Questions, questions and more questions. There are many that must be asked of the Sydney Roosters side heading into 2016. Still boasting some talented players, recent losses and current injuries are set to have them naming a very different side to the one that we have been used to in recent years. Who will step up in the absence of these important players? Can they handled the added pressure? Are the Roosters still a premiership threat despite having lost Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Michael Jennings and James Maloney to rival clubs, and with Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Boyd Cordner injured to start the year? And what of their young halves? Are they ready for first-grade and can they make the impact required to help lead the side around the park? Or are they still raw as players, needing more time to fine-tune their skills to succeed?
Young halves. At times, they come onto the scene and blitz the opposition in just their first year, given they have no weight on the shoulders, a la Tim Smith for the Eels in 2005. But with one young half let alone the prospect of two starting, comes a ton of inexperience and a lack of exposure to the true nature of the NRL. Although he is back in the country after a soul-searching rehabilitation period, it remains to be seen just how long it is before Mitch Pearce returns to the fold, obviously pending further rehabilitation and potential sanction for his prior incident.
In the most likely scenario, Pearce does not return for a few rounds. That means that the Roosters will have little choice but to blood two young halves in Jayden Nikorima and Jackson Hastings. In their own right, both are tremendous young players and have enjoyed solid trial form. But the nature of the NRL and the physicality of it pales in comparison to what you will see in trials. Are the duo good enough to succeed as a halves pairing for the first few rounds, or will one or even both struggle to adapt to the weekly grind? That is ultimately the biggest question facing the Roosters as fans will believe in their ability to get the club off to a good start but many others may not see it that way.
Further to that point, the short-term loss of Pearce is nothing compared to the loss of key trio Tuivasa-Sheck, Maloney and Jennings, as well lengthy lay-offs for injured duo Cordner and Waerea-Hargreaves. The make-up of the Roosters side will be very different in 2016 and there may be some faces that Roosters fans are unfamiliar with. There may yet be more disruption before Rd 1 for them, as Roosters fans eagerly await the outcome of the Shaun Kenny Dowall’s court case for alleged domestic violence.
But putting the off-field aspect behind for a minute, it is on the field where the Roosters will be tested the most. There is a lot of expectation on the experienced players among the back-line in Daniel Tupou and Blake Ferguson, to help guide some of the younger backs coming through the ranks like boom rookie Latrell Mitchell or recently signed Super League product, Joe Burgess. With the specific make-up of the Roosters back-line still unknown, there are supporters of Ferguson at fullback. But after the recent trial form of Latrell Mitchell, who is destined for big things, the call for him to start is real and it looks likely that he will do so. But again, is he ready for the step up?
There are just as many questions in the forward pack as the back-line. A fair few forwards to choose from but key injuries to your two most crucial forwards – arguably, in the eyes of many – means a re-shuffle will have to take place and fast. The likes of Kane Evans and Dylan Napa have shown that they can provide enthusiasm and impact from the bench, but there is a big difference between playing from the bench compared to being the go-to forward from the first minute. Dealing with that is a big burden and some players manage it better than others. Evans and Napa may not have a choice, though, given the likelihood that they are both thrust into the side.
Furthermore, the two key forward injuries opens up a spot for a potential youngster to come in and make his mark. The talk around the town is that Vincent Leuluai is a handy utility forward option, and many Roosters fans have raved about his talents and abilities. But he, too, is untested at NRL level, and so the risk of playing so many youngsters could end up being a hindrance, rather than a help.
Ultimately, there is still enough talent on the park for the Roosters to at the very least, scrape into the eight. The going may be tough to begin with as youngsters adapt, new combinations form and as cohesion becomes a common occurrence for a largely new Roosters side, but the crux of important players is still around to solidify the team until Cordner and Waerea-Hargreaves return. The onus will most certainly be on the likes of Jake Friend, Mitch Aubusson and Aidan Guerra to take the bull by the horns and lead the Roosters side on a path of success, as collectively, they are the most experienced active trio the Roosters have at their disposal to start the season.
Best buy: Not overly active in the player recruitment market, there will be one player to keep an eye out for should he start for the Roosters. That player is Englishman Joe Burgess. Not a big, hulking winger like we see so many of these days, Burgess – no relation to the trio of Burgess brothers at Souths by the way – is more of an old-fashioned quite of winger. What he lacks in size, he makes up for with speed, acceleration and endurance. He knows how to find the try-line and is a fantastic finisher, often scoring tries for fun after being on the end of many back-line movements at the Wigan Warriors. Though like many Super League players, coming into the NRL is no easy task as many have found out. You either have it or you don’t, but with a spot up for grabs, if Burgess does get it, he has to take it with both hands. Otherwise, there may well be another player breathing down his neck, eager to take that vacant spot off him.
Most Promising Talent: This one is really a no-brainer, given the immense hype surrounding him through the junior ranks and through the trials earlier this year. Of course, that is a reference to none other than Latrell Mitchell. A tall and sort of lanky fullback, he also has blinding speed but possesses deceptive strength. Often compared to Greg Inglis at the same age and even to the present day at some stage, the likelihood that he starts at fullback increases by the minute. As far as trial form goes, Mitchell was impressive but trial form, as previously stated, is always very different to doing it in the NRL. Very rarely does a player come into first-grade and immediately perform but Mitchell is one player who has the potential to do just that. With nothing to lose and everything to gain, Mitchell has a chance to hold down a spot at fullback for the Roosters for numerous years to come.
Our predicted line-up (note, we will put the full-strength side, with replacements for currently injured players in brackets):
1. Latrell Mitchell
2. Daniel Tupou
3. Shaun Kenny-Dowall (Joseph Manu if Kenny-Dowall is suspended)
4. Blake Ferguson
5. Dale Copley
6. Jayden Nikorima
7. Jackson Hastings
8. Dylan Napa (Jared Waerea-Hargreaves when he returns)
9. Jake Friend
10. Sam Moa
11. Mitch Aubusson (Boyd Corner when he returns)
12. Aidan Guerra
13. Sio Siua Taukeiaho
14. Isaac Liu
15. Kane Evans
16. Ian Henderson
17. Vincent Leuluai
2016 Gains: Joe Burgess (Wigan Warriors), Dale Copley (Brisbane Broncos), Mitchell Frei (Wynnum Manly Seagulls), Ian Henderson (Catalan Dragons), Ryan Matterson (Parramatta Eels), Jayden Nikorima (Broncos), Paki Afu (Mormon mission)