5 burning questions: Roosters
The Roosters wouldn't have been happy with the manner of their exit from the 2014 competition but with most of their 2013 premiership side, minus a couple of big names, still intact - can a rejuvenated Mitchell Pearce lead them back to the promised land?
1. Who leads them down the tunnel now that Mini's gone?
The Chooks' four vice captains in Jake Friend, Mitch Pearce, Boyd Cordner, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves all bring different leadership credentials to the table. Friend and Cordner are tough as a pair of Mick Crocker's boots, regularly play 80 minutes and are the type of blokes others will gladly follow into battle. Waerea-Hargreaves can inspire with his fire and brimstone approach is but has a rocky relationship with the whistleblowers and is only on the field for about 55 minutes a game.
Friend is a quiet fellow who will never use two words when one will do, but that is by no means an undesirable quality, and may be best served continuing to develop his own game for now. Cordner is cut from the same cloth and regarded as a future NSW skipper by those whose opinions genuinely matter. He's got a wise head on those 22-year-old shoulders, but he is still just 22, and may need a few more years under his belt. This leaves Pearce, who has traded semi-regular appearances in the social pages for back-page worthy performances over the past 24 months. He lost his NSW jumper on the back of his last indiscretion, and produced the best form of his career as a result. At halfback he's the Chooks' on-field leader, and performs the same role on the training paddock where he's one of the fittest in the club. Pearce is red, white and blue to the core having been at the joint since he was 15, and the time could well be now for him to take the next step.
2. Can Mitch Pearce reproduce his career-best late 2014 form over an entire season?
If he gets landed with the captaincy, he might well do. The certainty is Trent Robinson needs him to repeat his superb back end of 2014 for the majority of 2015. Often maligned for his performances on the big stage at Origin level, Pearce proved himself the Roosters' best player in each of their final four outings this year, and took out the Jack Gibson medal as their player of the year for the third time. Being dubbed head Chook might just help keep Pearce on the straight and narrow and have him reproducing the type of form that has him back in Laurie Daley's thinking for the Blues No. 7 jumper. The departure of assistant coach Jason Taylor to the Tigers could have an adverse effect given how much influence Pearce credits him with, but at 25 and with over 180 appearances already, he's now big enough, ugly enough, and certainly good enough to take his game to the next level.
3. Will Blake Ferguson get a run?
We've heard how Ferguson is now a reformed man since being found guilty of indecent assault but not having a conviction recorded, but it remains to be seen whether the NRL will rubber stamp his return to the game with the Chooks in 2015. Dave Smith has drawn a line in the sand when it comes to serial offenders and their place in rugby league; it doesn't exist, and Ferguson still has to convince them he deserves to be on the right side of said line. When the 24-year-old does eventually return it will shake up the Tri-colours backline, with either right centre Shaun Kenny-Dowall or new fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck the candidates to be shifted to the wing should Robinson want Ferguson closer to the action.
4. Can Jared Waerea-Hargreaves keep a lid on it?
The big fella is the most fearsome forward in the game and one of its best when he's on song, but he also toes a fine line when it comes to the officials. Waerea-Hargreaves has largely cooled the jets that saw him spend multiple weeks on the sidelines in previous years, but as the pressure mounted during the finals series we saw the Kiwi prop come up with a couple of crucial penalties against the Cowboys and Rabbitohs that took momentum away just when his teammates needed it most. The Roosters will tell you Waerea-Hargreaves gets a bad rap from referees, and his sin-binning against the Knights in Round 20 was a fair example, but there are also a few moments when Jared's worst enemy on the field is himself.
5. Which stars will they be able to retain?
No fewer than 10 members of Robinson's band of merry men are coming off contract at the conclusion of 2015 – including rep stars Waerea-Hargreaves, James Maloney, Aiden Guerra, Tuivasa-Sheck, Daniel Tupou and Kenny-Dowall. The likes of Mitchell Aubusson, Frank-Paul Nuuasala and Dylan Napa are also in the hunt for new contracts, be it at Moore Park or elsewhere, and with a crop of talented under-20s players already tied up and Ferguson also sure to be chewing up a reasonable portion of the salary cap, a couple of Chooks will probably have to fly the coop.