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Keary and Walker deliver Roosters win SFS opener, but injury clouds for Manu, Murray and JWH

The Roosters have opened the new Sydney Football Stadium in style with Luke Keary and Sam Walker leading them to a 26-16 victory over South Sydney, but paid a big price in the process.

Joey Manu limped out in the second half with a calf injury, Sam Verrills hurt a hand and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves came off with a hamstring complaint just 15 minutes in. Souths lost captain Cam Murray in the second tackle, and he too is also a major doubt for the rematch next week in the finals.

Souths will hope that this was just merely a bad dress rehearsal. As well as Murray, they lost Siliva Havili to concussion and nursed Jai Arrow through the game with a groin issue.

The Bunnies were already without coach Jason Demetriou and hooker Damien Cook due to Covid isolation and lost their talismanic captain early on. Without Murray, the fluency of Souths’ attack was much missed.

They needed Cody Walker and Latrell Mitchell to fire: Walker was quiet, while Mitchell, hate figure number one for Roosters fans, was met with a specific defensive plan that blunted his involvement.

He was battered, especially on kick returns, made a dog’s dinner of two dropouts and had the ignominy of being binned late for a professional foul. Nat Butcher also joined him just before the close.

The narrative was always going to overtake events with such a big fixture coming, but this was a high-quality clash that showcased how far the Roosters have come in the last few months.

The halves combined superbly and ensured that the sold out crowd of 41,906 went home happy. Keary laid on three tries while Walker scored an excellent solo effort. The midseason switch of roles has worked wonders.

James Tedesco, too, was rampant at times: he pushed 250m with ball in hand and, on another night, might have scored twice.

Souths lost Murray in the first set and struggled to recover. They were losing the middle battle from the get-go, and with the quick Roosters play the ball came opportunity.

Keary has been revitalised by playing slightly further out from the ruck, he is able to spot defenders in the line and play to them, which he did with aplomb to put Crichton over the top of Lachlan Ilias.

On their first good ball set, the Bunnies managed the same and got Keaon Koloamatangi in, but the bunker saw an obstruction in the build up and the try was wiped.

The momentum swing was only temporary. Tedesco made a huge break up the middle, forced a drop out and Mitchell failed his attempt to take it short. Walker gladly took the penalty goal.

It would get yet better. Keary again found Crichton running the perfect line, with the second rower able to make the break and get the ball inside to Tedesco.

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Souths did look capable when they got field position. They struggled to generate much of it, but managed to capitalise in the 25th minutes thanks to a piece of Mitchell magic.

The fullback seemed to have been caught with nowhere to go against a Roosters scramble, but found a left foot kick with the perfect bend for Peter Mamouzelos, on for Murray, to get his first NRL try.

Mitchell was impossible to remove from the action. Every touch was met with boos and extra effort from the defenders to put him under pressure.

With ten to the break, he failed with another short drop out attempt, and this time the Roosters declined the easy two points and took four. Walker, again, was the man to get on the scoresheet after catching Mitchell out of position and executing the chip chase for himself.

The Roosters started the second half with the same vigour. They had the same tactics, too: Keary again played short to a back-rower for a try, this time Egan Butcher finding a gap between Ilias and Koloamatangi.

Souths, again, managed to keep themselves in it immediately. Ilias got one back for his ledger, digging into the line and finding Walker, who shuffled along to Taane Milne.

With the smallest sliver of grass between his boot and the chalk, he managed to find the only available patch of in-goal for the ball for one of the finishes of the year.

Milne would be back amongst it. After Mitchell had been sat down for the final ten minutes following a petty professional foul, Walker took an intercept and went 70m before being hauled in. The Bunnies kept their heads, spread to the other side and handed the Fijian international an easy put down.

Souths were a man light, but had the wind in their sails. Mark Nicholls almost found Jai Arrow to put on the grandstand finish, and when Alex Johnston finally got free in the 77th minute, he was held down by Nat Butcher to even up the contest at 12-a-side.

It didn’t matter. As much as Souths pushed, the Roosters responded and held on.

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