Cronulla have moved into the top four after defeating the Gold Coast Titans.
For so long the doyens of consistency and unwavering commitment, the Roosters enter their Round 12 clash with Cronulla as possibly the hardest NRL team to predict.
They have been all over the shop in the first two months, getting the better of Parramatta and Manly but losing to the struggling Knights, Dragons and Bulldogs.
The Roosters have become like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates – you never know what you’ll get.
Perhaps the strongest gauge of how they’re travelling came last Saturday night at the SCG when they came up against premiers Penrith, the NRL’s new benchmark team – a title the Roosters have shared with Melbourne for pretty much all of the past decade.
They were up for the contest, kept it scoreless for the first 28 minutes but once the Panthers scored, the floodgates opened and an 18-0 half-time deficit became a 32-12 drubbing.
“They’re a better side than us at the moment, that’s clear” was Robinson’s frank assessment after the loss. It would be ludicrous to suggest otherwise but it’s a tough pill for the Tricolours to swallow as this season was supposed to be one where they return to the pointy end of the ladder.
Their 2021 campaign was ruined by the premature retirements of co-captains Boyd Cordner and Jake Friend and champion winger Brett Morris, season-ending ACL tears to Luke Keary and Lindsay Collins, among other serious injuries but the club still managed to not only make the finals but battle into the second round before running out of puff.
The Roosters have tried to regenerate their roster with young blood and teen prodigies Sam Walker and Joseph Suaalii are quickly finding their feet at NRL level but no team wins a title without established stars leading the way.
Before the Panthers loss they looked like they were getting back on the right track – they had leapt into the fourth spot on the back of a 2844-16 trouncing of the Titans and an impressive 31-24 triumph over an Eels side which had lowered Penrith’s colours the previous week.
But they are now back in seventh with a 6-5 record which sums up their inconsistent season and need to produce a strong showing against the resurgent Sharks, who have taken their spot in the top four.
At his media conference on Friday he had to deal with the added distraction of questions about whether the Roosters would try to get Payne Haas from the Broncos in the wake of his contract dispute with the club but Robinson was adamant it had nothing to do with them and refused to be drawn on “pie in the sky stuff”.
“There’s been no discussions [about Haas], no internal discussions, no external discussions. It’s been really clear,” Robinson said on Friday. “People can speculate but we’re not speculating indoors.
“There’s been one a week for the last three weeks and none of them are true,” he added when asked about being linked to potential recruits like Haas. “We’ve had it year on year. For many years there’s constant speculation. Anybody can get a free ride by talking about the Roosters or divert, which probably happened in the last couple of weeks.
“Payne’s situation doesn’t affect our players because they know it’s not there but there’s been other ones that have been really distracting because it’s just completely false and people want to make up styff. But that’s our world, people are interested. It will fill a few columns, it will fill the news possibly tonight but it’s untrue.”
The Jared Waerea-Hargreaves incident was representative of an ageing player and team railing against the light.
He clearly clocked James Fisher-Harris as he scored a try but when he was called out about it by referee Gerard Sutton, the veteran prop unloaded: “Do you reckon every opportunity you get to put me on report [you do]. Don’t you reckon? I’m just saying. Every time, bro. Every f—king time. It’s not fair.”
First of all, the “I’m just saying” line doesn’t work. Ever. No one ever has mitigated a sledge by tacking on “just saying” at the end.
Secondly, Sutton was well within his rights to put JWH into the sin bin and probably should have made it a straight send-off for questioning his integrity by saying the ref had it in for him.
Gorden Tallis did likewise to Bill Harrigan when he called him a cheat in an Origin match in 2000 at Stadium Australia and even though there was less than 10 minutes left in the match, he sent him straight off.
It’s no coincidence that Harrigan didn’t have a problem with players attacking his integrity
Robinson conceded Waerea-Hargreaves shouldn’t have sworn but he was being disingenuous by saying if a cleanskin like James Tedesco had made that high tackle, he wouldn’t have been put on report. He hit him high – irrespective of his judiciary record or poor relationship with refs, he was going to be put on report for it.
He ended up being cleared by the match review committee of further action for the high shot but copped a $1800 contrary conduct fine for abusing the referee.
The money won’t make much of an impact but the new black mark on his record will be costly down the track if he transgresses again. His track record suggests he will.
Saturday night’s opponents are the team the Roosters thought they would be in 2022.
Cronulla have refreshed their roster over the past couple of years under previous coach John Morris and are now reaping the rewards of the game time invested in the likes of Will Kennedy, Ronaldo Mulitalo, Toby Rudolf, Braden Hamlin-Uele, Briton Nikora, Blayke Brailey and Sione Katoa.
The last high-priced veterans from the 2016 premiership team – Andrew Fifita and Wade Graham – are off contract at the end of the year and facing hefty pay cuts if they run around again at the club next year. They have pretty much already been replaced by off-season recruits Dale Finucane and Cameron McInnes.
The acquisition of Nicho Hynes at halfback on a mid-tier salary was a masterstroke by incoming coach Craig Fitzgibbon in a time when several clubs have stymied their salary cap spreadsheets by paying representative star wages for playmakers who never hit those heights like Anthony Milford at Brisbane, Ash Taylor at the Titans and Luke Brooks at the Wests Tigers.
But the Sharks are still in that chasing group of teams below Penrith and Melbourne who are populating rungs 3-10 on the ladder who cannot be locked in as genuine contenders.
They have also shown glimpses of being an elite outfit by beating Parramatta and Manly, and going toe to toe with the Storm in Melbourne in one of the best clashes of the season but they’ve also lost to the Raiders twice.
For coach Craig Fitzgibbon, a life member of the Roosters where he won a premiership in 2002 and represented NSW and Australia before he was Robinson’s long-term assistant, the Round 12 game holds extra significance.
When asked what he’d learned under Robinson, he said it was hard to be succinct.
“Without my history at the Roosters I wouldn’t be standing here today and without Trent’s guidance and knowledge I wouldn’t be either. Too many lessons, too many life lessons, too many coaching lessons to be able to state in one interview but he knows what I think of him and we’re incredibly close and I’ll never be able to thank him enough,” he said on Friday.
“Not only the fact that we worked together for 10 years, we were mates before that so you get close anyway and you get closer over time. We speak regularly, if not weekly, fortnightly, just touching base and talking about life just as much as we talk about footy.”
Robinson said coaching against one of his best mates, “you’ve to to separate the personal bit from the professional bit”.
“We’ve had our conversation at the start of the week. We got that over and done with. We’ll get on coaching our teams and going for the victory.”