staying on the wing. The bench of Mitchell Dodds, Dane Carlaw, Nick Kenny and Corey Norman have been retained.

Watch Out Roosters: There are signs that the experienced halves combination of Darren Lockyer and Peter Wallace are starting to rediscover their best form after Brisbane missed the finals last season.

Wallace in particular has struggled at times over the past two years but has started the 2011 season well with a team-high six try assists and four line-break assists. Only Benji Marshall, Johnathan Thurston and Jamie Soward have produced more. Lockyer has also impressed in his final year in the NRL with four try assists and a line-break assist.

The Roosters will also need to be wary of Broncos centre Justin Hodges. Hodges has returned from injury with a vengeance this season – scoring a brilliant solo try against the Gold Coast in Round Three to secure victory and he’s averaging 117 metres per game so far in 2011.

Danger Sign: The Roosters’ right-side defence has been as fragile as Britney Spears’ psyche this season, conceding 11 of the 18 tries the side has let in. And it doesn’t matter which half of football either, with five tries conceded in the opening 40 minutes of their five games to date and six in the second 40.

That stat alone will be like waving a red rag to a bull for Brisbane, who don’t particularly favour either side of the field but love attacking the edges. All 15 of Brisbane’s tries in 2011 have come wide of centre-field, so watch for them to go left – to the Roosters’ right-side defence – at every opportunity.

Watch Out Broncos: The Roosters might struggle defensively on the right side of the field but it is also their no.1 target area with the ball in hand. The reason? Shaun Kenny-Dowall, the 2010 International Centre of the Year who scored 21 tries in his side’s run to the grand final last year.

Kenny-Dowall is up to his old tricks again this season with five tries in as many games. The towering Kiwi loves using his speed and strength to get on the outside of his opposite number and is the main reason the Roosters have scored 10 tries on the right so far in 2011.

Danger Sign: Brisbane have been superb defensively in 2011 but if they continue to put themselves under pressure the amount of work they are required to get through will eventually tell.

The Broncos have made 70 errors this season – more than every club except last-placed Gold Coast – and the lack of possession has seen them notch a whopping 1937 tackles at almost 400 per game. The Warriors are the only side that has made more tackles than Brisbane this season.

Plays To Watch: The Lockyer short and flat cut-out pass to his centres when attacking close to the line; the Gerard Beale inside-out run from a scrum; Mitchell Pearce’s quick inside ball to a flying Todd Carney; Anthony Minichiello chiming in out wide, particularly on the left edge.

Where It Will Be Won: Out wide, where both sides have been at their most vulnerable defensively. The Roosters have conceded 15 tries on the edges but just three up the middle while Brisbane have conceded 17 tries out wide and just one up the guts.

Incredibly, the Broncos are yet to concede a second-half try in 2011 so it seems that former coach Ivan Henjak and his successor Anthony Griffin have certainly succeeded in the fitness stakes.

The History: Played 34; Brisbane 21, Sydney Roosters 13. The Roosters won both clashes between these two sides last season – a 25-6 win at the SFS in Round 4 and a thrilling 34-30 victory in Round 20. They’ve never met in Gosford before.

Brisbane have just the one appearance at Bluetongue Stadium – back in 2001 when they defeated the Northern Eagles 42-14.

Conclusion: This shapes as a truly fascinating encounter between the defensive might of Brisbane and the ruthless attacking potential of the Roosters. The ‘home’ side will want to jump out of the blocks quickly here because they have typically slowed down after the break this season, while the Broncos are yet to concede a second-half try.

That said, it is only a matter of time before the Pearce-Carney combination clicks and the Broncos will be playing with fire if they continue to put themselves under pressure with elementary errors.

The Roosters have plenty to play for and it will be interesting to see which side turns up this Saturday night. This will be a close one.

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Gavin Reynolds; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Luke Phillips; Video Ref – Phil Cooley.

Televised:  Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.