LEAGUE: The Jones boy's back - by Richard Becht
It's been too long between games for the Warriors' little champion Stacey Jones but he's back to take on the Sydney Roosters at Ericsson Stadium on Sunday. The champion halfback had enjoyed an unharmed - and perhaps charmed - run as a top-level footballer since he erupted onto the scene in 1995.
There aren't too many players who can say they've stitched together a run of 100 consecutive first grade appearances, not to mention 19 straight tests as well. Jones did that but it all ended at Carlaw Park on October 22 last year when his left arm - and career - were shattered in a freak accident.
As the weeks became months, there were growing fears about his return to action. The longer he was away, the more concern there seemed to be about Jones' recovery.
But now, after seven rounds, the Warriors' most popular player is back - and straight back into the front line as well. There's no easing him back in with a warm-up game in Brisbane or Sydney, or selection as an interchange player. Instead Mark Graham has whistled him up to answer a desperate need. After three straight losses, the 23-year-old's talents were urgently needed.
If the Warriors are to be contenders in 2000 (and there's still time for them to make something of it), then it's clear they need a fit and injury-free Stacey Jones firing their attack. Without his x factor genius, the Warriors have lacked an edge since the start of the season, and perhaps no player has felt his absence more than captain John Simon.
When the two were in harness in the winning run at the end of last season, they fed off each other and gave the team experienced options on either side of the field. They need that quality to re-emerge immediately on Sunday.
Jones' return is obviously the focal point of the selection for the Roosters' encounter. He's the only change to the backline that started the seventh-round clash against St George-Illawarra. Making way for him is former Glenora and Burleigh halfback Ben Lythe, who's been left out of the squad altogether and sent to Brisbane Souths to play in the Queensland Cup this weekend.
That means 18-year-old Shontayne Hape makes his second first-grade start on Sunday, backing up after what was an encouraging debut among the ruins of last weekend's 8-36 loss to the Dragons.
Go to the forward pack and there are two changes. Joe Vagana is back in the run-on side after two games on the bench, coming in for an injured Talite Liavaa, who certainly put in a whole-hearted effort again last Saturday, featuring with 24 tackles and 13 hit-ups.
The other move in the pack is a straight swap between second rowers Ali Lauitiiti and Tony Tuimavave. Graham has gone for Lauitiiti's attacking skills in favour of Tuimavave's workrate against the Roosters, meaning Tuimavave is back on the bench for the fourth time in eight games, while Lauitiiti is a starter for the first time after five straight appearances as an interchange player.
What's especially interesting about the pack is that it's the closest it's been all season to the unit that caused so much trouble for all opponents late last season. That combination had Vagana and Terry Hermansson as the starting props, Robert Mears at hooker, Logan Swann and Tuimavave in the second row and Jason Death at loose forward. With the exception of Tuimavave, they'll all run on against the Roosters.
There are two interesting selections on the bench. Young winger Henry Fa'afili, who's been doing the business for Souths in the Queensland Cup, makes it to first grade level for the first time while returning from injury is prop Jerry Seuseu.
The 20-year-old Fa'afili, a Junior Kiwi in 1998 and 1999, has been turning out regularly for Souths and has scored a fair share of tries for them. His reward of promotion to first grade comes at the expense of 18-year-old centre Paul Whatuira.
He's been used on the bench five times this season and hasn't done anything wrong in his time on the field. But he hasn't been seeing a lot of game time so he's been sent to Brisbane to redress that imbalance, not because he's failed to deliver.
The referee will raise some eyebrows. It's Tony Archer, not one of the best-known whistlers in the game.
Roosters Not So Cock-A-Hoop - The Warriors would happily trade places with the Sydney Roosters on the NRL ladder right now. After all, the Sydneysiders can list four wins and eight competition points so far.
Even so, the Roosters haven't been travelling as well as they'd like this year. It's arguable that their four wins include only one against a side genuinely rated a contender when the season started in February. That was Parramatta, a team the Roosters just edged out 20-16 on the opening night of the season.
Apart from that, their wins have come against North Queensland (32-12) and the two new merger teams the Northern Eagles (22-2) and Wests Tigers (35-6). Given the Tigers' start to the year - four wins and a draw in the opening six rounds - it could be said the Roosters' success last Sunday had some merit. But, in the greater scheme of things, the Tigers are a side of limited quality and clearly don't travel well.
Around the wins, the Roosters, now coached by Graham Murray, have experienced three defeats that rate in the heavy category, especially for a side so heavily-favoured to excel in pre-season calculations. The first was a 2-28 loss to the Sharks, then 12-32 to the Bulldogs and 10-42 to Melbourne. In fact, they haven't yet managed to put two wins together.
Nobody would suggest that's the sort of output that makes a Warriors win a likelihood this weekend, certainly not when they're trying to end a run of three straight losses. But it does illustrate how erratic the Roosters have been.
That may not be entirely unexpected because they've been afflicted by some disruptions, with Kiwi prop Quentin Pongia suspended, Kiwi captain Richie Barnett out with a knee injury, regular prop Scott Logan and pacy winger Robert Miles both missing this week and the skillful (but defensively flawed) Craig Wing relegated to the bench.
But there's still so much quality in the side. Most of all, there's Brad Fittler at standoff - a real handful for John Simon - and the slick Adrian Lam at halfback. Jack Elsegood offers quality on one wing, Shannon Hegarty is a centre in hot tryscoring mood and his partner Matt Sing is a proven performer (he was a possibility to join the Warriors at one stage in the offseason).
The Roosters also have a strong set of back row forwards in ex-Dragon Craig Fitzgibbon, the exceptionally accomplished Bryan Fletcher and Luke Ricketson, plus genuine ball-playing skills on the bench in the shape of former Warriors prop David Solomona.
Perhaps their form has been up and down but nobody - least of all the Warriors - would dare to discount or underestimate this side.
"Jack" Cracks Double Ton - Four clubs and 11 seasons on, John Simon makes a breakthrough at Ericsson Stadium on Sunday - but it's not something he'll care too much about unless the Warriors are winners.
When "Jack" Simon leads his men onto the park against one of his previous clubs, the Sydney Roosters, it'll be his 200th first grade game. It's a significant milestone for any first grader yet it doesn't mean an awful lot to the man himself. Far more important to him is achieving the right result on Sunday.
Still, it's a big moment for the Ericsson Stadium faithful. They saw Stacey Jones become the first player to clock up 100 games for the club last year and now they have the chance to witness the current captain crack 200.
For the Wollongong product, it all started way back in 1990 when the then 17-year-old schoolboy sensation made his top-level debut for Illawarra. He stayed with the Steelers until the end of the 1995 season when he made a big-money move to the Roosters.
By then, he'd made 120 appearances and scored 177 points in Illawarra colours (as well as experiencing State of Origin football in 1992). Yet it was fair to say he hadn't realised his full potential, many judges initially tipping him to succeed at the very highest level as a test footballer.
Simon's move to Bondi Junction didn't work out too well at all. In 1996 he was in the run-on side just three times in 15 appearances and just as quickly moved on to join Parramatta for the ARL v Super League winter of discontent in 1997.
Initially, that worked out well for him as he racked up 23 appearances for the Eels that year, was used again at Origin level and also made the ARL's Australian side in a so-called test against the Rest of the World.
He hasn't played at representative level since then. In 1998 he was again a frontline player (21 games) but was to become a forgotten man in 1999. In fact, he played at first-grade level just once last year - against the Warriors, when he scored a try in the Eels' win at Ericsson Stadium. The next time he played first grade was for his fourth NRL club - the Warriors.
Now the 27-year-old scrumhalf-turned-standoff eyes his 20th game for his newest side in a career that's so far brought him 45 tries, 82 goals and 22 field goals for 366 points. Oddly enough, he hasn't registered any points so far this year - he's due and Sunday wouldn't be a bad time to start.
It so happens Robert Mears will also mark a milestone appearance on Sunday, if a little more modest. His has been well earned, though. While still only 25, this is Mears' eighth season of first-grade football. But on the evidence of his outstanding form as a Warrior both last year and this year, it's unbelievable he's been so sparingly used as a first grader.
Despite starting his career in 1993, Sunday's match will be just his 50th at this level. And there's some irony in the fact he'll be doing so against his first NRL club, one that never seemed to have that much time for him.
Four seasons with the Roosters must have been close to a waste of time for Mears. As an 18-year-old, he was used once off the bench in 1993 but had a tally of just 11 appearances when he left the club at the end of the 1996 season. A move to Super League club the Bulldogs in 1997 was an improvement when he was used 10 times that season (scoring two tries against the Warriors at Belmore) only to find Jason Hetherington was too much of an obstacle.
After two seasons and 16 games, he was unwanted by the Bulldogs in 1999 and headed for the bush, working as a barman and playing for Ourimbah in the New South Wales Country. It's history now that the Warriors spotted him in the curtainraiser before last year's Anzac Test and had him at Ericsson soon after. Neither party has regretted that move.
Sunday's game will be Mears' 23rd straight appearance for the Warriors. He's been ever-present since his debut against Canberra last year. That day he was a tryscorer as he helped break a six-game losing sequence when the Warriors won 32-30 - everyone, not least Mears himself, would kill for a repeat on Sunday.
Ericsson Stadium has the chance to salute two high-quality signings this weekend. And there are more milestones looming for other players. Joe Vagana makes it 99 first grade games this week with his 100th scheduled against Parramatta next weekend, while Lee Oudenryn makes his 48th appearance in Warriors colours on Sunday.
No Consolation But.... - A 36-8 losing scoreline doesn't suggest many redeeming features and it's a moot point that there were any to really highlight in the defeat by St George-Illawarra. Certainly, few are being mentioned in the wake of the performance.
But an interesting pattern is developing with sides the week after they've played the Warriors and, by rights, the trend should continue in the opening match of the eighth round on Friday night.
While it's no comfort right now, teams that play the Warriors have a very difficult time the following week. With the exception of Brisbane, they've been falling to the Warriors' curse by going on to lose in the next round. And Newcastle has been the common denominator in that equation. That's because the way the draw works for the first nine rounds, the Knights pick up the teams the Warriors have played the previous week on all but one occasion.
Check the records and you'll see how it unfolds.
* Round One - The Warriors beat Melbourne 14-6, then the Storm are done 38-6 by Newcastle.
* Round Two - The Warriors lose 16-17 to West Tigers, then the Tigers are pounded 46-8 by the Knights.
* Round Four - The Warriors draw 18-18 with Newcastle, then the Knights are beaten 20-14 by Brisbane.
* Round Five - The Warriors are trounced 56-12 by Canberra, then the Raiders are slayed 40-10 by Newcastle.
* Round Six - The Warriors lose 24-31 to Penrith, then the Panthers are demolished 30-10 by the Knights.
So, on that basis, St George-Illawarra should follow its 36-8 win at Ericsson with a loss to Newcastle at Marathon Stadium on Friday night, which would be an odds-on likelihood.
The only exception in this trend has so far come after round three. That week the Warriors were beaten 28-10 by Brisbane but the Broncos were spared Newcastle the next round because the Warriors were playing them instead (Brisbane beat the Sharks 18-14 that week).
This Newcastle pattern continues until round nine when the Roosters face the Knights the week after playing the Warriors.
Triple Trauma Again - The Warriors have been forced to endure their second successive wipeout.
The first graders couldn't make an impression against the Dragons and nor could their two feeder clubs.
In the New South Wales first division, Newtown - with a Warriors connection - is still without a win after three rounds. The Jets' latest loss was a 20-30 result against Parramatta, with two Warriors among their four tryscorers (Odell Manuel and Mark Tookey with one each).
Manuel and Tookey are again turning out for Newtown this weekend and so are Matt Spence and Clinton Toopi.
And in the Queensland Cup, things have started going wrong for Brisbane Souths and their Warriors. They had three wins in the first three rounds but had their second successive loss last weekend, this time 12-26 to Norths with none of the Warriors making the scoresheet.
Until now, Henry Fa'afili has been a regular for Souths but he'll be on first grade duty this weekend, his place taken by 18-year-old Paul Whatuira. Also returning to the Queensland Cup is Ben Lythe after four straight first-grade outings while the other two Warriors are now familiar faces in the Souths line-up, second rower Jonathon Smith and utility Henry Perenara.
Face-Off - Jones v Lam - His first game of the year, and Stacey Jones knows everyone will be looking out for him - his own players, his opponents and everyone watching at the ground or on television.
The truth is, his appearance will be one of the most eagerly-awaited sporting occasions so far this year. Players of his calibre come along too rarely but now there'll be a difference. It won't simply be a matter of watching to see what tricks the little man comes up with but, more significantly, how he handles his return to combat after such a long lay-off through serious injury. Will that slow recovery affect his confidence? Everything will be answered on Sunday.
Whatever the issues surrounding his return, the fact remains he figures in a mouth-watering head to head duel with another highly-skilled halfback in Adrian Lam. In concert with Brad Fittler, Lam offers the Roosters all manner of options. Which is just what Jones and John Simon can do when they settle in. That's the issue this week - will they be able to immediately resume where they left off last year?
Working on last year's statistics, both players appeal across the board but when you crunch the numbers provided by I & T Rugby League Statistics, Jones emerges the more complete player. That has much to do with the fact more play revolved around him in 1999, especially before Simon arrived midway through the year. Lam has always been able to spread his workload with Fittler tending to be the dominant partner.
Jones was truly exceptional last year, though. He scored 15 tries (in the NRL's top 10) to Lam's five, there wasn't much between them in hit-ups, Jones was busier on defence, they were much the same on average metres gained per game and Jones was a more effective tackler. But, apart from his tryscoring talents, Jones was far superior in two key areas - line breaks and off loads.
His 30 line breaks were topped by only Nathan Blacklock and Matt Geyer (who both played more games) and his 52 off loads left him right up among the most proficient in the game, who tend to be forwards, of course. Jones also boasted 15 try assists (only five players did better) and he was in the top 10 for most kicks in play. If he could only go part way to some of those standards on Sunday, the Warriors will surely be a much-improved and hopefully a winning side.
Head To Head - The Warriors and the Roosters know a fair deal about each other.
Despite the ARL v Super League split and the year apart, the two sides have still clashed six times in the Warriors' first five years.
Their only meeting 1995 - a game when Tony Iro was ordered off - ended in a 26-22 win for the Warriors at Ericsson Stadium, a match memorable for an outstanding display by captain Dean Bell.
The Roosters were on song in Sydney in 1996 with a 28-16 result but had to wait until 1998 for their next encounter back at Ericsson. That time it went the Warriors' way again with a 25-14 win but a few weeks later the Roosters prevailed 22-4 in a forgettable match.
The two games last year were also split, the Warriors stunning Phil Gould's side 26-16 at the Sydney Football Stadium, Matthew Ridge collecting 18 points himself from two tries and five goals. But three weeks later, the Roosters were much too good in securing their first NRL win in Auckland (28-14).
Warrior Stats - Key stats from the clash against St George-Illawarra (courtesy of Warriors stats man Geoff Ackland):
Time In Opposition
Warriors 70% (28/40)
Dragons 70% (28/40)
More Stats Of The Week - Despite the run of poor results, several Warriors are still impressing statistically speaking.
I & T Rugby League Statistics runs the ruler over all clubs every week. It now lists Logan Swann as the third most prolific tackler on 218 behind Kiwi hooker Richard Swain and Northern Eagles hooker Geoff Toovey, both on 230. John Simon is second on the list for kicks in play, 109 to Craig Field's 111. Swann also figures well on the offloads list with 18 and Cliff Beverley is still tops in the kick returns stats, making 518 metres for an average gain of 11.51 metres each return.
Other keys stats from the week are those from the Warriors' numbers man Geoff Ackland and, even in defeat, there were some strong individual efforts against St George-Illawarra. Clearly centre Nigel Vagana was targeted by the Dragons on defence as he was called on to make 27 tackles.