The hardest thing to achieve in any sporting league operating under a salary cap is to be successful while also not suffering the post-premiership blues.
After a golden period in which the Roosters won three trophies in the space of seven seasons under Trent Robinson, they could be forgiven for dropping out of the finals and undergoing a rebuild.
But they’ve managed to make the playoffs the past two years while replenishing their ageing roster to be in prime position for yet another trip to the grand final in 2022.
The silver lining to the cruel, injury-enforced retirements to Boyd Cordner, Jake Friend and Brett Morris, as well as Luke Keary’s torn ACL, is that Robinson has been able to fast-track the likes of Sam Walker and Joseph Suaalii into the NRL arena.
He’s also managed to turn several fringe squad members like Drew Hutchison, Adam Keighran, Fletcher Baker and Ben Marschke into bona fide first-graders, and the fact that none of those four are necessarily guaranteed to get a start in Round 1 points to the club’s enviable depth.
Usually at the end of an era in which a team wins one premiership, let alone three, there is a period where the changing of the guard leads to a drop-off in wins.
Only Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Daniel Tupou remain from the 2013 triumph – they’ve successfully managed to replenish their roster on the run while teams like the Cowboys, after their sole premiership six years ago, are still mired in a long rebuild after holding onto too many veteran players from the club’s Johnathan Thurston-led glory days.
Apart from the disastrous 2015 season, when chief playmaker Mitchell Pearce’s lengthy disciplinary suspension derailed their campaign, the Tricolours have made at least the second round of the playoffs every year since Robinson guided them to glory in his first attempt two years earlier.
They could have been excused for dropping out of contention again last season, with Josh Morris and Lindsay Collins also suffering long-term injuries, but they ploughed on before running out of puff against Manly in the semi-final stage.
Much of their 2022 outlook depends on Keary’s return from knee surgery. He said last week that he was ready to get back into the full swing of things in pre-season training.
If he can return to somewhat near his best alongside teenage star Sam Walker in the halves, the Chooks will produce plenty of points from James Tedesco, Joey Manu and Joseph Suaalii out wide.
And there is not even a hint of a weakness up front in a pack featuring the likes of Angus Crichton, Victor Radley, JWH and Sitili Tupouniua – one of, if not the most improved player in the NRL last season.
Envious rivals can make all the jokes they want about a salary sombrero but the Roosters again look set to be laughing last with a team set to give the 2022 premiership a serious shake.
Connor Watson returns to the club after a stint with Newcastle and if not needed to fill any number of positions in the starting side, he provides a quality option for a bench utility. Basically, he becomes their new Mitch Aubusson – the number on his jersey is irrelevant, he will be in the 17 somewhere each round.
Paul Momirovski is also back after bouncing around the Wests Tigers, Melbourne and Penrith, where he did well to fight his way back into the run-on side at centre and was rewarded with a premiership ring.
Adding Bulldogs forward Renouf Atoni to boost the depth in their pack is the only other recruit.
Star on the rise
It was a shame Suaalii didn’t finish his rookie season due to a foot injury but he still played five more games of NRL than anyone else has in recent memory before their 18th birthday.
Robinson eased him into the top grade last season and has the luxury of being able to do so again next year but with the added incentive of having more game time available to the teenage prodigy following the retirements of Brett and Josh Morris, and winger Matt Ikuvalu’s switch to the Sharks.
Whether it’s centre, wing or fullback when Tedesco is out, Suaalii will have a gilt-edged chance to produce plenty of scoring opportunity mixing with the likes of Tedesco, Manu and Keary.
Who’s under the pump
The answer is not really anyone at this club in 2022.
Sam Walker will have plenty to live up to in a bid to avoid the dreaded second-year syndrome but he proved last year he was able to cope with big bodies being directed his way. Even the game’s greatest playmakers had down years as they worked their way into their NRL careers, especially when expectations grew quicker than reality, which could be the case with a precocious talent like Walker.
They can go all the way. There’s no doubt that if the Roosters avoid the wretched run of injuries that befell them in 2021 that they can be there on grand final night.
Every team will claim at some stage this pre-season they’ve got ‘a good mix of youth and experience’ but this roster is the embodiment of it – a blend of hard-headed veterans, several stars in the prime of their careers, and a bumper crop of young talent rolling off the production line.
Hopefully Keary enjoys a successful return after tearing his ACL but if he is sidelined again or cannot recapture his superb form from 2019-20, the Roosters lack an experienced playmaker that is needed for any team to challenge for the title.
Round 1 predicted team
1. James Tedesco
2. Daniel Tupou
3. Joseph Suaalii
4. Joseph Manu
5. Paul Momirovski
6. Luke Keary
7. Sam Walker
8. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves
9. Ben Marschke
10. Siosiua Taukeiaho
11. Sitili Tupouniua
12. Angus Crichton
13. Victor Radley
14. Connor Watson
15. Fletcher Baker
16. Lindsay Collins
17. Nat Butcher
Others: Sam Verrills (suspended until Round 2), Renouf Atoni, Egan Butcher, Moala Graham-Taufa, Drew Hutchison, Adam Keighran, Lachlan Lam, Freddy Lussick, Billy Smith, Daniel Suluka-Fifita, Tuku Hau Tapuha, Ben Thomas, Naufahu Whyte