Sydney Roosters season preview
They were favoured to go back-to-back in 2014 but it didn't quite happen, with the reigning premiers instead falling one game short of the NRL Grand Final – defeated by bitter rivals and eventual champions the Rabbitohs. But despite losing club legend Anthony Minichiello and superstar Sonny Bill Williams, the Roosters are again amongst the favourites to go all the way in 2015.
Gains and Losses
Gains: Martin Kennedy (Broncos), Abraham Papalii (Warriors), Lagi Setu (Raiders), Matt McIlwrick (Raiders), Blake Ferguson, Willie Manu (St Helens)
Losses: Sonny Bill Williams (rugby union), Anthony Minichiello (retired), Frank-Paul Nuuausala (Raiders), Remi Casty (Catalan Dragons), Tautau Moga (Cowboys)
The departures of Sonny Bill Williams and club captain Anthony Minichiello is the obvious news, while Blake Ferguson is the big-name signing. The Roosters' other recruits add some depth behind a largely settled top 17.
What we know
Even without Sonny Bill and Minichiello, the Roosters have quality all across the park. A stellar defensive game that was the backbone of their 2013 premiership-winning run is matched by attacking threats in the form of former NSW halves Mitchell Pearce and James Maloney plus speedsters Michael Jennings, Ferguson and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who will replace Minichiello at fullback. Rep stars Boyd Cordner, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Aidan Guerra head up a strong forward pack, albeit one that will be without star hooker Jake Friend for the opening two months of the season.
Will Blake Ferguson fire in his return to the NRL? The former Raider is a proven talent who has thrived on the Origin stage for NSW and is likely to slot into centre or wing in what is already a very dangerous Roosters backline. His troubles off the field are well documented, but if the strong Roosters club culture can get the best out of him, his signing could add a new dimension to the Tricolours' attack. The other question marks are the ability of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to live up to his promise in the crucial fullback role – can the gifted ball-runner get the job done in defence? – and how the Roosters pack will cope without Sonny Bill Williams? Experienced campaigner Mitch Aubusson is expected to be promoted to the starting side in Williams' place, joining a still strong back row featuring Cordner and Guerra.
Teenager Jackson Hastings is capable of playing anywhere in the spine and appears set to spend some time at dummy half in the absence of the injured Jake Friend at the start of the season after impressing during the Auckland Nines. Centre Brendan Elliott is a big talent waiting in the wings – albeit behind Jennings, Ferguson and Kiwis international Shaun Kenny-Dowall – while former Warriors back-rower/centre Siosiua Taukeiaho scored a great try in the Nines and should provide good depth. Samisoni Langi has four international appearances for Tonga to his name but has only played three NRL games despite being named in the 2013 Holden Cup Team of the Year, and again appears to be a handy back-up option in the second row or the centres.
Room for improvement
They may have been the best attacking team in the competition last season, but once again discipline let them down at times. They conceded more penalties and coughed up more errors than any other club, with Waerea-Hargeaves the most penalised player in the competition and James Maloney ranking third for most errors (Minichiello topped that list). The high penalty count was a feature of their premiership-winning 2013 campaign so hasn't hurt them greatly in the past, but with possession such a key factor in the modern game, an improvement in those basics would surely make the Roosters a tougher side to beat.
The Roosters have plenty of options to fall back on in the forwards especially, with Kennedy, World Cup representatives Sam Moa, Dylan Napa and Kane Evans and Samoan international Isaac Liu providing great back-up to the starting pack, while young talents like Nene Macdonald and Brendan Elliott can fill a role when required in the outside backs. The club's partnership with NSW Cup outfit the Wyong Roos has also led to a couple of new faces joining the mix this year. They do appear a little short of depth in the halves – when Pearce and Maloney were away on NSW Origin duty two years ago their roles were filled by Sonny Bill Williams and Daniel Mortimer, and neither of those players are still at the club. Hastings looms as the top back-up option now, but keeping star players fit and firing is a priority for every NRL club and when it comes to depth the Roosters have it better than most.
Blake Ferguson ($288,000) is the Roosters' most popular NRL Fantasy buy but the departure of Sonny Bill Williams could allow Aidan Guerra ($398,000) to become a genuine Fantasy star in the back row if he starts playing the full 80 minutes each week, while Mitchell Aubusson ($269,000) is also like to benefit in Fantasy this season with more game time if promoted to the starting pack.
Join the Roosters Verified Fantasy League - League code: HUKEX7VS
The Roosters hit the jackpot when Trent Robinson arrived from Catalans Dragons for the 2013 season, taking out the Dally M Coach of the Year gong after leading his team to glory in his first season as a head coach in the NRL. His arrival coincided with the recruitment of a few star players, but he still deserves a lot of credit for instilling a brick wall defensive structure in a team that possessed a lot of natural flair in attack. His Roosters were the most consistent team of 2014 as well, clinching the minor premiership in the final week of the season, and despite his relative lack of experience there is an argument Robinson is as good as any coach in the game right now.
The club may have lost a wealth of experience in Anthony Minichiello and unmatched star power in Sonny Bill Williams, but it wasn't just that pair who guided the Roosters to back-to-back minor premierships in the past couple of years. Barring a spate of injuries it's hard to see them missing out on the top four this year, and if things go their way in the finals there's no reason why they can't be there again in the first weekend of October. NRL.com prediction: 4th.