Home Australia As the Roosters face the Panthers, they’re fighting to learn a truth Penrith knows all too well

As the Roosters face the Panthers, they’re fighting to learn a truth Penrith knows all too well

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Roosters Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Victor Radley shout and smile with open arms after winning the 2019 NRL grand final.

Los Gallos, full of success after a resounding victory in which they won big and looked good doing it, come.

Your stars are aligning. His path is golden. On Thursday night they take on the Panthers, who are the biggest winning machine in the league, meaning it always seems like a big game, and they are going to announce something to the rest of the NRL.

They will be steady as a train, sharp as a razor and blessed with what only truly great teams have: that ability to find victories where others cannot, because while some teams take what they are given, the Roosters take what they want.

The Tricolors are back, which means it’s over for almost everyone else… only no, not really, not yet.

Because since winning back-to-back premierships in 2018-19, which remains a titanic achievement regardless of what Penrith do in the years to come, this is what we’ve been expecting from the Roosters and it hasn’t happened. As soon as new dawns were announced, they were proven false.

Going into each new campaign, the Roosters are among the favorites for first place, but the last four seasons have been something of a wilderness. Between them, the Roosters and Panthers have won five of the last six top spots, but it has been a tough few winters for the Bondi club by their standards.

They have gone down the scale every year, from fourth to fifth, from sixth to seventh. Four consecutive finals appearances may sound good, but only if you’ve forgotten what was great.

There have certainly been good wins, like their 48-6 win at South Sydney last week where they looked imposing and dominant in every way, but none of that seemed to really last.

They saw the Panthers running past them and couldn’t do anything about it. Penrith’s first game of the 2020 season, the year they began to become the best team ever, was against the Roosters.

The Panthers won that night in a 20-14 upset and have since won seven more in a row, including two wins by a combined 78-10 last year.

A win on Thursday night won’t erase that, especially given that Penrith will be without Nathan Cleary and James Fisher-Harris, meaning that for the first time since the 2020 season opener, the Roosters are favorites to knock off Penrith.

It’s easy to see why: at the risk of being fooled once again, the Roosters look good. Sustainably good. Maybe good enough to hang with the likes of Penrith and Brisbane in their prime, maybe good enough that the NRL premiership is no longer a two-player game.

By their own standards, the Roosters have been in the wilderness since the 2019 grand final. (AAP: Dean Lewins)

We cannot get ahead of ourselves. The Roosters are just over a week away from a comprehensive defeat to Manly and there are still question marks over their halves given Sam Walker’s inconsistency during his time in first grade and Luke Keary’s recent concussion.

But things are happening. The James Tedesco of yesteryear seems to be back after three excellent performances in a row. Victor Radley seems to have turned a corner as he sharpens the rough edges of it 80 minutes at a time.

And Brandon Smith, after more than a year in Bondi, is starting to recover. What he’s accomplishing, besides feeling more comfortable, is harder to pin down, even for him. But he’s feeling it.

“We had a great preseason this year, but I don’t know what’s changed,” Smith said.

“I guess I played shit early last year and I still haven’t played my best this year. I haven’t done anything special.

“Understanding each other is a big part of this. I’m in the backbone and it wasn’t easy, because I had standards and principles that I lived by in Melbourne and I came here and there are a lot of different principles and systems and I didn’t get used to that.

“But during the preseason I learned a lot more about the team, the players and who you play with.

“There is a lot more confidence, after that end of last year they trust me to do a job, but I had to show it.”

Smith may not be impressed yet, but the signs are clear if you look for them. He is racing with more consistency and danger than last year, returning to the rough style that made him successful in Melbourne.

It’s a resurgence that, like that of many of his teammates, has its genesis in last year’s final series.

Amid a storm of injuries, Trent Robinson’s team was stripped of much of its trappings, but drew on reserves of toughness not seen since the presidency years to beat the Sharks by one point in the first week before fall in the final minutes against the Storm in the week. two.

They went further than they had any right to because of their willingness to throw themselves, to be as physical and desperate as they could for as long as possible.

It’s a style that brought out the best in players like Smith, Radley and Terrell May, it’s something Penrith have mastered during their three consecutive premierships and that Brisbane found during their promotion last season.

It’s the kind of thing that builds premiership-caliber teams, and if a team thinks they’ve got it, there’s no better team to test it against than the Panthers.

“Rugby league is about big forwards running hard and the halfbacks taking advantage of that, it’s pretty simple if everyone does their job,” Smith said.

“I’m a slightly fatter hooker compared to the rest of them, so it’s not as easy to run over me. But we always think about the forward group running hard and going hard.

“When you play a professional sport you want to play against the best and, let’s be honest, they are the best.

“Having the opportunity to try to set a standard for competition and go up against the best, if you can do it, you’re preparing yourself.”

The Roosters, in the past, have sometimes been guilty of playing as if greatness was their birthright. At some point since that last title in 2019, they forgot a truth that everyone knew: true greatness is a mirage, a destination never reached because the true power is in the journey.

There is no team in modern rugby league that is more comfortable living like this than Penrith. It’s what makes them so formidable, even if they don’t have Cleary and Fisher-Harris.

They play as if they enjoy fighting for victory more than for victory itself and they really like to win. Los Gallos were like that once and maybe they can be like that again.

The last time the two teams played a genuine, close match, at full strength, was in the first week of the 2020 finals.

The Panthers’ 29-28 victory is, in retrospect, a clear changing of the guard. Penrith were learning the lessons that would make them champions as the Roosters slowly moved away from those same truths.

A victory for the Gallos on Thursday will not return the balance of power to the Tricolors. The absence of Cleary and Fisher-Harris is too big a warning to ignore and there are many who still need convincing that Walker and Keary can take this team where they want to go.

But one victory will never be enough. The turning point from challenger to champion isn’t so obvious, it only seems that way once we look back and see the bigger picture.

The path to the position of prime minister is being paved brick by brick. Penrith knows it. Can the Roosters learn it again?

Follow tonight’s Roosters-Panthers clash live and submit questions to Nick Campton during the game via ABC Sport’s live blog at abc.net.au/sport

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