No team has gone back to back in the NRL for more than two decades, but the Sydney Roosters will be gunning to break the hoodoo, and head into the new competition as favourites.
The Roosters weren’t the best team all the way last year, but they were when it decided who would lift the Provan-Summons trophy.
If you had judged them off their first three months, the Roosters were going to struggle to make the eight. But they turned things around, with some of the best players in rugby league finding their mojo the longer the season went on.
Making the grand final was where most pundits had them in the pre-season, and it’s where they had to end up to justify the amount of talent which had been brought in over the off-season.
Still, their forwards hunted as a unit and were dominant, while Luke Keary alongside veteran Cooper Cronk was positive, as were the outside backs, who played both ends of the park strongly.
The defending premiers have made few changes to the squad for the new season, and it should leave them in good stead for a tilt at the title again, although a trip to England for the World Club Challenge – which they won – might take some wind out of the sails.
Colours: red, white, blue
Home grounds: Sydney Cricket Ground, Central Coast Stadium, Adelaide Oval
Minor premierships: 15
Best finish in last five years: 2018 – premiers
2018 finish: premiers
Coach: Trent Robinson
Captain: Boyd Cordner and Jake Friend
Boyd Cordner (c), Jake Friend (c), Mitchell Aubusson, Egan Butcher, Nat Butcher, Lindsay Collins, Angus Crichton, Cooper Cronk, Joshua Curran, Poasa Faamausili, Craig Garvey, Ryan Hall, Matt Ikuvalu, Luke Keary, Brock Lamb, Bernard Lewis, Isaac Liu, Joseph Manu, Latrell Mitchell, Brett Morris, Victor Radley, Sio Siua Taukeiaho, James Tedesco, Zane Tetevano, Daniel Tupou, Sitili Tupouniua, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves
Ins: Egan Butcher (promoted), Angus Crichton (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Craig Garvey (Canberra Raiders), Ryan Hall (Leeds Rhinos), Brock Lamb (Newcastle Knights), Brett Morris (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs)
Outs: Kurt Baptiste (North Queensland Cowboys), Mitch Cornish (retired), Blake Ferguson (Parramatta Eels), Ryan Matterson (Wests Tigers), Paul Momirovski (Wests Tigers), Dylan Napa (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Frank-Paul Nu’uausala (retired), Sean O’Sullivan (Brisbane Broncos), Chris Smith (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Eloni Vunakece (retired)
The key point to note here is that the spine hasn’t changed one iota. Rather, it’s outside backs and forwards chopping and changing.
Dylan Napa is undoubtedly their biggest loss, with the front rower joining Canterbury. Elsewhere in the forwards, Ryan Matterson has joined the Wests Tigers, while Eloni Vunakece has called time on his career early doors.
While they have lost some talent up front, Angus Crichton is their biggest gain.
Egan Butcher has been promoted into the top squad, while Craig Garvey will add depth into the hooking position.
Blake Ferguson is another big loss, as he was one of the best wingers in the competition last year, while Chris Smith, Paul Momirovski and talented youngster Sean O’Sullivan has moved north to the Broncos.
It should be noted before we go any further that – out of respect for the readers and series – I haven’t changed my best 17 after the teams came out on Tuesday.
The Roosters’ spine is one of the best floating around, and that’s because of the unit as a whole, but also because of the leadership and guidance they get from Cronk.
While Cronk and his busted shoulder played little part on the ball in last year’s decider, his on-field coaching ensured the Roosters stuck to a gameplan which bullied the Storm for the entire 80 minutes, in what was one of the most dominant performances all season.
Meanwhile, though Keary had a strong season and is a talented footy player, his Clive Churchill winning effort in the grand final might be the making of the rest of his career.
James Tedesco will line up at fullback and, with Billy Slater now retired, he is the best No.1 in the game. His defence needs a bit of work, but the consistency he showed from the second month of the season was outstanding.
The spine is completed by the experienced Jake Friend, who not only defends like his life depends on it, but adds plenty to an already strong attack.
While the rest of the backline is littered with superstars, it’s Joseph Manu who is exciting fans heading into 2019.
Many of his achievements were overshadowed last year by Latrell Mitchell, but during the finals, he could have made a case to be the best player.
Manu’s defence was solid and his attack outstanding, forming a lethal combination with Blake Ferguson.
Mitchell was able to cut errors out of his game and improve his defence, on top of already being incredibly dangerous in attack, making him an unquestionable Origin player.
While former Origin player Daniel Tupou hasn’t been at his best for some time, he has height and acceleration most wingers can only dream of.
Brett Morris should slot onto the other wing, with the now three-club player impressing during the World Club Challenge, while Ryan Hall leads the back-up brigade.
Jared Waerea-Hargreaves needs to be at his best to cover the loss of Napa, while Sio Siua Taukeiaho will be expected to take his game to the next level.
The middle third is rounded out by the hard-hitting Isaac Liu, with Victor Radley also challenging for that jersey.
Boyd Cordner and Angus Crichton are a dynamic second-row combination, while Mitchell Aubusson adds plenty of depth – and an option in the centres.
Zane Tetevano and Nat Butcher are my picks to round out the bench, but with players like Lindsay Collins challenging for spots, it’ll be on.
Again, it’s a great first 17, but injuries could strike, meaning the main concern from pre-season 2018 has followed into pre-season 2019.
Tedesco hasn’t put in a bad performance in the sky blue yet, Mitchell is destined to be there, while Cordner is the Blues’ captain.
If Keary continues his killer run of form, he will be in discussions and Angus Crichton won’t be far away either.
There could be some heavy disruptions come that portion of the season.
Likely best 17
1. James Tedesco
2. Daniel Tupou
3. Latrell Mitchell
4. Joseph Manu
5. Brett Morris
6. Luke Keary
7. Cooper Cronk
8. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves
9. Jake Friend
10. Sio Siua Taukeiaho
11. Boyd Cordner
12. Angus Crichton
13. Isaac Liu
14. Victor Radley
15. Mitchell Aubusson
16. Zane Tetevano
17. Nat Butcher
Can they avoid the premiership hangover?
Going back-to-back in the NRL is the toughest task in rugby league – no one has done it in a unified competition since the Broncos in 1992-93 (the less said about that, the better).
This is a side without a great deal of change though, and more importantly, key positions are the same.
While every team will be up to play them, Trent Robinson is the right man to have in charge. If he can keep players fresh and their mind on the task, particularly with Cronk potentially in his last season, they might just reverse the curse.
Can they replace Ferguson’s impact?
Funnily enough, replacing a winger might be the toughest thing the Roosters have to do this year.
Ferguson was unbelievable last year in all facets, but it was the way he was able to get sets off to a cracking start which brought fear into opposition.
He was always good for a good run out of dummy half, or bringing the ball back from kicks, and when his side was in trouble, you could bet he would take two runs per set.
It made life easy on the forwards and halves alike, and is going to require all of Tedesco, Morris and Tupou to maintain that output.
|1||Fri Mar 15||7:55pm||South Sydney Rabbitohs||Sydney Cricket Ground||Nine/Fox|
|2||Sat Mar 23||7:35pm||Manly Sea Eagles||Lottoland||Fox|
|3||Fri Mar 29||7:55pm||Parramatta Eels||ANZ Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|4||Thu Apr 4||7:50pm||Brisbane Broncos||Sydney Cricket Ground||Nine/Fox|
|5||Sat Apr 13||7:35pm||Cronulla Sharks||Shark Park||Fox|
|6||Fri Apr 19||7:55pm||Melbourne Storm||AAMI Park||Nine/Fox|
|7||Thu Apr 25||4:05pm||St George Illawarra Dragons||Sydney Cricket Ground||Nine/Fox|
|8||Sat May 4||7:35pm||Wests Tigers||Sydney Cricket Ground||Fox|
|9||Sun May 12||2pm||Canberra Raiders||Suncorp Stadium||Fox|
|10||Fri May 17||7:55pm||Brisbane Broncos||Suncorp Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|11||Fri May 24||7:55pm||Newcastle Knights||McDonald Jones Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|13||Sun Jun 9||4:05pm||Penrith Panthers||Panthers Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|14||Sun Jun 16||4:05pm||Canterbury Bulldogs||Sydney Cricket Ground||Nine/Fox|
|15||Fri Jun 28||7:55pm||Melbourne Storm||Adelaide Oval||Nine/Fox|
|16||Fri Jul 5||7:55pm||Wests Tigers||Western Sydney Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|17||Sun Jul 14||2pm||North Queensland Cowboys||Central Coast Stadium||Fox|
|18||Sat Jul 20||3pm||Newcastle Knights||Sydney Cricket Ground||Fox|
|19||Sun Jul 28||2pm||Canterbury Bulldogs||ANZ Stadium||Fox|
|20||Sun Aug 4||2pm||Gold Coast Titans||Sydney Cricket Ground||Fox|
|21||Sun Aug 11||2pm||Canberra Raiders||GIO Stadium||Fox|
|22||Sun Aug 18||2pm||New Zealand Warriors||Sydney Cricket Ground||Fox|
|23||Sat Aug 24||7:35 PM||St George Illawarra Dragons||Jubilee Oval||Nine/Fox|
|24||Sat Aug 31||7:35 PM||Penrith Panthers||Sydney Cricket Ground||Nine/Fox|
|25||Thu Sep 5||7:50 PM||South Sydney Rabbitohs||ANZ Stadium||Nine/Fox|
The quick breakdown
Teams to play twice: South Sydney Rabbitohs, Brisbane Broncos, Melbourne Storm, St George Illawarra Dragons, Wests Tigers, Canberra Raiders, Newcastle Knights, Penrith Panthers, Canterbury Bulldogs
Best home run: Round 14 – Round 20 (five out of seven)
Worst away run: Round 2 – Round 13 (eight out of 12)
Five-day turnarounds: 2
Firstly, it’s worth noting one of the five-day turnarounds is right before the finals, so that’ll give them a minimum of eight days off before any potential knockout footy begins. Advantage, Tricolours.
What is not an advantage, is losing their home ground to redevelopment. Luckily enough, they have the Sydney Cricket Ground, where they have nine of their home games, with the other three being magic round in Brisbane, a trek to Adelaide against Melbourne, and one on the Central Coast.
They play just four of their first 12 games in Sydney though, so it’s a difficult start to the season, which includes a leg of Brisbane, Brisbane, Newcastle, Penrith starting from Magic Round.
Their double-up list is tough, but that’s what you’d expect for the reigning premiers, with the Rabbitohs, Broncos, Storm, Dragons and Panthers all appearing of last year’s top eight, while they face the unknown quantities of the Tigers and Knights as well.
Finishing off by facing the Dragons, Panthers and Rabbitohs means the Roosters need to be comfortably in the eight with three rounds to play, but also ensures they should be primed and ready come September.
With arguably the best 17 in the competition, it’s hard to see this side finishing anywhere other than the top.
The Roosters’ depth players have another year under the belt, which should be a major positive for the club given it was the only real problem you could find with the club last year.
As for winning back-to-back premierships? It’s been proven multiple times in the last 25 years it simply can’t be done. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Roosters in the grand final, but they won’t lift the trophy again.
Thanks for tuning into The Roar’s NRL preview series. It’s been a lot of fun to write, and the comments flowing through show exactly what sort of season this is going to be.
2018 was the closest on record, and there is a feeling most of the 16 clubs could finish anywhere on the ladder this time around, so it should be another cracker.
Tomorrow, the first edition of NRL expert tips will be out for the season, then we will be ready to go with our live coverage of each and every game throughout the season.
16th – Parramatta Eels
15th – Canberra Raiders
14th – Manly Sea Eagles
13th – New Zealand Warriors
12th – Canterbury Bulldogs
11th – Cronulla Sharks
10th – Wests Tigers
9th – Gold Coast Titans
8th – Brisbane Broncos
7th – Newcastle Knights
6th – North Queensland Cowboys
5th – Penrith Panthers
4th – St George Illawarra Dragons
3rd – Melbourne Storm
2nd – South Sydney Rabbitohs