Ricky Stuart has made a winning start to his coaching career at Canberra with the Raiders rolling over Melbourne 20-12 in their NRL trial.
Stuart re-joined the club where he made his name as a player, leaving wooden-spooners Parramatta.
In sweltering conditions at AAMI Park, both teams made plenty of handling errors as they blew away the off-season cobwebs.
Stuart gave former halfback Josh McCrone his first run at hooker in the first half and he looked right at home, while No.7 Mitch Cornish also impressed.
The Raiders opened the scoring through winger Mosese Pangai, with the teams going into halftime locked at 4-4 after the Storm’s stand-in skipper Kevin Proctor touched down.
Back-rower Joel Edwards set up a try for Jordan Ropana for Canberra to regain the lead but, again, Melbourne levelled through promising winger Young Tonumaipea.
The home side pulled ahead thanks to a four-pointer from Hymel Hunt however two late Raiders tries scored by Jack Ahearn and Brenko Lee sealed the win.
Ben Hampton made a strong push for the vacant Storm five-eighth jersey.
Following the departure of England international Gareth Widdop to St George Illawarra, the Storm are testing their talent for a new No.6 to partner Cooper Cronk.
Hampton, 21, started the match at five-eighth and was one of the home side’s best, setting up Proctor’s try.
With their stars – skipper Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cronk rested – another standout for Melbourne was feisty Canterbury recruit Joel Romelo, who spent time at hooker and halfback.
Former Manly prop George Rose, playing his first match in Storm colours, had some solid runs in the tough conditions.
Stuart said he wasn’t concerned about the scoreline but pleased with his young team’s effort.
Facing the Cowboys in Townsville in round one of the new NRL season, he felt it was an ideal warm-up.
“Playing in that heat today gives us some preparation for what’s ahead of us,” Stuart said.
“We got everything out of it that we needed.
“It was purely about getting some timing and cohesion.”
Storm coach Craig Bellamy had plenty of praise for individual performances but said his side, featuring five under-20s players, didn’t play well as a team.
“We didn’t really click as a team but it’s always hard when you’ve got new guys,” he said.
“I thought there was some good individual stuff there but there were some areas we certainly need to improve and our handling in the last quarter left a lot to be desired.”
Cowboys hammer Broncos
The North Queensland Cowboys have gatecrashed the party for the emotional return of Brisbane winger Jharal Yow Yeh, thrashing the Broncos 32-8 in their trial at Redcliffe on Saturday night.
There were smatterings of first-grade talent across both rosters but the loudest cheer from the packed house was reserved for the former Test flyer who has been absent from the NRL for nearly two years since suffering an horrific ankle fracture.
After 10 bouts of surgery and a traumatic period wondering if he would ever make it back, Yow Yeh pulled on a Broncos jersey for the first time since the incident in Perth in 2012.
His return was solid without being remarkable, with the 24-year-old getting through 50 minutes in the centres that included a handful of willing hit-ups.
Broncos coach Anthony Griffin will still be no closer to deciding who will play in the halves this season following the off-season departures of Peter Wallace (Penrith) and Scott Prince (retired).
Ben Hunt, expected to play at No.7 this season, sat out the trial while the three men fighting it out to partner him at the scrumbase, Jordon Kahu, Zach Strasser and Kodi Nikorima, all got game time.
They struggled to control the game as well as the Cowboys, led around the field by NRL regulars Robert Lui and then Michael Morgan, although Nikorima scored a try in the second half.
Griffin will also be sweating on the fitness of Kahu, who was taken from the field injured in the shadows of fulltime.
Griffin rested most of his stars, including Corey Parker, Sam Thaiday and Ben Hannant, running out a total of 26 players with competition for spots wide open.
One of the standouts for the Broncos was Wynnum-Manly hooker Jake Granville, who made his NRL debut in 2013, with crisp service from dummy-half.
Former Raider and Dragon Daniel Vidot was a late inclusion at the expense of Lachlan Maranta (hamstring) and opened the scoring with a try down the right flank.
Cowboys second-rowers Jason Taumalolo and Tariq Sims were both extremely damaging in their stints on the fringes, with Taumalolo threatening with every touch and scoring a try while the younger Sims brother picked up two tries.
Former St-George Illawarra product Cameron King also showed a sign of his abilities, weaving through traffic from 20m out to score his first try for his new club.
King was one of three hookers rotated through the night, along with Anthony Mitchell and Rory Kostjasyn, with new coach Paul Green looking for a backup for Ray Thompson who also missed the trial.
Under-20s products Patrick Kaufusi and Zac Santo rounded out the try scorers for the Cowboys.
The man most likely to inherit the fullback jersey vacated by North Queensland icon Matt Bowen – Lachlan Coote – showed signs of getting back to his best after a pectoral injury cost him most of his last season with Penrith in 2013.
Former Sharks winger Matthew Wright was also given a chance in the trial after earning a contract with the club following the sacking of Wayne Ulugia.
Griffin remains hopeful that his halves headache won’t deepen with an extended stint on the sidelines for Kahu, who has already ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in two previous trial matches.
He said that Kahu had regained some strength in the knee after coming off and now the club will wait for scans to determine the extent of the injury.
“We’ll keep our fingers crossed,” he said.
On the trial, Griffin described the loss as “clunky”.
“They drilled us through the middle, had a lot more ball,” he said.
“But it was a good, physical hitout for us.”
Yow Yeh was beaming after the match and – after a short delay for a random drug test – said it was good to back.
“It was good to put the Broncs jersey back on,” he said.
“I was (nervous), a little bit. But after your first run you get over it.
“Everything went out the window when I got on the field about my injury, I just did my job.”
Paul Green, presiding over his first match as an NRL head coach, described the experience as “stressful” but was pleased with the efforts of his charges.
“Whether you’re coaching Q-Cup or park football, it’s stressful,” he laughed.
“It was mostly good, the first trial match, the first game of the season is always a little bit scrappy.”