Before the 2021 season kicked off, the Roosters were favourites in many people’s eyes to feature heavily in the finals series once again and maybe even win another premiership.
After all, they had won back-to-back titles in 2018 and 2019 and had made it as far as the semi-finals in 2020 only to be narrowly defeated by the Canberra Raiders. They still had their three-time premiership-winning coach at the helm, and their 2020 squad was largely intact.
The only significant loss from 2020 was 300-gamer Mitch Aubusson, but on a positive note, they had signed teenage wunderkind Joseph Suaalii from under the noses of arch rivals South Sydney. It looked very much like all systems go despite the initial absence of captain Boyd Cordner, dummy-half backup Sam Verrills and centre Billy Smith, who were all recovering from injuries incurred in 2020.
The Roosters flew out of the blocks at the beginning of the season, defeating Manly and Wests by 42 and 34 points respectively, but the Round 1 victory over the Sea Eagles was a costly one, as they lost Jake Friend to concussion, and he never made it back on to the field.
Round 3 saw Freddy Lussick step up to take Friend’s place in the No. 9 jersey, but Souths got the better of the Roosters in that game and won it by ten. Worse news, however, was that star playmaker Luke Keary suffered a season-ending ACL injury in that game. The casualty ward was growing.
Fortunately Round 4 was uneventful for the Roosters from an injury perspective, and they defeated the Warriors by 20 points. They also narrowly defeated Cronulla in Round 5 but lost third-choice hooker Lussick to a serious arm injury that would keep him out of the team for the rest of the season.
There was a horrible pattern developing here. Ben Marschke was next in line for the apparently jinxed Roosters No. 9 jersey after playing just two first grade games off the bench.
Fast-forward to Round 8 and the Roosters notched up their sixth win of the season, torching Newcastle 38-4. Centre Josh Morris had a field day running in three tries, but just to demonstrate how the game can be a great leveller, his twin brother Brett, captaining the Roosters for the first time and going into the game with a phenomenal 11 tries from six games, suffered a season-ending ACL injury. Just to pile it on, Origin front-rower Lindsay Collins suffered the same injury as Morris in this game, and that was the end of his season as well.
Surely things couldn’t get any worse from here.
But of course they did, and the very next week a now somewhat depleted Roosters side were defeated by Parramatta, and in the process they lost stand-in five-eighth Drew Hutchison for six weeks after he suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung at the hands (knees actually) of Parramatta’s Dylan Brown.
So after nine rounds the Roosters found themselves in fifth place, and it wasn’t long until they were rocked with the news that Boyd Cordner, Jake Friend and Brett Morris would all immediately retire from the game due to their injuries.
There was still more bad news to come for the Roosters. Joseph Suaalii finally made his first-grade debut in Round 11 and looked the goods for such a youngster, but he too was gone for the season by Round 16. Young gun centre Billy Smith finally got back on to the field in Round 17 until his season soon ended in Round 19. And we all know what happened to Joseph Manu in Round 24.
During all of this mayhem the Roosters didn’t panic, but rather put their faith in the ‘next man up’ policy, where if someone went down, there’d be someone ready, willing and able to take his place.
Matt Ikuvalu did a great job filling in for Brett Morris, and he crossed for 14 tries in 15 games in the process. Drew Hutchison and Lachlan Lam had excellent seasons in the halves. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Angus Crichton went up a gear in the forwards. James Tedesco played himself to a standstill every week. Ben Marschke proved himself as a tough little first-grader in the dummy half role.
Sam Walker was thrown in the deep end and had an outstanding debut season. Young giants Fletcher Baker and Egan Butcher showed that they have what it takes for first grade. Adam Keighran filled in anywhere between hooker and centre and kicked goals from all over the park. Dale Copley turned up from Brisbane for a few games and showed he still knew the way to the try line. And the previously unknown Moala Graham-Taufa, Tukupa-Ke Hau-Tapuha, Ben Thomas and Naufahu Whyte all got game time and some valuable first-grade experience.
All in all the Roosters used 34 players during the year.
As the season wore on it was pretty obvious that Sydney were like a prize-fighter pinned on the ropes after a standing eight count. They did their very best to keep on going but were broken and running out of steam. Really they did well to win seven of their last nine games to finish fifth. They then had some luck in defeating the self-destructing Titans in the first week of the finals before being blown off the park by Manly in the semi-final to end their season.
I wonder how many other teams would have had the internal fortitude and self-belief to do what the Roosters did in 2021 when faced with such a crippling injury toll. Very, very few, I suspect. Some of the full-strength teams couldn’t even put two good back-to-back performances together, and even the Storm and Rabbitohs were ultimately found wanting at the pointy end of the season with one or two players out.
On the face of it the 2021 season might go into the books as a failure for the Roosters, eliminated in the second week of the finals after being well beaten by Manly. However, the Roosters learnt something about themselves this year – they stuck together when things got tough, players stepped up and they showed faith in the next man up to do their job.
The lessons learnt in 2021 just might make the Roosters a very dangerous proposition over the next couple of years.