The resurgent Sydney Roosters have already played the table-topping Rabbitohs this season, but they believe their biggest examination thus far awaits on Saturday night when they meet Melbourne at Allianz Stadium.
And unlike last season when the team tailored their game to take into account the threat of the opposition, on Saturday they will simply roll out their best game and hope it’s enough to secure them the competition points – and keep them in reach of South Sydney at the top of the NRL pile.
Trent Robinson’s new-look Roosters have launched a stunning turnaround in 2013 after finishing last season in 13th place, winning eight of 10 matches to sit second on the ladder. The boys from Bondi Junction have defeated a host of well-credentialled sides on the back of the league’s stingiest defence (they concede an average of just 9.4 points per game), but insist their litmus test comes this week against the 2012 premiers.
“Definitely it’s the biggest test,” Roosters hooker Jake Friend tells NRL.com of meeting the Storm.
“It was disappointing against Souths (a 28-10 loss in Round 1) at the start of the year but I reckon Melbourne are still the benchmark team and Souths are going unreal but you know Melbourne will turn up and be the same tough team they always are.”
The Storm started 2013 just as they finished 2012, continuing their all-conquering victory march through to Round 8 this year, where their winning streak ended at 15 matches. Since then, however, cracks in their premiership campaign have emerged with the side losing to the Raiders and Panthers, and splitting the points against Manly last week in a 90-minute arm-wrestle to slide down the table into third position.
Like Friend, prop Martin Kennedy insists Melbourne are still the side to beat.
“I still view Melbourne as the top-of-the-table team,” Kennedy says. “They've obviously had a few losses, but I think if any team can expect to go through a full year of a competition without having a few losses back to back then they are kidding themselves. I think they're still the form team.
“If we can lose to Melbourne but play fantastic footy, we'll always walk away happy. The two points are important, but our progression as a team is more important.”
The Roosters’ forwards insist the challenge of facing the NRL’s biggest names in Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith and Billy Slater, as well as other representative stars and seasoned campaigners, won’t be a distraction.
“We’ll just do the same as we’ve always done,” Kennedy says. “We’re just going to tackle, tackle, tackle and hope we can come away with enough points to secure it. We’re not going to be doing anything outside our system this week. We’re just going to be focused on ourselves and try to improve ourselves as a team.”
Friend, coming up against the game’s premier hooker, says he won’t get caught up in the hype of trying to win a one-on-one battle.
“Obviously Cooper Cronk, Smith and Billy Slater, they’re the main three, but in saying that their whole team [are dangerous],” Friend says. “Their forwards are going unreal. It’ll be a tough one.
“It’s always good to play the best in your position so I’ll be doing the best. I won’t be trying to outplay Cam but I’ll be trying to play my best game so I’ll be putting him in the back of my mind and won’t be worrying about him too much at all.”
Friend said the side’s dramatic improvement was due to more than simply securing the signatures of prized recruits Sonny Bill Williams, Michael Jennings and James Maloney. The 2011 PM’s XIII hooker said the Roosters had stopped focusing on other teams’ styles of play – as they had last season – to now worry only about themselves under Robinson.
“This year we have a bit more structure so it’s a bit more about us compared to last year where we’d change the game plan to suit other teams,” Friend says.
“This year it’s more about us, getting our game right and hoping it’ll be enough.
“We’ve had a couple of big buys and that’s been good for us but it’s just about everyone buying in to what we’re doing so everyone’s on the same page and everyone’s after the same goal. That’s the main reason.”
Refreshingly, Friend said Roosters supporters shouldn’t necessarily keep a lid on expectations in 2013 – even after a promising start to the season he believes the best is yet to come.
“We’ve got plenty of improvement in us,” Friend says. “I’m happy [the fans] are on board. It is only early and we know that as well and we’re continuing to try to get better for the back-end of the season.
“Even in all our wins we’ve been disappointed in areas of our game. Each week we try to get a little bit better and ask for a little bit more. We definitely think we’ve got a lot more improvement in us.”