At this stage of the year, it’s probably unfair to claim that a side ‘choked’. It’s a phrase that is overused in sporting discourse. The sides that made the preliminary finals were the best of the best, with their own share of representative players, winning streaks and dominating performances.
The winning sides this weekend have probably the best young halves combination in the game (the Broncos), the best player in the game (the Cowboys) and an assorted range of elite forwards and exciting backs. The losers could argue that they have the best hooker and half combination in the competition (the Storm), the best attack (the Roosters), the best defence (the Roosters) and the most dodgy people associated with the club (the Roosters).
That is to say, these are four very good teams, capable of beating anyone in the competition.
Roosters coach Trent Robinson struggled himself with the concept of choking, admitting that ‘we didn’t handle the pressure well’, and ‘we didn’t control our game’.
It’s hard to reconcile just how dominate the Roosters were this year with how uninspiring they were this postseason. They were the equivalent of a 20 win team according to Pythagorean Expectation theory. Yet some would argue that without some help from the referees, they may not have made it out of week two.
Yes they had excuses. Missing Mitchell Pearce and Jared-Warea Hargreaves at the back end of the season clearly hurt. James Maloney is an excellent half – he was in the top 5 in try assists this year – but without Pearce (or when he was limited in the first half) the Roosters simply didn’t have the composure or the variety of options in attack.
In reality, they made some awful decisions. Some were decisions in the moment. Kenny-Dowall’s pass and Tuivasa-Sheck’s decision to not play at Hunt’s grubber are examples. But some were tactical too. At one point in the second half Phil Gould chipped in that the Broncos tiny halves had only made a handful of tackles between them – inexplicable given their size, as well as their importance to any attacking variety the Broncos have. Indeed, on Friday the Roosters attack in the redzone basically amounted to seeing if they could get Ferguson in space (which admittedly was very successful early). Maybe this was because of Mitchell Pearce’s absence in the second half, but he didn’t seem to send any traffic at the Broncos halves either in the first.
Missing Pearce also doesn’t explain their suddenly porous defence. A side that conceded only 12 points a game all season let in 31. The Roosters forwards – Napa, Moa and Guerra in particular – were all excellent with the ball. But without it, they were overwhelmed. Thaiday, Blair, Parker, and Glenn all had in excess of 150 all-run metres. After Shaun Kenny-Dowell and Tuisvasa-Sheck’s assorted brain explosions, the Roosters had to stop the Broncos conservative attack, focused one pass either side of the ruck. They couldn’t, allowing the Broncos to grind the game after the Roosters early mistakes. The weakness of the ruck defence was exposed by the Broncos repeated inside balls, one of which ended in one of the most wonderful tries you will ever see when Hunt and Milford combined for the Broncos third.
The Roosters either adopted an aggressive approach with the ball to get back into the game. And after dragging 16-0 back to 16-12 you could’ve argued it worked. But 13 errors and a 69 per cent completion rate does not suggest it was an approach that matched their strengths.
And ultimately, the Roosters were subject to the postseason coming out party of Ben Hunt, whose 2 try assists, 1 try and 1 line break seem to understate how brilliant he was. Hunt orchestrated raid after raid at the Roosters edge defence on both sides of the ground. His pass to Corey Oates to put the Broncos up 20-12 at halftime was a thing of beauty. And his combination with Milford for the Broncos third try underscored just how good their pairing could be. Queensland seems to produce halfbacks like they do natural gas these days, and Hunt is already the obvious successor to Cooper Cronk.
And so we say goodbye to the Roosters for 2015. They lose James Maloney and Tuivasa-Sheck next season. For most sides this would mean a tumble down the table next season. But the sheer size between them and the rest of the competition during the regular season suggests that this time next year they’ll be right back here as a top four side.
Another opportunity to go one better. Another opportunity to ‘choke’.