Manly are sweating on a shoulder injury to winger Jorge Taufua after they surged home to beat a Will Hopoate-inspired Parramatta 28-24 in their NRL trial on Saturday night.
It’d been 875 days since Hopoate last set foot on a rugby league field, but it took the Parramatta centre just two touches of the football to suggest he’s ready to pick up where he left off.
Manly’s stars came to the party in the second half, but it was the Sea Eagles who walked away with the biggest headache, after two-try Taufua was taken from the field clutching his left shoulder.
The powerhouse finisher was attempting to score his third for the match, but the try was disallowed for a forward pass and now he’ll require scans on Monday.
In an otherwise quiet final hit-out, all eyes were on Hopoate in his return to the northern beaches.
Hopoate set up a try just two minutes after coming on in the second half, as the Eels showed early-season promise despite ultimately being run down.
After two years as a Mormon missionary, Hopoate’s first outing with Parramatta was fittingly against the teammates he won a premiership with in 2011 prior to his break.
Hopoate’s catch and pass for Vai Toutai to score and put Parramatta ahead 24-4 was silky, but it was his commitment to defence which was most impressive.
After 24 months out of the game at a key time in his athletic development, there were concerns about how long it might take the 21-year-old to physically adapt to the rigours of the NRL.
Parramatta named close to their best side for their final hit-out, with Luke Kelly set to start the season at halfback ahead of the enigmatic Chris Sandow.
The former Souths playmaker spent as much time at fullback as he did at No.7 but struggled to make his mark when given an opportunity.
Kelly set up a first-half try for backrower Ben Smith with a sharp short-ball, and his halves partner – Brisbane signing Corey Norman – also laid on a four-pointer for Israel Folau’s little brother, John, as the Eels took a 20-4 halftime lead, before Manly’s stars came out for the second.
After dropping the bomb which led to Toutai’s try, Brett Stewart was a standout for the Sea Eagles.
Niggling knee problems hampered his year in 2013, but the signs are bright for the prince of Brookvale as he set up both of Taufua’s tries and also pulled off a stunning try-saving tackle on runaway Eels winger Semi Radradra.
Meanwhile, North Queensland’s perfect pre-season is complete with the Cowboys beating Gold Coast 28-12 in front of a packed house in Toowoomba.
The Auckland Nines champions welcomed back World Cup stars Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott and Brent Tate, but all the focus was on who would win the coveted fullback jersey left vacant by Matt Bowen (Wigan).
With Lachlan Coote cut down with an ACL injury from the Nines tournament, the Cowboys packed four fullbacks into their trial squad.
But Zac Santo, Javid Bowen and Matthew Wright struggled to find minutes with Michael Morgan impressing so much that he didn’t leave the field until the 59th minute before returning to score the match-winning try.