At his best, Luke Keary can be the best player in the NRL.
Unfortunately, he has been well below that in the last fortnight for the Roosters as his side fell to back-to-back defeats, the Tricolours quickly slumping from premiership favourites to elimination footy a week earlier than anticipated.
It’s not to say the Roosters were poor last week. There was certainly plenty of improvement between their thrashing at the hands of South Sydney in Round 20 and their tight qualifying final loss to the Panthers last weekend, but even then, the scoreboard flatters them.
They jumped out to the races, then were wound in and conceded 28 straight points. Any team who does that in any finals match against a good team isn’t going to win
They ended up getting closer than anyone might have expected, but having thrown the kitchen sink at the mountain men, they are now in a position where they have to back up seven days later and put their chances at a three-peat on the line.
Get through this game and the Melbourne Storm lie in wait, so the Roosters are certainly going to have to do it the hard way if they want to make yet another grand final.
But just getting through this game will be a struggle even at their beloved Sydney Cricket Ground as they take on a Raiders outfit who, while written off at one point, are developing a full head of steam just in time for the most important matches of the year.
They might have a day less to turnaround, but chances are they aren’t feeling the effects of last week quite as much, nor will they carry back-to-back losses into this evening’s contest with Canberra.
Form can be everything at this time of year, and the Tricolours are looking shaky, having let in 89 points across their last two games.
While all four matches, elimination or not last weekend were won by the favourites, the semi-finals promise two matches between teams who look reasonably evenly-matched and in varying form. It’s a tipping nightmare.
But, back on tonight’s game, and the key may well come down to how well the Roosters control the ball, the possession and the territory.
If you don’t do that and do it well, a Raiders pack led by Josh Papalii know how to roll right over the top of you on a path to destruction. If they manage to do that, then Jack Wighton and his running game becomes the most lethal option on the field, as the Sharks found out last week.
So while defence is important for the Roosters, the way they have played the last fortnight suggests their attack – and how well they control said attack – will be what decides whether they have it in them to defend well enough in long periods.
It’s a different methodology of working out how a team wins a crucial game of footy at the end of the season, but even for a team as well-drilled as the Roosters, it is impossible to stop a high-quality team scoring points when they spend a chunk of the game benefiting from errors.
And so, it is up to the entire Roosters team to stand up and provide a platform for Luke Keary to weave his magic, rather than almost seemingly relying on Keary to carry the entire team.
The forwards need to get back to their best, sure, but it’s what’s coming in the other creative positions which will determine if Trent Robinson’s side have enough points in them to go toe to toe with the green machine.
Jake Friend being back will be a huge boost, and in terms of service to his halves, it will improve out of sight with the veteran hooker back on the park.
He plays a monumental role in the Roosters attack (and indeed defence), and was sorely missed last week, but the key position is that of Kyle Flanagan.
He started the season brilliantly, but clearly has struggled to stay in favour with Trent Robinson, and his form, which has been inconsistent at best, shows why. He was dropped at one point, re-called out of necessity and if he can’t aid Keary with the kicking game tonight, the Roosters may as well not even bother showing up.
See, Keary has a special talent for not just kicking, but being able to pick the right heads-up moment to run the ball. He averages around ten runs per game, but yet, he has 82 metres to his credit and barely a quiet game when it comes to try assists, line-break assists or tackle busts of his own.
He has a scary ability to read the game like few others can, and his role in being the surprise ball-runner becomes even more important when you consider Wighton will be weaving his way through on the other side.
The pair of them will create an intriguing match-up against each other on the field and could go a long way to deciding the result this evening on the Cricket Ground.
There are plenty of other barriers in the way of the Roosters. Mentally, they are going to be shot, defensively, they have been average and their constant look to create and find avenues to score creates a high error count.
They need to overcome all of those issues if they are going to reverse the defeat they suffered at the hands of an undermanned Canberra earlier this season.
But if Trent Robinson can’t find a way for his side to reduce the pressure on Keary and give his side other options across the park, they might as well forget about a trip to Brisbane next weekend.