A grand final re-match against Canberra on September 5 at GIO Stadium may decide the fate of the Sydney Roosters' campaign to become the first team in the NRL era to achieve a premiership three-peat.
The Round 17 clash already holds significance for the Roosters, as it is the game Sonny Bill Williams is expected to make his eagerly awaited return to the NRL, but it could also decide the top-four hopes of the back-to-back premiers.
The Roosters currently sit in fourth place on 18 points, equal with the Raiders, just one point ahead of sixth-placed Newcastle and two points clear of Cronulla and South Sydney.
No team since the formation of the NRL in 1998 has won the Telstra Premiership from outside the top four.
A mounting injury toll headlined by the loss of five-eighth Luke Keary (ribs), second-rower Mitch Aubusson (wrist) and halfback Lachlan Lam (ankle) in last Thursday night’s 24-6 defeat by Melbourne has cast serious doubt over the Roosters' 2020 aspirations.
Captain Boyd Cordner (HIA), prop Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (calf), wingers Brett Morris (back) and Daniel Tupou (ankle) and second-rower Angus Crichton (knee) have all been sidelined, while lock Victor Radley, back-up hooker Sam Verrills and outside back Billy Smith are out for the season with knee injuries.
However, history shows that Trent Robinson’s men have overcome similar obstacles in the past two seasons to now be in a position to become the first team since the Parramatta Eels of 1981, 1982 and 1983 to win three successive premiership titles.
After 14 rounds of last year’s competition the Roosters were in third position on 20 points and finished the regular season second behind the Storm before going on to defeat Canberra in the grand final.
The previous year the Roosters were in sixth place on 18 points and edged out Melbourne for the minor premiership on for-and-against. They beat the Storm in the 2018 grand final.
Just as they did in the first 14 matches of last year’s competition, the Roosters have used 27 players so far this season and it hasn’t only been through necessity, with Kyle Flanagan dropped for the past two weeks and a number of rookies or journeymen receiving game time.
The long game
Robinson is arguably the most calculating coach in the NRL and the way he plans a season is meticulous, with some comparing the Roosters' preparations to a swimmer tapering ahead of the Olympic Games.
It’s why he won’t rush Williams after two weeks in hotel quarantine, where the 35-year-old dual code superstar underwent a series of daily workouts designed by Roosters head of performance Travis Touma just to prepare him for training.
Cordner has been kept in cotton wool because the Roosters want him fit and firing at the end of the season.
The Australian captain was rested from the World Club Challenge and the opening two rounds before the competition stopped, while the Roosters are now taking every precaution to ensure he has fully recovered from concussion-type symptoms before resuming playing.
Match Highlights: Roosters v Storm
The attitude of Robinson and his staff is that they would rather a player spend an extra week on the sideline than rush back early and be either underdone or suffer a recurrence of the injury.
It's also an opportunity to build depth within the squad and Daniel Fifita, Max Bailey and Christian Tuipulotu have all been handed their debuts in the past three weeks.
Lam, Verrills, Smith and Josh Curran were blooded in similar circumstances last season. The year before it was Nat Butcher, Lindsay Collins, Poasa Faamausili, Matt Ikuvalu, Paul Momirovski and Sean O'Sullivan.
There are six rounds remaining before the finals series and Robinson’s aim will be for the Roosters to finish in the top four.
“I don’t think it is a long game,” Roosters hooker Jake Friend said. “You want to win all your games and this is an important part of the year.
"You want to get your run started for the back end of the year and we’re definitely not holding him back but it is about getting Sonny and the rest of the squad fit and healthy.”
Every try from round 14
Timetable to ensure stars back for good
The Roosters used 28 players last season but Smith was the only one to make his first appearance after round 14 as they managed injuries to key players.
Friend played just six matches in 2019, including the grand final, while Keary spent five weeks on the sideline after a series of concussions. Cordner also missed eight games last season and Brett Morris was sidelined for 12 of the team’s 27 fixtures.
In the first 14 matches of this season, Robinson has again used 27 players and with the competition shortened to 20 rounds Williams may be the only new face in the Roosters line-up during the weeks ahead.
Centre Josh Morris made his return from a calf injury last weekend and his twin Brett, Tupou, Waerea-Hargreaves and Crichton are all expected back either against the Tigers or Broncos.
“I guess it is more so whether you play a week early and potentially injure it again or do you sit out another week and get it fully right,” Josh Morris said. “It is just dependent on how Brett feels and if he can manage the pain, whether he plays this week or not.”
Besides Williams, Keary has been pencilled in for a round 17 return in Canberra, while it is hoped that Cordner could be available by then.
Aubusson is expected to return from a broken wrist in either the last round of the regular season or during the finals.
Tackle of the Week: Round 14
“We have just got to make do with what we have got,” Friend said. “We have got a good squad, we will work it out and we will hopefully get a few boys back in the coming weeks. We are not the only team in this boat so we have just got to do what we can with it.”
The run home
To ensure a top-four berth and a second chance in the play-offs, the Roosters are likely to need to win at least four of their remaining six matches against Wests Tigers, Brisbane, Canberra, Newcastle, Cronulla and Souths.
In addition to the Roosters, the Raiders' only match against another top eight team is the round 20 clash with Cronulla as their other opponents Gold Coast, Canterbury, St George Illawarra and the Warriors are out of finals reckoning.
Try of the Week: Round 14
The Knights face the Cowboys, Warriors, Roosters, Sharks, Dragons and Titans, while Cronulla play Penrith, North Queensland, Newcastle, the Warriors, Roosters and Raiders.
A superior for-and-against of +156 points after scoring 354 and conceding just 198 this season should hold the Roosters in good stead compared to Canberra (+55), Newcastle (+73), Cronulla (+56) and Souths (+53).
Flanagan remains the NRL’s leading pointscorer with a tally of 126 points from four tries and 55 goals. Dragons centre Zac Lomax is second with 122 points, ahead of Rabbitohs halfback Adam Reynolds (117), Penrith’s Nathan Cleary (116) and Cronulla’s Shaun Johnson (110).
With Lam sidelined until late in the season, the rookie playmaker will need to lead the team until Keary returns, with former St George Illawarra five-eighth Drew Hutchison expected to be his halves partner against the Tigers on Saturday.
Teen playmaker Sam Walker, the 18-year-old son of former Brisbane halfback Ben Walker, is eligible for selection, along with hooker Freddy Lussick.
“I have got no doubt that Flanno will slot straight back in and do his job,” Friend said. “I am sure he will be busting to get back out there and we are looking forward to it.
“Flanno has been really good about it. He hasn’t been kicking stones. He has sort of taken it on the chin and he has been going hard at training. That’s all you can ask.”
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.