A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Sydney Roosters
I’m quite comfortable assuming that the Roosters won’t go three in a row. They’re still good though, probably even still good enough for a minor premiership. A projected 15+ wins and the second best squad on paper is not going to have trouble reaching a preliminary final. The Storm are the only team superior on paper and they share the equal best class Elo rating.
When we talk about the trinity of rugby league – hungah, pashun and desiyah – do the Roosters still espouse these values? Cooper Cronk’s retirement and nominal replacement with near-rookie Kyle Flanagan is the kind of loss of edge that turns premiership winners into runners-up, as the Storm have amply demonstrated.
After all, it’s not just about production. Yelling at other players to get them organised is a rare and extremely valuable commodity. Luke Keary may have it but it will be the first time in his career that the 28 year old will be the elder of the halves pairing. But to put this supposed weakness into context, the Roosters will absolutely be a top four team come September.
At the risk of these season reviews just being me patting myself on the back for my one-off Nate Silver-esque season preview whose prescience will never be repeated, I got unusually specific about the Roosters’ season (finish top four, minimum .625 winning percentage) and was proven right, as long as we ignore the comment about the preliminary final.
But enough about me, this is about the Roosters and their failure to win a third consecutive premiership.
The Sydney Roosters finished in fourth place with a 14-6 record and +230 points difference. They left the finals in straight sets, after a one point loss to the Panthers and a four point loss to the Raiders.
Functionally, 2020 ran along very similar lines to the Roosters’ 2019 season until they hit a brick wall named Souths and got pasted by 60. While in previous years, they would have had a few more games to rebuild their rating, Easts were in the finals the next week and were done for the year a week later.
Some might get cause and effect confused, ascribing the Roosters’ finals exit to the loss to Souths. Instead, I see both as symptomatic of a wider problem within the Roosters. I’m just not 100% sure what it is.
Theory #1: It’s somehow Sonny Bill Williams’ fault.
With an average TPR of .076, compared to the team average of .122, he hardly covered himself in glory but he was barely more than a bit player in the story of the 2020 Roosters.
Theory #2: It’s somehow Kyle Flanagan’s fault.
While the incumbent number 7 was indeed dropped, and while the league’s top point scorer, he accumulated plenty of production. This came predominantly via an average of 260m of kicking metre per game, which flatters to deceive, as well as 11 try assists (21st in the league) and 9 line break assists (24th in the league).
Flanagan may well be a functional first grade halfback (we will see how much the team carried him and how much he carried the team in time), he’s hardly in a position to replace Cooper Cronk.
Theory #3: It’s actually Cooper Cronk’s fault.
Because our media fails us so spectacularly on such a regular basis, it’s rarely communicated just how close the gap is between first and second, wins and losses, premierships and spoons in the NRL. That gap is considerably less than most leagues around the world and probably a lot less than you think (e.g. the Broncos could close at least half the distance by simply trying).
Therefore, it’s actually Cooper Cronk’s fault for retiring. Without a ready made replacement to equal or exceed his input, the Roosters inevitably lost that one or two tenths of a percent that’s the difference between them swanning to victory in 2019 and a straight sets exit in 2020.
Theory #4: The Roosters are still a very good team capable of winning the premiership, they just didn’t this year
Famously, the Roosters don’t focus on completion rates and consequently, theirs is one of the worst in the league. They deliberately play a higher risk style, built on speed and skill. Naturally, this means that there’s a greater variance in the outcomes of their games than a more risk averse team. Sometimes, in fact frequently, it comes together and they blow teams off the park and sometimes, albeit rarely, it all goes wrong and they get blown off the park.
They weren’t “meant” to win the 2018 premiership, were very much favourites for the 2019 premiership and looked the same for much of this year but it was a slow start and a poor finish that ultimately brought them undone.
As for that poor finish, it’s worth remembering that they were a field goal away from sending Penrith to an elimination final and then only a converted try shy of getting to the preliminary final the hard way. To paraphrase Billy Beane, “Their job is to get to the finals. What happens after that is fucking luck.”
They’ll be fine. Who’s even remotely worried?