The Sydney Roosters have promised so much since Brad Fittler took over from Chris Anderson last year. Not only has the coach seemed to improve things over at Bondi, but the additional players in the roster for the NRL 2008 season – have the Chooks penciled in as genuine contenders.
Currently sitting in the Top 4, it’s certainly not panic stations for the Roosters just yet – but they certainly need to add some consistency to their campaign or risk being early casualties from the NRL finals series.
This time last year, Brad Fittler walked into the press conference following his side’s golden-point victory over Wests Tigers and beamed: “It just feels like you’re not going to lose. That’s the way it feels.” Fittler had every right to talk it up. Unbeaten since taking over from Chris Anderson as caretaker coach and on the precipice of a finals appearance nobody had anticipated, he had every right to think it: How easy is this?A year later and the smile has indeed been wiped from his face, the mischievous grin no longer as prevalent as it once was. Fittler always said he expected the tough times to come and confronting the Storm at an arctic Olympic Park tonight, with his side having lost three of their last five to teams they were expected to account for, the need for serious navel-gazing as arrived.
“He’s a bit more serious now,” reveals five-eighth Braith Anasta.
“He’s made us realise we’re not where we want to be,” adds captain Craig Fitzgibbon.
“The honeymoon was over a long time ago,” says Fittler, not laughing. “Sometimes I feel under pressure, sometimes I feel like I’m flying, sometimes I feel like I have to be be more grounded. It makes it easier if you are.”
His side has dithered, but suggest to Roosters players they’re in a slump and you sense they might reach down the phone and throttle you.
“A journalist asked me the other day if our season’s over,” Fitzgibbon says. “We’re two [points] off the leaders and in fourth place. We’re not beating our chests about how good we are – but I don’t think things are that bad.”
Yet there’s no denying it: after the shock loss to Parramatta at the SFS last Sunday, their premiership credentials are under fire. Since State of Origin III, in which several of their stars tasted defeat while representing NSW, the Roosters have floundered against the injury-ravaged Titans, been trounced by Canberra and shut out by the Eels, who are counting down the minutes to Mad Monday.
In the past month, they’ve beaten a Manly side sans playmakers Matt Orford and Jamie Lyon and were forced to come from behind against the Cowboys, who are also counting down the seconds to Mad Monday.
Fittler might be a rookie coach but he’s a rugby league veteran. He needs no reminder about the value of momentum during August if his team is to find glory throughout September.
“We’re going all right, we’re doing our best, we’re working hard,” is the best he can muster to explain the erratic form. As for the defeat against the Eels: “I honestly don’t know why that happened.”
Further evidence of the pressure comes in the form of the conspiracy that’s hung heavy in the crisp eastern air suburbs in the lead-up to tonight’s match. No side scores more tries from kicks than the Roosters and rumours have been rampant about concerned officials checking with the NRL about the in-goal dimensions at “The Graveyard” – although nobody at the club or league will confirm it.
On Tuesday, Fitter described as “crazy” a statistic showing his side winning only one penalty count since round six – and only four all season. Emails suggesting bias from certain referees against the tri-colours have been in high circulation ever since.
And was Fittler thinking ahead – a la Wayne Bennett last season – when he said last month that the Storm’s arsenal of arm twists and wrist-locks had made rugby league “crap” to watch? “They’ve put a lot of work into that area and you can see it,” Fittler says. “No one’s denying that. If the referees were refereeing a different way, I’m sure they’d play exactly the same.”
Will his side attempt to beat Melbourne at the ruck?
“You have to compete with them.”
Has his side done extra work on the wrestle this week?
Do you have a wrestling coach at all?
“No â€¦ Yes, a bloke has just started coming in and doing a little bit with us.”
For how long have you had him?
“That’s none of your business.”
Maybe the Roosters are a victim of their own unexpected success. Too easy has it been to forget the club was languishing in its darkest hours in a decade until Fittler was thrust into the coach’s box when Anderson walked out mid-season fearing for his health.
Anasta bristles at the suggestion his side should be doing better down the stretch. “We’re not Melbourne,” he says. “They Storm has had the same guys for a lot of years. They trust each other and know each other.
“People forget where we’ve come from in the last few seasons, which have been pretty tough. We’re still growing as a team. Freddy is learning as well. People can write us off – it doesn’t bother me.”
What should give the Roosters heart is they’ve beaten Melbourne in their past two meetings, although both have been in Sydney and with near full-strength teams.
They won’t have Setaimata Sa after he failed a fitness test on an injured shoulder yesterday. Fitzgibbon is sidelined with an ankle injury but hopes to return next week.
And mystery still surrounds representative fullback Anthony Minichiello and his return from the career-threatening back injury that continues to bring much consternation behind the scenes.
Is the honeymoon over, baby?
You bet. But don’t think for a second Fittler is drawing up divorce papers on this season. While others forecast darkness, he sees potential.
“This is a great test,” he says. “We’re not running away from that. It’s the perfect match to be having at this time of year.”