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Pre-season preview: Can Cronk make the Chooks champs?

CronkBot never sleeps. (Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)
Roar Guru
1st March, 2018
25

The Roosters have been one of the most talked about teams in the lead up to the 2018 season, and much of this has been down to the high-profile player movements both in and out of the club and the resulting expectations this year.

Nothing but a premiership will do in the eyes of some. They are coming off a season where they finished second but bowed out in a disappointing loss to the Cowboys. They are the premiership favourites at a very short $5, but rightfully so.

The 2017 season was a good one for the Chooks after a disappointing 2016. Luke Keary was just about the buy of the season in the five-eighth jersey. Mitchell Pearce was good enough to force his way back into the Origin side. Boyd Cordner is now an Origin captain. These were just some of the ingredients in a return to the top two

They didn’t have the same killer instinct that the Storm had, but they weren’t far off, knocking off every top-eight team during the season with the exception of Manly.

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The Roosters will need to be more ruthless in 2018. They were the beneficiaries of a top-two spot, a second chance and a home final in Week 1, but in the three weeks leading up to the finals they made some hard work of getting there, with narrow wins over some struggling teams.

The biggest winning streak they could manage was four, far from the dominance we have seen from other sides in recent seasons and an indication that the Roosters could be a little patchy at times. As soon as they looked to have a roll on they were brought back to earth with a poor performance.

Hard to ignore too is the way 2017 finished. Without too much disrespect to the Cowboys, the Roosters should have won the game. The Cowboys limped into the finals eighth and busted. They were into their third week playing away from home and without Johnathan Thurston. The Roosters had a week off and were playing in front of their home fans. We saw what the Storm did as home preliminary finalists, and that is what you expect from a team that wins the grand final.

(Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

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How does their squad rate?
The Roosters have probably had the best recruitment drive over the summer. Sure, they lost Aidan Guerra, Connor Watson, Mitchell Pearce, Kane Evans and Michael Gordon among others. But to add New South Wales fullback and Queensland and Australian halfback James Tedesco and Cooper Cronk respectively, you can’t have many complaints as a Roosters fan.

At the back Michael Gordon was reliable and safe, but Tedesco is one of the best fullbacks in the game. He has it all, is a great defender and is explosive in attack. You get the sense it was time for a change from the instability at the Tigers. He will thrive in a team that he doesn’t have to provide everything for.

The rest of the backline is littered with rep talent. Blake Ferguson has been part of NSW for a number of years. Latrell Mitchell might be headed there soon and is looking as fit as ever. Daniel Tupou was injured last year but he too has been part of the NSW backline in the past. Joseph Manu looks to be an exciting talent. They have also brought in Reece Robinson for some cover in the backs.

(AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

The halves pairing has the potential to be one of the best in the competition. Cronk is coming off a premiership-winning season as well as winning an Origin series and world cup. Keary looked reinvigorated in his first season for the tricolours. An organised, professional halfback and a running five-eighth that look to complement each other nicely.

The forward pack isn’t the best in the competition but it sure isn’t a soft one: two aggressive representative props in Dylan Napa and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves; the NSW captain and Australian second-rower Boyd Cordner; and one of the most reliable players in the competition, Mitchell Aubusson.

Isacc Liu, Zane Tetevano, Ryan Matterson and Sio Siua Taukeiaho are all good options off the bench. Frank-Paul Nu’uausala re-joins the club too.

Jake Friend is one of the hardest working hookers in the game, but they don’t have many other options there if injury strikes.

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(Robb Cox ©nrlphotos.com)

Ins
James Tedesco (Tigers, until 2021), Cooper Cronk (Storm, until 2019), Reece Robinson (NSW Waratahs, until 2018) and Frank-Paul Nuuausala (Wigan Warriors).

Outs
Kane Evans (Eels), Aidan Guerra (Knights), Liam Knight (Raiders), Connor Watson (Knights), Paul Carter, Brenden Santi, Johnny Tuivasa-Sheck (Warriors), Michael Gordon (Titans) and Grant Garvey (released).

Injuries and suspensions
The only concern for the Roosters is Luke Keary. He broke his jaw at training in January but should be fit for Round 1.

Roosters player Luke Keary

(AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

Key man
Cooper Cronk. His talent is undoubted. He has done it all in the game, and multiple times. But he still isn’t talked about in the same terms as the likes of Cameron Smith or Johnathan Thurston.

He is a professional. He is meticulous in preparation and obviously a deep thinker on the game. But he has also spent his whole career playing in the same structures and under the same coach. He has also had the service of the best dummy half this century and the best modern fullback in the game in Cameron Smith and Billy Slater.

This move could define Cronk’s career. The Roosters released Pearce, a halfback who most thought would see out his career at Bondi due to Cronk’s arrival. Nearly the only way the swap can be justified is if Cronk improves the club’s fortunes in 2018 either by seeing them to a grand final or premiership.

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A criticism of Pearce is his propensity to go missing in the big games. Cronk, meanwhile, has nailed some big moments under pressure. Look at his field goal to win Queensland a series in 2012 as just one example.

Statistically they had very similar seasons last year. If Cronk doesn’t deliver, the question will be asked: was it worth giving up Pearce with probably five or so years left in favour of Cronk? The Roosters will be hoping it pays off in the short term.

Cooper Cronk

(Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

Where do they need to improve?
It is hard to pinpoint or find too much room for improvement when a side finishes top two and makes a preliminary final, but it was how they ended the season that probably best demonstrates where they need to improve.

In the preliminary final against the Cowboys they looked complacent and, slightly concerningly, a little inexperienced in big moments.

Latrell Mitchell kicking the ball dead off the kick-off twice is just inexcusable in such a big game. An error, an errant pass, a missed tackle – they invited the Cowboys into the contest all night with a dip in concentration in key moments and they paid the price.

They did the same thing a fortnight earlier against the Broncos. They gave up the lead in that game when Blake Ferguson saved a 40/20, but there was nobody home to clean up and the Broncos scored. Mitchell saved their skin that night in the dying stages.

The Roosters at their best looked like contenders. They had big wins during the season to prove it. But they struggled to get a complete 80 minutes out all season.

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The Storm were so ruthless as premiers last season. They gave teams nothing and were so hard to beat. If the Roosters can tighten up their discipline and become more ruthless. they’ll go further in 2018.

Boyd Cordner of the Sydney Roosters in 2017.

(Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Top five clashes
Round 1: Tigers vs Roosters – ANZ Stadium, 10 March
A sunny Saturday in March, an all Sydney affair – both teams will have plenty to prove to start the season. Don’t discount the Tigers.

Round 8: Dragons vs Roosters – Allianz Stadium, 25 April
Anzac Day. Last year was a thriller won for the Roosters by Mitchell Pearce in golden point. It should be another cracker.

Round 14: Knights vs Roosters – McDonald Jones Stadium, 9 June
There will be plenty of Newcastle players thinking about this one. Will the Knights have improved enough to knock off the premiership favourites at home?

Round 16: Roosters vs Storm – Adelaide Oval, 29 June
The only time Cronk will face his former club, at least in the regular season. Another fixture that was won for the Roosters by Mitchell Pearce last year. Will Cronk sink his former club?

Round 19: Sea Eagles vs Roosters – Lottoland, 22 July
The Roosters were overrun by the Sea Eagles on two occasions last season. Two teams that should be a joy to watch in attack go head-to-head on a Sunday afternoon at Brookie.

Sydney Roosters celebrate.

(AAP Image/David Mariuz)

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How will they go?
The Roosters should be thinking premiership. Their roster and 2017 form demand it.

Is anything less an underachievement? They won’t be getting anything for free. The rest of the competition is on notice, and they will encounter teams that are up for the challenge of playing the premiership favourites.

That tag is the cause for concern. How are the Roosters dealing with being the premiership favourites? Are they expecting to just coast to a top-two spot again or are they hungry and willing to work? We saw what happened to the Panthers last year wearing that tag.

They may have finished second last year, but there was a fair bit of daylight between them and Melbourne.

Their team is filled with representative talent across the park and a number of players who have won premierships and Origin series. There are some concerns over depth and they need an 80 per cent goal-kicker, but if they can deal with those, they are a big chance of taking out the premiership.

Predicted finish
Second.