Flying to the finish but Roosters would need to break NRL record for late-season surges to win title

The Roosters looked all but dead and buried a month ago. They’d plummeted to 10th spot and it looked like the Robinson dynasty was finally starting to crumble.

Sure, they could regroup and make the finals but they would be cannon fodder for the new breed of upstarts like North Queensland, Cronulla and Brisbane if they made the playoffs.

Now they are the flavour of the month on the back of five straight victories and are all but certain to make it six on the trot on Saturday night against the last-placed Wests Tigers in the Roosters’ farewell to the SCG.

They could be as high as fifth heading into the final fortnight depending on other results after Souths stumbled against runaway minor premiers on Thursday and Brisbane went down to Melbourne on Friday night.

The Roosters are up to the fifth line of betting on premiership markets behind the Panthers, the resurgent Storm, Sharks and Cowboys.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

But for Robinson to get his hands on the trophy for the fourth time in a decade, his team will have to break new ground in the NRL era.

No team since the 1998 merger of the ARL and Super League has come from as far back as 10th with eight rounds left in the regular season to win the Grand Final.

An overwhelming majority of eventual Grand Final teams were ensconced in the top four or at the very least nestled in the top eight so late in the schedule. 

The Wests Tigers in 2005 are the only side which was outside the playoff picture with eight rounds remaining that went on to win the title.

Parramatta, four years later, recorded the most dramatic late-season surge in 2009 when they rose the Jarryd Hayne Plane from 14th spot with a 5-1-10 record to make the Grand Final before their trajectory was grounded by a Storm side which was later found to be rorting the salary cap.

The 1998 Bulldogs were also 10th like this year’s Roosters at the same juncture and also found their mojo late in the season to make the decider before being stampeded by the Broncos.

Even the 2017 North Queensland team, which defied enormous odds to qualify for the Grand Final from eighth spot, had been somewhere in the top eight from Round 10 onwards.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Why bye came at perfect time

The Round 17 bye could not have come at a better time for the Roosters this year.

With several players involved in the State of Origin campaign and the mid-year Pacific Tests, they looked gassed after winning just seven times in their first 16 outings.

An encouraging Round 12 win over Cronulla was the only bright spot in a six-week stretch which included two heavy defeats to Penrith, an Origin-depleted loss in Canberra and going down to the Eels and Storm.

The Roosters added controversial mid-year recruit Matt Lodge and with their rep stars back on deck, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (hamstring) and Luke Keary (concussion) returning from their six-week absences, they have clicked to peel off five wins on the hop.

As well as the week off to recharge the batteries, the draw helped play them back into form with a tackle-shy Dragons team, followed by an inept Newcastle and a Manly side missing seven starters due to the ludicrous inclusivity jersey boycott.

By the time the Roosters next faced title contenders in Brisbane and the Cowboys, they were firing on all cylinders and after accounting for the Broncos 34-16 at Suncorp Stadium, their 32-18 home triumph over the Cowboys last Saturday was one of the most complete team performances of 2022.

It’s enough to have fans, bookies and experts predicting the Roosters as the team most likely to stymie Penrith’s title defence but Robinson is not being distracted by ladder permutations or potential first-round finals match-ups. 

“It’s about the way that you play. Where you finish, that’s heartwarming for a week but you’ve got to have a style of play that’s going to do something and that’s still our focus,” he said at his captain’s run media conference on Friday.

Tigers trap awaits if Roosters get cocky

Like most successful coaches, Robinson is paranoid about the trap of complacency against all opponents – a supposed cakewalk against the Tigers has him on edge about slipping up.

The Roosters could be forgiven for having one eye on their next two games against the Storm and the blockbuster Allianz Stadium relaunch with old rivals South Sydney, but they wouldn’t get any clemency from their coach.

“I have watched a lot, especially over the last month with the changes and the way that they have been playing and the way that certain players have been playing,” he said, referring to Brett Kimmorley taking over as coach from Michael Maguire.

“We have been pretty clear on those guys this week. We’ve looked for opportunities for us to nullify that, to nullify the different types of play that they’ve been playing but then also pressure them into playing our style of footy as well.”

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 24: Tigers NYC coach Brett Kimmorley gives instructions from the bench during the round 20 NRL match between the Wests Tigers and the Sydney Roosters at ANZ Stadium on July 24, 2015 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The Tigers fell to last spot after losing to Cronulla last week while the Titans upset Manly and Kimmorley’s main mission over the final three weeks is to jag a win to avoid the wooden spoon.

But he is also focused on continuing to introduce new blood into the team from their pipeline of junior talent such as Fonua Pole, Austin Dias and Justin Matamua for the new coaching team of Tim Sheens and Benji Marshall next season.

“The decisions I’ve made, I feel, are the right decisions to make the club a better club for November 1 (start of pre-season). These players will be better players for what they’ve tasted and seen this year,” he said, adding he wants to remain involved in coaching next year whether at the Tigers or elsewhere.

“They’ll know how hard they need to train in the off-season. They should start thinking they’re first-graders. The more you can create that environment, it makes the environment better, it makes the training better, it makes your performances better.” 

Robinson said props Lindsay Collins (concussion) and Siosiua Taukeiaho (cheekbone) would be back on deck next Friday for the trip to Melbourne.

The AAMI Park blockbuster could determine who finishes fourth and enjoys a second chance in the playoffs and who ends up in the sudden-death section of the playoffs.

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