Everything fell into place for the Roosters last season. Former assistant coach Trent Robinson returned to the club after a stint in the Super League with Catalans Dragons and instantly had the Midas touch, with the club's three star signings – James Maloney, Michael Jennings and Sonny Bill Williams – proving to be among the best buys in the competition.
All three were key men for the Tricolours, along with Roosters veterans like Mitchell Pearce, Anthony Minichiello and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, plus rising stars Boyd Cordner, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Daniel Tupou.
Remarkably, the team that had finished 11th and 13th in the previous two seasons suddenly boasted a complete squad – with genuine star power, depth, youth, experience and consistency.
They may have narrowly pipped the Rabbitohs to the minor premiership with a win in Round 26, but in truth the Roosters were the standouts across the board last season, leading both the attacking and defensive rankings.
So what now? Well for one thing, any sense of the Bondi club as a surprise packet is well and truly gone now – the Roosters will have a target on their heads every week in 2014 as rivals aim to lift their game to bring down the champions. The premiers tag also brings with it the kind of pressure that Robinson's men didn't face last year as a club on the rise.
The burden of defending a premiership has proved too much for every NRL champion in recent times; Brisbane were the last team to win back-to-back grand finals in 1997 and 1998, and it's been two decades since a team won two straight premierships in a unified competition (Brisbane again, in 1992 and 1993).
Is this Roosters side strong enough to do the impossible and defend an NRL title?
Gains: Remi Casty (Catalans Dragons), Jackson Hastings (Dragons), Jonathon Reuben (Raiders), Sio Siua Taukeiaho (Warriors), Heath L'Estrange (Bradford) , Curtis Naughton (Bradford), Kem Seru (Dragons).
Losses: Josh Ailaomai (Dragons), Martin Kennedy (Broncos), Adam Henry (Bradford Bulls), Henare Wells (Burleigh Bears), Jack Bosden (Released), John Asiata (Cowboys), Tinirau Arona (Sharks), Michael Oldfield (Catalans Dragons), Luke O'Donnell (retired).
How They'll Play It
Why changed what worked last year? The Roosters excelled under first-year coach Robinson – who had previously acted as the club's defensive coach during their run to the grand final in 2010. Unsurprisingly defence is where his team really stood out last season: they conceded fewer offloads, line breaks and points than any other team, while boasting the best tackle percentage in the competition (93.3%).
Their goal-line defence in particular was so good that the team seemed willing to give away penalties rather than let their line crack; despite dominating possession in most matches the Roosters managed to concede the most penalties of any team in the league. If it was a conscious strategy then it was an effective one, and there's no reason to think it'll change this time around.
With the ball the Chooks keep things relatively simple – despite the presence of Sonny Bill they ranked just 11th for offloads last year, preferring instead to let their battering ram forwards simply tuck the ball under the arm and charge. Then it's the support play and pure speed of Jennings and Tuivasa-Sheck – plus the guile of Maloney, Pearce and Williams and the aerial ability of Tupou – that produces the bulk of the team's try-scoring opportunities.
Expect a HUGE Year From
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. The Kiwi youngster may be playing on the wing for another year after the re-signing of club captain and incumbent fullback Anthony Minichiello, but Tuivasa-Sheck showed at the 2013 World Cup that he is capable of changing games from the flank. A brilliant ball-runner, Tuivasa-Sheck should step up a level after making such an impact on the international stage, and with so many other attacking threats in the Roosters side he should be given the space to do what he does best. Don't be surprised if he tops the try-scoring charts by season's end.
France prop Remi Casty is a handy replacement for the departed Martin Kennedy – the 28-year-old led the French for hit-ups, metres gained and offloads at the 2013 World Cup, and has been a leader at Catalans Dragons where he has already played under Trent Robinson. Casty joins a growing list of Super League stars to try their hand at the NRL, and if the likes of James Graham and the Burgess brothers are any guide the Roosters could have another classy front-rower on their hands this season.
The Question Mark
Can they do it again? As we've mentioned, no team has won two straight premierships in the NRL era – the closest being the Broncos, who won the inaugural NRL premiership in 1998 after their Super League triumph the previous year, only to finish a meagre eighth in the following season. The combination of increased expectations, more motivated opponents, salary cap pressures and the amount of luck needed to mount a title challenge have made defending a premiership a seemingly impossible task in recent years. With at least three genuine challengers in this competition in South Sydney, Manly and Melbourne, and many other sides likely to improve, can the Roosters do what their predecessors couldn't and hold off the chasing pack?
Who Needs To Lift?
Not much improvement is needed this season, as you'd expect, but you can be sure Robinson won't let his team rest on their laurels.
Shaun Kenny-Dowall is one player who could pick up his performances a little this year; he was overshadowed by fellow centre Michael Jennings and the other outside backs last season, and made a total of 32 errors – the second-most in the competition.
A better disciplinary record wouldn't hurt the Roosters' chances either. Jake Friend (20), James Maloney (18), Mitchell Pearce (17), Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (16) and Sonny Bill Williams (16) were the club's worst offenders when it came to giving away penalties during the last campaign.
How's Their Depth?
Pretty good. Most promising is the number of back-up options available for the Roosters' strong pack, with World Cup players Dylan Napa, Kane Evans and Remi Casty waiting in the wings. In Tautau Moga, the Roosters have one of the most promising young outside backs in the game – but one who's only likely to get a run if injury strikes the starting side. One-time Eels sensation Daniel Mortimer is a handy reserve half for when Pearce and Maloney leave on NSW Origin duty, while Tuivasa-Sheck is a ready replacement for fullback should Anthony Minichiello succumb to a rare injury.
Like any team they'll struggle a little if hit with an injury crisis, but on the face of it the Roosters have decent cover in just about every area.
NRL Fantasy Bankers
Sonny Bill Williams ($374,200), goal-kicking playmaker James Maloney ($375,600), and hard-working hooker Jake Friend ($354,500) lead a number of strong NRL Fantasy scorers from the Roosters' ranks. The ever-improving Boyd Cordner ($324,200), hard-hitting Jared Waerea-Hargreaves ($334,200) and bargain-priced Remi Casty ($155,000) also shape as good buys.
Trent Robinson has made an instant impact on the NRL, winning the Dally M coach of the year award in his first season as a head coach after turning an underperforming team into the strongest in the league. But like any other rookie who bursts onto the scene, Robinson will face new challenges in his bid to prevent a case of second-season syndrome. The best NRL teams adapt to changing opposition tactics and match conditions each year, and Robinson is a few years away from showing he's on the same level as the likes of Wayne Bennett, Craig Bellamy and Des Hasler. If a rival unlocks a way of beating the premiers early in the season, does Robinson have a Plan B up his sleeve?
The Holden Cup team has lost coach Paul Green to the North Queensland Cowboys, but performed well last season with a third-place finish before crashing out of the finals at the hands of a very strong Junior Warriors outfit. Star five-eighth Samisoni Langi has moved out of the age group but goal-kicking centre Brendan Elliot is still eligible – only just (his birthday is January 1, 1994, so he makes the age cut-off by a single day). A player to watch will be former Australian Schoolboys centre/fullback Nene MacDonald, who played for Papua New Guinea at last year's World Cup and, at 192cm and 100kg, has the ability to set the National Youth Competition alight this year.
The Roosters look so strong across the park that it's hard to see them slipping any further than fourth place in the regular season this season. If the injury toll is kind, there's no reason why they can't play their way into another grand final – but they'll have the weight of history against them in their bid to go back-to-back.
1. Anthony Minichiello, 2. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, 3. Michael Jennings, 4. Shaun Kenny-Dowall, 5. Daniel Tupou, 6. James Maloney, 7. Mitchell Pearce, 8. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, 9. Jake Friend, 10. Sam Moa, 11. Aidan Guerra, 12. Sonny Bill Williams, 13. Boyd Cordner. Interchange: 14: Mitchell Aubusson, 15. Issac Liu, 16. Daniel Mortimer, 17. Frank-Paul Nuuausala.