The Roosters’ season could end tonight, but that doesn’t mean it’s ‘The End’

In sports commentary, it can be tempting to anoint the new champion.

From the outside, things can get boring when it’s the same story with the same team winning every year.

We’re seeing that happen with the Roosters this season.

Former coach and prominent commentator Phil Gould said they were “at the end of a long run” and Paul Gallen speculated that Luke Keary could lose his spot in the New South Wales side after their loss to Penrith in week one of the finals.

Brisbane, Queensland and Australian great Gorden Tallis said the team wasn’t up for the fight anymore, and Fox Sports analyst and 2016 premiership winner Michael Ennis said he thought the side was visibly feeling the pressure.

Penrith Panthers Nathan Cleary and Dylan Edwards celebrate a field goal as Luke Keary despairs.Penrith Panthers Nathan Cleary and Dylan Edwards celebrate a field goal as Luke Keary despairs.
For most teams, there’s no shame in losing to the top-ranked side by a point in the first week of the finals.(AAP: Dan Himbrechts)

No doubt, at the pointy end of their fourth straight finals run, coming on the back of two successive winning trips to the grand final, they do look below their best.

Their fourth place at the end of this season is their second-worst finish since 2012, and the worst since finishing 15th in 2016, which itself came hot on the heels of three straight minor premierships and three long seasons that ended in the preliminary finals.

In the past two games they had 60 points dumped on them by South Sydney in round 20 and lost to the Panthers in their qualifying final, but is that enough to consign them to the scrap heap?

Not exactly. And here’s why.

Were those losses really that bad?

Numerically, the 60-8 demolition by Souths was startling and the fact that no team has conceded 50 points and gone on to win the premiership was an easy shovel with which to dig the Tricolours’ grave.

A South Sydney NRL players holds the ball with his right arm as he crosses the line for a try against the Roosters.A South Sydney NRL players holds the ball with his right arm as he crosses the line for a try against the Roosters.
The score was a more or less acceptable 32-8 before it blew out in final 20 minutes of the game.(AAP: Dan Himbrechts)

Even disregarding the fact that 2020 is a season unlike any other in recent memory, 28 of the 60 points were scored from the 60th minute onwards, and 22 were scored in the last 10 minutes.

Most of those were scored by five-try hero Alex Johnston down a wing being patrolled by recent 300-gamer Mitchell Aubusson playing out of his favoured position and fill-in winger Matt Ikuvalu.

In those final few minutes of their final game before the post-season started, the Roosters had effectively already lost the game and had the look of a team that was trying not to get injured.

The previous three weeks saw them comfortably take down top-eight sides Cronulla, Newcastle and semi-final opponent Canberra.

Then in the qualifying final against the minor premiers they jumped out to a 10-0 lead, the Panthers hit back with four straight tries, but the Roosters stormed back in the final half-hour and only lost by one point to the presumptive usurpers.

Like so many great teams and players, we’ve just got such a high bar for this team that if they don’t reach exceed that stratosphere every time, it’s a failure.

A Penrith NRL players holds the ball with his right arm as he runs towards the try line against the Roosters.A Penrith NRL players holds the ball with his right arm as he runs towards the try line against the Roosters.
The Panthers’ 29-28 win was a testament to their resilience, not the Roosters’ frailties.(AAP: Dean Lewins)

Since the season resumed after the coronavirus shutdown, the Roosters lost just four regular season games. That’s the same number as the second-placed Storm and one fewer than the third-placed Eels.

Those losses came against the Storm (twice), the Raiders and in round 20 against Souths – all justifiable defeats to legitimate contenders in an aggressively compressed season.

Even if 2020 is done, the future looks bright

If the Roosters’ season does end before the grand final, what does that mean for this side?

Well, not nothing, but not as much as has been suggested by some pundits.

There are some troubling signs, namely the decline of some of their premiership lynchpins.

A Sydney Roosters NRL player is congratulated by a teammate as he holds the ball after scoring a try against Melbourne.A Sydney Roosters NRL player is congratulated by a teammate as he holds the ball after scoring a try against Melbourne.
Boyd Cordner (left) is feeling the effects of 10 seasons in the middle.(AAP: Darren England)

Boyd Cordner and his co-captain, Jake Friend, have been slowed by years of brutal play in the middle and a series of head knocks.

We’re also seeing a diminished version of the Jared Waerea-Hargreaves of years gone by and utility Aubusson is retiring.

But as we’ve discussed, the Roosters problems aren’t the same as the rest of the league. They’ve got uptown problems.

Cordner isn’t yet 30 years old, Siosiua Taukeiaho has already taken over from JWH as the best prop in the side, and players are lining up behind Friend to take over as hooker.

Jared Warea-Hargreave is being tackled by the ankles and chest by two Warriors opponentsJared Warea-Hargreave is being tackled by the ankles and chest by two Warriors opponents
Jared Waerea-Hargreaves isn’t the prop he used to be.(AAP: Darren Pateman)

The only reason 20-year-old Freddy Lussick was the starting nine in the 29-28 loss to Penrith was because Sam Verrills and Victor Radley both tore their ACLs this year.

Radley and Angus Crichton are also ready to take up Cordner’s mantle as a do-everything presence in the middle.

Away from the engine room, halfback Kyle Flanagan has done a bit of a Brodie Croft in struggling to replace Cooper Cronk, but the 22-year-old was still among the top point scorers for the year and deserves a lot of slack considering this is his first full year of NRL football.

Teenage prodigy Sam Walker has also been with them in the bubble this year and even if neither of them turn into the ‘next big thing’ as hoped, Luke Keary is the same guy who won the Clive Churchill Medal two years ago and plenty of teams have excelled with solid players like Shane Perry, Chad Townsend and Blake Green alongside superstar halves.

Sydney Roosters' Luke Keary points as Kyle Flanagan looks to celebrate with him.Sydney Roosters' Luke Keary points as Kyle Flanagan looks to celebrate with him.
Kyle Flanagan (right) is no Cooper Cronk, but he doesn’t need to be as long as Luke Keary (left) is steering the ship.(AAP: Darren England)

Then you go further back and remember James Tedesco is the best fullback in rugby league, Joseph Manu might be the best centre and 20-year-old Billy Smith only played two games last year before injury stopped him from playing in 2020.

Plus there are clearly portraits of Brett and Josh Morris hanging in some attic in Kiama that are ageing rapidly while their on-field exploits continue to amaze, with almost 600 games and more than 300 tries between them.

Behind the scenes, Trent Robinson is younger than most of the coaches in the NRL and has already established himself as a mastermind, Nick Politis is a financial wizard who puts them in the firing line of umpteen salary sombrero jokes, and the winning culture is so ingrained that Sonny Bill Williams was only ever going to return to Bondi after his Canadian sojourn.

So don’t shed any tears for the Roosters. Even if they don’t become the first team since Parramatta in 1983 to win a hat-trick of premierships, they’ll still be mixing it up when the games matter in 2021 and beyond.