After three seasons of dazzling success, Sydney Roosters coach Trent Robinson faces his toughest test this NRL season as the Tricolours attempt to overcome their off-season from hell.
It’s hard to imagine a club enduring a more disruptive break than that which has hit the the Roosters hard over summer.
For a club which has generally been able to keep hold of those players it truly covets, the triple loss of representative trio Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Michael Jennings and James Maloney was a stunning blow.
But few could’ve predicted what would come next, with captain and halfback Mitchell Pearce stood down indefinitely over his drunken Australia Day antics.
Any potential suspension will be decided once Pearce returns from his stint in rehabilitation overseas.
But it is unlikely he will be available for the early rounds of the season – leaving Robinson with a rookie halves pairing of Jackson Hastings and Jayden Nikorima, who boast just 19 NRL games between them.
Meanwhile, centre Shaun Kenny-Dowall will next month front court to fight 11 charges relating to alleged domestic violence assaults.
To make matters worse, serious injuries to star forwards Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (knee) and Boyd Cordner (pectoral muscle) will rub them out for the opening third of the season.
It looms as the biggest challenge in the brief coaching career of Robinson – who has delivered three minor premierships and the 2013 NRL title in his three years at the Roosters – but the former Dally M coach of the year isn’t deterred.
“It’s an off-season. There’s always trials and tribulations in an off-season,” Robinson told AAP.
“We’re ready to go. We’re down a couple of troops but that’s where we’re at and we’ve got to make sure we’re ready to go.
“(Losing players) is just the cycle of a team.”
The loss of Tuivasa-Sheck will be felt on two fronts, with the quick-stepping fullback not only among the Roosters’ best players over the past two seasons, but also someone they had planned to build around for the next decade.
His shock decision to return to his native New Zealand and link with the Warriors has forced a backline reshuffle, with Blake Ferguson moving from centre to the back.
The departure of Australia and NSW representative Jennings has opened up another centre spot, which will be claimed by Brisbane recruit Dale Copley, while England winger Joe Burgess could be damaging in his first season in Australia.
They will play behind a powerful forward pack, led by Sam Moa in the absence of Cordner and Waerea-Hargreaves.
The Roosters remain heavily backed to make the top eight – but captain Jake Friend said they’ll enjoying playing without the premiership favourites tag they’ve been saddled with in previous years.
“It has been good not being in that limelight,” Friend told AAP.
“There’s no expectations on us and I think we’ve just gone about our business.”
Premierships: 13 – 1911, 1912, 1913, 1923, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1940, 1945, 1974, 1975, 2002, 2013
Finishes over the past three seasons: 2015 – preliminary final, 2014 – preliminary final, 2013 – Premiers
Coach: Trent Robinson
Captains: Mitchell Pearce and Jake Friend
Gains: Joe Burgess (Wigan), Dale Copley (Brisbane), Jayden Nikorima (Brisbane), Ian Henderson (Catalans Dragons).
Losses: James Maloney (Cronulla), Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (Warriors), Michael Jennings (Parramatta), Suaia Matagi (Penrith), Matt McIlwrick (Cronulla), Lagi Setu (rugby union)
Strength: At full strength the Roosters pack remains one of the competition’s most imposing – with the likes of Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Boyd Cordner and Sam Moa providing the foundations for young guns Dylan Napa and Kane Evans.
Weakness: Halves. The loss of James Maloney has been compounded by the uncertainty surrounding Mitchell Pearce, leaving an untested combination to start the season.
Best team: Blake Ferguson, Joe Burgess, Dale Copley, Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Daniel Tupou, Jackson Hastings, Mitchell Pearce, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Jake Friend, Sam Moa, Boyd Cordner, Aidan Guerra. Isaac Liu. Interchange: Dylan Napa, Sio Siua Taukeiaho, Kane Evans, Mitchell Aubusson.
Predicted finish: 8th