In the cutthroat world of the NRL, you’re either premiership material or you’re nowhere and after their 14-12 upset loss to the Dragons on Anzac Day, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where the Roosters are on the rugby league map.
Seven weeks of a season is enough for the cream to start rising to the top because we’ve seen enough to know what a premiership contender looks like.
The Storm sure seem like one. So do Penrith, who are playing like they’ll never lose again. Parramatta and Cronulla aren’t quite there yet, but they do feel like they’re building towards something greater and it’s easy to see them taking the steps required to get there.
It’s harder to get a read on the Roosters, who have yet to become the destroyer of worlds they were tipped to be in the pre-season. Sitting at 4-3 after seven rounds is no time to panic, and there are few more sound investments than backing Trent Robinson and the club’s infrastructure to work things out.
But it would be reassuring to see some signs. A 20-minute patch of brilliance that blows a team away perhaps, or Luke Keary and Sam Walker linking together in such a way that sends a shiver down the spine when you imagine what it will be like once they’ve fully built their combination.
But this loss was a lot like their recent wins over the Warriors and Broncos. The best moments, like Joseph Manu’s try off a Joseph Suaalii flick pass, were usually opportunistic rather than a triumph of fine attacking structures. The forwards were workmanlike rather than ferocious.
There are quality players all over the park for the Tricolours but they are playing a little within themselves, with a lack of certainty and purpose that belies their status as perennial contenders. We are used to seeing the Roosters play with a powerful certainty and clarity of purpose. Right now, they’re more scattered than you would expect of a team of their quality and cohesion.
“We had a lot of opportunities. We created enough field position but couldn’t execute our plays to peg back the points. It’s not a real complicated answer on these ones,” Robinson said.
“We couldn’t execute our opportunities. We had some good sets to pull them apart and we couldn’t. Our defence went through the roof, it was a good 40 minutes in Roosters jerseys in defence, to create those opportunities, but we couldn’t execute again.
“It wasn’t as if it was dour, they were coming up with plays and it was like ‘oh, it’s going to happen’, but the whistle blew after 40 and we only came up with two tries.
“We weren’t going to go around them, we had to go through them, and we just couldn’t execute. The message was clear, and a couple of times they did, but they kept trying to go around them.”
But it would be wrong to frame the result solely as a product of the Tricolours’ struggles. The Dragons showed great toughness to battle on despite losing Jack Bird and Jaydn Su’A, two of their best players this year, to injury.
Josh McGuire, in the unfamiliar role of second row, played his best game in several seasons. Talatau Amone had some fine touches in relief of Bird and after taking his medicine in a month on the bench, will be a better player for it when he returns to the starting side next week.
Special mention must go to Ben Hunt. There is nothing that can be done on a football field in pursuit of victory that Hunt will not do.
The Dragons halfback simply never stops scheming or pushing, and his two defensive plays in the final set – first a ball-and-all tackle on James Tedesco down the right side, then batting down a Daniel Tupou pass in the final seconds moments later down the opposite edge – were the kind of second efforts that made the difference for Anthony Griffin’s side.
His 40/20, which came as the Dragons desperately needed to relieve some pressure late, typified his performance – perhaps not technically perfect, but the play the Dragons needed in the moment they needed it.
Hunt has long been an easy target when the Dragons struggle due to his enormous contract. But the job of a marquee playmaker is to fashion close losses into narrow wins, and that’s what Hunt managed to do despite a lack of attacking fluency. There might be better halfbacks, but there are few harder competitors in the league.
“The Roosters were coming at us pretty hard, they’re a wonderful side with a lot of attack in them, and to hang on the way we did, I find those wins to be pretty special when you tough it out and hang on,” Hunt said.
“Before the game, we said we’d win this game with our defence. Keep turning up, working hard for your mates and do all the little things and just don’t give up, and that’s what ended up happening.”
This was St George Illawarra’s first win over the Roosters since 2018, and that alone makes it a victory to savour for the Red V faithful.
Then, like now, the Roosters were at a crossroads. After that defeat four years ago, which came during Cooper Cronk and James Tedesco’s first season with the club, Robinson tweaked the Roosters attack and they lost just four more times en route to winning a premiership.
So there’s a chance this is all worrying over nothing. Premierships are not won in April, and just banking the wins is usually enough for most coaches this time of year.
No club in the league understands how to time their run and build their way into a season like the Roosters do. Such is their talent all over the park that an outstanding individual performance from Manu, who is in the form of his life, was almost enough to get them home. If not for Hunt’s indomitable will, they likely would have gotten over the line.
The Roosters and their galaxy of stars have nothing to prove. They have earned the benefit of the doubt. But it would be nice to see some glimpses of the team Robinson surely knows they can be.
Nobody is heading to panic stations just yet, but a few more losses like this and there will be no choice but to wonder if there’s a longer way to the top for the Roosters than originally thought.