16/04/2024

Roosters players celebrating a try in the elimination final win against the Titans. Photo: nrl.com

The Sydney Roosters didn't quite challenge for another premiership in 2021, but their ability to perform during adversity has them well placed.

Just two years after their second consecutive premiership in 2019, many expected the Sydney Roosters to be a flag chance once again in season 2021.

Then everything went wrong.

Losing the likes of Jake Friend and Boyd Cordner to retirements mid-season would be enough to cruel a side with premiership aspirations. But add to that the loss of Luke Keary in Round 3 and the eventual retirement of Josh Morris and the loss of Isaac Liu at season’s end, you have a season full of poor luck.

It makes their fifth-placed finish even more remarkable, with their thrilling one-point win over the Titans in week one of finals quickly becoming a special finals victory for a side that refused to lie down at any stage in 2021.

What worked?

Not many clubs in the premiership window get the chance to actively rebuild their list for the future without dropping down the ladder.

In the Sydney Roosters’ case, they did so admirably, unleashing one of the great young prospects alongside a long list of other talent ready to take the tri-colours back to premiership rugby in 2022 and beyond.

The 2021 Dally M Rookie of the Year Sam Walker was certainly the highlight of the emerging crop who broke through this season. His mercurial efforts in half-back resulted in eight tries, 23 goals, two field goals and 19 try assists in his 21 starts after the loss of Luke Keary early on in the season.

But Walker wasn’t the only talking point for the Roosters. The debut of Fletcher Baker, who scored a magical debut try and consistently battled hard, was another big tick for Trent Robinson’s side. Joseph Suaalii was another shining light, while the emergence of the strong-willed Drew Hutchison across half-back and the development of Egan Butcher places the Roosters in a prime position to vie for more flags in the next five seasons.

Sitting in the top five in the competition for try assists, tackle busts, line breaks and tries scored, the Roosters offence still found many ways to attack and score even without some valuable players.

What didn’t?

While the Roosters attacking end continued to flourish with new members adding versatility to their offensive line, their defence paid the price for the high turnovers.

Without the trusted experience of Cordner and Friend to keep them strong defensively, their ill-discipline constantly put them under pressure in 2021, as some last-ditch efforts saved the tri-colours from conceding more points during the season.

Their incredible work rate was summed up by making the third most tackles in the competition for the entire season, but also paints a picture of a side always under pressure defensively. The Roosters had the second most missed tackles in the league with 849, while also conceding the fifth most run metres – some amazing statistics for a side that still managed to prove a finals factor.

11 sin bins for 2021 also has them equal first among the NRL teams, highlighting their poor discipline in crucial games. With suspensions causing more damage to the Roosters line-up, the need to play within the rules becomes a big focus heading into 2022 if Sydney are to return to their defensive best. Their tardiness defensively is best summed up by the fact that they conceded the most penalties out of all teams during the season – if the Roosters’ defensive unit could’ve reached the heights of their offence, then who knows how far they may have gone in 2021.

Who impressed?

You don’t have to look far to see the Roosters’ shining lights in 2021.

While the chips fell down around him, stand-in captain James Tedesco was at his creative best, winning many games single-handedly to maintain Sydney’s spot within the top five all season long.

He was justly rewarded for his solo efforts, claiming his fourth consecutive Jack Gibson Medal, while also being recognised as the Dally M 2021 Captain of the Year for his wonderful leadership through trying times.

Right up with Tedesco was young Walker – a league-wide Rookie of the Year who’s small frame and trademark looping passes quickly made him an excitement machine to watch in the NRL.

Highly-touted, Walker burst onto the scene after Keary went down injured, shining in his half-back role to set up many tries and bely the big bodies around him.

Young Sam Walker came into the league and shone instantly, winning the league’s Rookie of the Year award (Photo – NRL).

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Season highlight

Although there were many great tight wins that the Roosters kept finding themselves coming away with, their one-point elimination final victory over the Titans was extra sweet.

Already with a penchant for clutch field goals at the death, Sam Walker and co managed to pull one last gruelling effort out of themselves against Gold Coast in week one of finals, clawing ahead at the end for a thrilling 25-24 win in the Queensland sun.

With many thinking the Roosters had crawled to the finals without their experienced retirees and were placing too much on Tedesco and Walker, the rag-tag, cobbled-together group produced one more stunning effort to remind the NRL they are building a new force for the foreseeable future.

Season lowlight

For all of their effort and spirit the previous week, the following week’s semi-final loss to Manly was always on the cards.

But the matter in which they were ruined by the Sea Eagles and Tom Trbojevic on a Friday night stage was painful for many Roosters fans.

The 42-6 drubbing was a cruel finish to a season full of wonderful efforts, as they looked rudderless in the face of a Manly side baying for a preliminary final spot.

Number 1 off-season priority

With the Roosters now missing Friend and Cordner (you can also count the indelible hole left by Cooper Cronk’s 2019 fairytale retirement), they’ll be looking to find strong spine members who can strengthen Robinson’s defence around their growing playmakers.

The Roosters have already acquired 26-year-old middle Renouf Atoni from the Bulldogs on a two-year deal to add more muscle to their core group, as the former Bulldog played 14 games this season and 43 overall. With forward Naufahu Whyte also adding two years to his time with the Roosters, the tri-colours can now focus on some big name forwards to help shoulder the hard work in 2022 and beyond.

Way too early best 17 for 2022

The big debate is whether the Roosters go back to their returning brigade, or if they embrace the youth that showed so much in 2021. If Robinson sticks with his young core it could benefit the team greatly moving forward.

Walker just gets the nod at seven ahead of the trusty Drew Hutchison. New recruit Connor Watson will be a valuable addition to the Roosters bench with his versatility while rising stars Egan Butcher and Fletcher Baker round out the bench. With Tedesco leading and Keary back, it’s a formidable side.

Final Say

Despite not once again vying for a flag in 2021, the Roosters’ bravery amid adversity was exceptional, and the watershed year has them perfectly placed to create a premiership side in the next five years.

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