Why Sydney Roosters are well placed for NRL success in their ‘last dance’ season

With a galaxy of stars sitting in the departure lounge, 2024 looms as the final chance for this group of Sydney Roosters to add another piece of silverware to their trophy cabinet.

LUKE Keary, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Joey Manu and Joseph-Aukuso Sua’ali’i share more than 750 games of NRL experience, eight premiership rings, a Golden Boot, a Clive Churchill Medal and wardrobes stuffed full of representative jumpers.

As well as hoarding accolades, this quartet shares another thing in common: they’re all leaving the Sydney Roosters at season’s end. 

Firebrand Waerea-Hargreaves (main picture) is joining Hull KR in 2025, 32-year-old Keary (below) was thought to be hanging up his boots but could now be on his way to Catalans Dragons in Super League, Sua’ali’i signed a lucrative deal with Australian rugby union, and Manu is also heading to the 15-man code in Japan. 

The Chooks’ star-studded departure lounge means Trent Robinson’s 2025 team sheet is going to look very different from the one that’s eyeing a tilt at the 2024 title. 

Much like the Chicago Bulls of 1997-98, when Michael Jordan lifted his team for one ‘last dance’ championship in his final NBA campaign, there’s a whiff of now-or-never around the 2024 Sydney Roosters too. 

Since winning their last Grand Final in 2019 — their second on the bounce, and third under Robinson — the Tricolours have consistently flirted with silverware without seriously threatening to land any. 

They flamed out of the finals early in 2020, before injuries and COVID derailed their 2021 season. Then they scraped into the bottom half of the top eight in 2022 and 2023, and despite some memorable September battles, failed to reach even the preliminary final stage. 

For a team that claimed the 2018 and 2019 crowns, a return of two wins from seven playoffs in the four completed seasons since is below par — especially when you look at the personnel on their team sheet. 

Origin stars James Tedesco, Lindsay Collins, Angus Crichton and Sua’ali’i are joined by internationals Brandon Smith, Victor Radley, Dominic Young, Spencer Leniu, Manu and Waerea-Hargreaves. Battle-hardened first graders Nat Butcher, Sitili Tupouniua and Keary and exciting rookies Sam Walker, Terrell May, Naufahu Whyte and Siua Wong are in there too. 

The roster is the envy of the competition. The recent results are not. 

There is no doubt that this squad is equipped with more weapons than any other to loosen Penrith’s vice-like grip on the Provan-Summons Trophy. 

For the past four seasons, though, they’ve mounted no serious charge in September. 

However, 2024 presents a gilt-edged opportunity to convert all that potential into silverware. 

Despite some flaky form anchoring them to their familiar surrounds in the bottom half of the top eight, the Roosters remain in the hunt. 

And what’s different this year is the vulnerability of the teams at the top of the ladder. 

Penrith are playing without their talisman Nathan Cleary, whose body continues to cause serious headaches. 

Similarly, Melbourne are winning without key cogs Ryan Papenhuyzen and Cameron Munster, while major question marks linger over Cronulla’s ability to challenge the top sides. 

Last year’s grand finalists Brisbane are stuttering, and recent contenders like the Warriors, Knights, Cowboys, Eels and Rabbitohs sat outside the eight halfway through the season. 

Sides currently occupying the play-off places, such as the Dolphins and Bulldogs, can’t yet be trusted to throw their weight around come finals time. 

“The NRL is more competitive than ever” is a tedious cliche that’s trotted out every year — but in 2024, it’s actually true. 

Which means a team as loaded with superstars as the Roosters should be licking their lips at the prospect of a September bid before the old band breaks up. 

Once you remove the impending departures, the only remnants of their last title-winning team are Tedesco, Tupou, Crichton, Radley and Butcher. 

They’d dearly love to collect another round of premiership rings before all that experience is flushed from their dressing room. 

The Roosters have no problem filling holes in their squad — they’re a famously well heeled club with a hard earned reputation for landing recruits they’re keen on. 

But despite plenty of room becoming available in their salary cap next year, they haven’t made many major signings yet. 

The Eastern Suburbs club will gain Australian rugby union player Mark Nawaqanitawase in a straight swap for Sua’ali’i, although it remains to be seen whether a code hopper can match Sua’ali’i’s output. 

They thought they had the signature of want-away Gold Coast back-rower David Fifita in March … until the 24-year-old spectacularly backflipped on the deal. 

The Tricolours haven’t even secured the services of Crichton beyond the end of this season — the New South Wales Origin stalwart remained unsigned as of mid-June, with rival clubs circling. 

It would be naive to think the Roosters weren’t cooking something up, with chairman Nick Politis sitting on a cheque book that would make rivals’ eyes water. 

But there aren’t many players on the market who’d move the needle for the Chooks in 2025. 

This backdrop of player movement, recent September stumbles and a wide open premiership race sharpens the focus on what the Roosters are capable of doing in 2024. 

Frightening wins like the 60-18 spanking of St George Illawarra and the 40-18 demolition of Brisbane on their own turf six days later should have opponents quaking in their boots. 

But a three-fourwin, three-loss home record — including a costly Round 13 defeat to the Origin-struck Cowboys — has the opposite effect. 

The bookmakers still make the Sydneysiders the second most likely team to knock Penrith off their perch, narrowly behind the Broncos. 

The next four months will reveal whether that’s a prudent bet. 

Trent Robinson has a job for life at Bondi Junction. The 47-year-old is already by far the most capped coach in club history, eclipsing four-time premiership boss Arthur Halloway by more than 130 games. 

Robinson brought up his 300th NRL match as a coach in Round 16 against Canterbury — a monumental milestone only 16 others have achieved, and only two (Bob Fulton and Craig Bellamy) have maintained better winning percentages in doing so. 

But joining Halloway on four competition wins in red, white and blue is surely the landmark he’s keener to reach. 

With four superstars on the way out the door and a mini-rebuild on the horizon, Robinson might be waiting a little while for a better chance than 2024.

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 498 (July 2024)

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