How Dom Young and Justin Holbrook have turned the Roosters inside out – and helped Tedesco get back to his best


It wasn’t that long ago that the Roosters’ attack was the biggest mystery in the NRL.

Though they started 4-1 in 2023, they hadn’t really impressed and, even before results turned and they started losing, many had noticed that all was not well.

It was a mystery because, on a personnel level, they had it all. They always do, given the talent permanently available to them.

Trent Robinson, however, knew something was wrong.

His decision to send Sam Walker down to reserve grade was done with full thought and no panic, designed to send a message to the rest of his team as much as to the player in question, and while it did backfire when the young halfback got injured, it would be hard not to agree that it hasn’t worked out in the long run.

When Walker returned, he came back with renewed confidence and kickstarted the Roosters’ charge into the second week of the finals, despite a raft of injuries kicking in at the least opportune moment.

Central to that was timing. Not only did Walker return, but Robinson began to diagnose what had paralysed his attack, describing their improvement by playing with more freedom.

“I feel like our system we’ve been working on all year, but we’ve also played a bit more off the cuff in the last month,” he said ahead of their final round showdown with South Sydney.

“It’s the freest we’ve played all year and you see that in the tries that we’ve scored. In different games it hasn’t been consistent but I guess the style that we’ve played the last month has been consistent in its variation.

Going into 2024, that backline was bolstered by the arrival of 2023 top tryscorer Dom Young, and with the England international in the ranks, it has only empowered the Chooks to lean into their offensive style.

The great beneficiary has been James Tedesco, but perhaps not for the reasons that one might think.

Tedesco wasn’t at his best last year, and he’d be among the first to admit it.

Part of it was him, with a huge amount of footy in his legs, but a decent part was the system, which struggled to give him the same support that it once did.

Robinson tinkered at the corners of the Roosters’ attack for a while, but with a full backline now in place, he has been able to find a style that works, with the right side contributing the most of any edge in the NRL so far.

The big book of rugby league cliches can help us here. There is, as we all know, no substitute for pace. The big book of boxing cliches would tell you that a good big ‘un beats a good little ‘un.

The Roosters have both in Dom Young. His speed keeps the field so wide that every defence has to spread, and his size keeps them honest, because they have to be accountable to both his bullk and his height, which keeps the kick and the harbour bridge pass in the game.

Tedesco is benefitting from this in a big way. A wider defensive line is one with larger gaps between tacklers, which is where the Roosters captain excels.

Young’s second try on Friday night was a perfect example.

The winger kept his width, starting well outside the tramline and beyond Alex Johnston, giving enough depth and angle to the line to ensure that the long pass was on.

That ability to use the whole pitch also increases the amount of space that the inside man had to cover to put pressure on the pass, with the upshot that Teddy had the freedom of Allianz Stadium to deliver it.

Compare and contrast with the opening score. From a scrum on the ten metre line, Young begins all the way back on the 30, a full ten behind Joey Manu, but appears outside Tedesco as the centre make the inside decoy – taking Johnston with him. The speed is great, but the timing is even better.

“We’ve been working on it quite a lot in training, the combinations with Joey and Teddy, and it’s been looking really good,” Young told The Roar.

“I’ve been scoring a few training tries. Those boys give me some great service.

“I back my speed quite a lot and when I catch the ball at speed, if I’m flying onto it it’s hard for the defence to get me.”

This is exactly how Newcastle used Young late last year, with equally effective results.

They made an art form of playing in-to-out, aiming Young at the corner confident that he could beat his opposite number for pace, or by encouraging him to ‘keep his paint’, as coaches sometimes call it, to create space on the inside.

Either the space in the defensive line was outside of the winger or it was created inside, where Ponga or, sometimes, a cut back across from Tyson Frizell was able to exploit.


— NRL (@NRL) September 10, 2023

“It’s something that I had a lot of success with at the Knights and it’s what I want to bring to the Roosters as well,” said Young.

The other new arrival in Bondi has been Justin Holbrook, the former Titans coach who has remodelled the Roosters’ attack.

While his record on the Gold Coast wasn’t always stellar without the ball – though there are plenty of coaches for whom that could also be said – he did get a tune out of the attack, with another speedster, Alofiana Khan-Pereira, forming a key part of what they did well.

AKP came into first grade and immediately staked his claim as one of the fastest around, and it was easy to see the directions that he was given to keep width and let the ball come to him in order to create opportunities inside and, when the moment came, use that speed to maximum effect.

This has been repeated at the Roosters, with an emphasis on holding shape in good ball.

“Obviously, I wasn’t here last year so I don’t know the differences but he’s been really good with me, just speaking with him, getting the timing right and the shape right. I feel like he really suits me,” said Young of Holbrook.

The club also upgraded Hayden Knowles to a coaching position, working on transition play, which was evident at times on Friday night against Souths with Young attacking straight from receipt of kicks, at one point creating a break on the left hand side after carrying from the right.

The stats bore this out: his three line breaks were all outside of his winger in the far right section of the field, while seven of his nine tackle breaks were in the middle, with one as far over as the left tramline.

On touches on play one and two, Young was all over the field, but from three and afterwards, he was stood almost on the touchline and invariably outside of his winger.

The effect that was in regular attack, Young was exactly where he needed to be at the end of the line, but in transitional moments, he was anywhere and everywhere.

“Hayden Knowles is big on that,” said the winger.

“He speaks to me about all the off-ball stuff, especially on kick returns and with the new rules, there’s probably going to be a bit more opportunity.

“Trent installs that in me as well: if I back myself when I see opportunity, just take it. I really like that, I’m quite an eye-up player and it’s really good to have that freedom. If there’s an opportunity or some space, I look to take it.”

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