There aren’t many elite sporting competitions where a team that finished second-last would be considered a frontline contender to take out the following year’s title.
But it’s a reflection of the NRL’s parity – and the perfect storm of setbacks that saw the Sydney Roosters slump to 15th last year after claiming three straight minor premierships – that the club is firming as a genuine premiership hope in 2017.
After losing linchpins James Maloney and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to rivals, halfback Mitchell Pearce copped an eight-match ban for an infamous Australia Day incident, while Test forwards Boyd Cordner and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves missed half of 2016 with injury.
They lost seven of their first 16 games by four points or less, lacking the experience and direction to close out tight contests.
But with Pearce, Cordner and Warea-Hargreaves fit and firing – along with some blue-chip additions – the Roosters are primed to salvage their heavyweight status.
“Obviously last year was really disappointing for us, but we’ve worked hard, had a few new faces arrive, and the guys that were injured or went through a bit of controversy have come out the other side,” veteran utility Mitch Aubusson told The New Daily.
“They’re hungry to perform for our club and push towards where the Roosters should be.”
The new faces include grand final-winning South Sydney five-eighth Luke Keary and veteran fullback Michael Gordon, who will fill the gaping holes left by Maloney and Tuivasa-Sheck 12 months ago.
The Roosters also threw lifelines to troubled forwards Paul Carter and Zane Tetavano, who were sacked by their former clubs for off-field indiscretions.
Aubusson lauded the impact the recruits have had at Bondi Junction.
“They’ve fit in so well,” the 214-game clubman gushed.
“Those guys have high respect at other clubs, and nothing’s changed here. They’ve led really well and I’m looking forward to seeing how they go.”
The silver lining of their horror 2016 was undoubtedly the emergence of the NRL’s most talented batch of rookies.
Latrell Mitchell, Connor Watson, Ryan Matterson and Joseph Manu handled the step up to first grade spectacularly, and shape as key figures in the club’s 2017 assault.
The boom quartet starred as the Aubusson-led Roosters caused a boilover by winning the Auckland Nines last month, with the versatile Watson crowned the tournament’s MVP.
Equally encouragingly, the club has an incredible recent record of bouncing back from an annus horriblis.
The Roosters were wooden spooners in 2009, but recovered to qualify for the following season’s grand final. And after finishing 13th in 2012, they won their 13th premiership in Trent Robinson’s first year as an NRL coach.
But Aubusson – a survivor of both turnarounds with Pearce, Waerea-Hargreaves, Jake Friend and Shaun Kenny-Dowall – says pride in the tricoloured jersey will be the key factor this year.
“For me, it’s home. It’s something that I’ve really invested in, and they’ve invested in me. I love the place and love the people in it, and that’s why last year hurt so much,” he said.
“We want to win games for this great club.”