Luke Keary made his return to footy for the Roosters against the Tigers, after his six-week stint on the sidelines due to a recurrent concussion issue, and played like he’d never had a minute off the paddock.
His return was seamless, he slotted back in on the left edge like he’d never been away. His stats were fantastic, 63 running metres, two line breaks and two line-break assists, a complete halves performance. Yet that only painted part of the picture in the importance of Keary’s return to the Roosters.
The Roosters look a completely different side when Keary plays, he plays the perfect juxtaposition to the methodical and calculated approach that Cooper Cronk plays, which is why it works so well. Cronk loves to play square and stick to his structure, which allows Keary to the freedom to try different plays, his overarm throw to Daniel Tupou was a perfect example, he thinks outside the box and it seems to keep paying off.
It’s no surprise that Latrell Mitchell had his best game since the corresponding fixture around two months earlier, as Keary provides that platform for Latrell to excel. I know Trent Robinson came out and rubbished that suggestion, however, it’s no slight on Mitchell or his ability, it’s a simple observation of how one player can have such a positive effect on another’s game. Think Menzies and Lyons, Cooper and Thurston, both the back-rowers were/are fantastic players in their own right, but the difference it makes when a world-class playmaker is playing on their inside and creating opportunities for them, would be futile to ignore.
There were multiple times in the game where Keary played with such subtleties that created the space for Mitchell, in the first half when Mitchell Aubusson passed him an out ball, and he quickly passed it on to Mitchell, who was running a barnstorming line on the inside of Esan Marsters’ shoulder. Or, when he played across the line for Mitchell’s try, dragging Ryan Matterson across with him and opening up a hole for Mitchell to tear through. Mitchell had a lot of work to do, and I dare say there aren’t many other players in the game who could’ve done it, but it’s the small, incremental touches of Keary that create that space.
It’s interesting to see how the loss of Keary has affected the Roosters for the past six weeks. In that period without Keary, they lost three out of the four matches he wasn’t available (including the Knights game where he was taken from the field in the opening 15 minutes), before that, they had only lost two of their first 10 and were the NRL’s benchmark, after edging out the Storm in an intense battle in Melbourne.
People may argue these losses have also occurred during the Origin period which is a fair shout, but it’s impossible to argue the obvious detrimental effect the absence of Keary has had on the Roosters’ performances.
If it wasn’t for the concussion issue, he would have no doubt been named as the Blues’ No.6 for the opener at Suncorp, which could’ve had a massive effect on the result and what panned out thereafter with Mitchell. These are all what-ifs but Keary has developed himself into one of the most dominant playmakers in the game, which is even more impressive given he is operating alongside a noted general in Cronk.
As I said before, the way Keary returned on Friday night was so impressive after six weeks out of the game. Most players come back after extended stints on the sidelines and appear a little rusty, short of match fitness and generally off the pace. Not for Keary though, his combinations were just as fluid as before he left, and he was as sharp as he has ever been, playing to his strengths of going at the line with speed and making defences stay honest, which produces the space for his outside backs as the defence can’t just slide off straight away.
With the Origin period over as of Wednesday, the Roosters’ big guns return – James Tedesco and Boyd Cordner. They are back to full strength and I still question if any team can handle them on their best day. The left edge combination of Keary, Cordner, Mitchell and Tedesco will be back, arguably the strongest and most dangerous edge in rugby league.
The seamless return of Keary and the ending of the Origin period only reaffirms my opinion that the Roosters are the best side in the competition on their day. If Keary manages to stay injury-free for the rest of the year, it would be hard to bet against them going back to back.