Rabbitohs declare intentions
The South Sydney Rabbitohs soared into premiership favouritism and temporarily suppressed doubts over their big-match temperament in one fell swoop, displaying championship qualities in their 28-8 thrashing of the defending premiers. The Roosters won’t be as poor again throughout 2014 – but it’s clear already there is at least one imposing contender for their crown.
Sonny Bill Williams’ potential three-week suspension for a relatively innocuous incident is the most glaring illustration yet of the fallacy of the shoulder-charge ban. Far more dangerous and malicious acts will attract less time on the sidelines in one of the NRL’s great imbalances.
New rules get a pass mark
The new rules designed to tidy up the ruck and eliminate the wrestle resulted in a glut of penalties – both clashes at ANZ Stadium, Saturday’s Brookvale showdown and the Parramatta-Warriors match all attracted 17 or more – but will have an overwhelmingly positive effect on the game as the 16 teams adjust. The laws preventing captains from approaching the referee are a godsend, while the quick-tap is set to become a genuine game-breaker – as breathtakingly demonstrated by Johnathan Thurston. The NRL has also pulled the right rein with stringent concussion guidelines.
The attendances for Thursday’s blockbuster of 27,282, and 18,040 for Friday’s highly-anticipated clash at the cavernous ANZ Stadium were an embarrassment for the NRL and a source of deep concern. The Rabbitohs-Roosters derby attracted a shade under 36,000 in the opening round last year at the infinitely more accessible and significantly smaller Allianz Stadium. There are well-documented financial reasons behind the favouring of ANZ, but the oceans of empty seats for marquee matches are damaging the code’s image. Crowd figures in suburban Sydney and Townsville were more heartening, although the wisdom in scheduling seven of eight opening-round games in Sydney has to be questioned.
Glass half empty
The Broncos showed plenty of defensive character to hang on for their win, while the injury-ravaged Bulldogs fought back bravely from a 14-point deficit to go within a whisker of victory. But the performances of their respective halfbacks painted a grim picture of the season ahead. The execution of Brisbane’s Ben Hunt was awful and he offered little direction, while Trent Hodkinson was slow and ineffective in virtually everything he did. The first outings at five-eighth for Canberra tyro Jack Wighton and jilted Broncos fullback Josh Hoffman’s was also more miss than hit.
Glass half full
In contrast, Ben Hampton – in just his third NRL game – was integral to Melbourne’s remarkable comeback victory at Brookvale.
The budding five-eighth scored a superb try and had a hand in two others. The Storm were rated little chance after Test halfback Cooper Cronk withdrew, but the class of Cameron Smith and Billy Slater, along with Hampton’s fine showing, shaped a momentous golden point result.
Week to remember for
Penrith lived up to its dark horse billing by scoring the biggest win of the round, subjecting injury-ravaged Newcastle to 24-0 second half shutout after trailing at halftime. Neighbour Parramatta – like the Panthers, fielding a new-look line-up – was magnificent in thumping the Warriors 36-16, suggesting the club will offload the wooden spoon in 2014.
Week to forget for
The Warriors were easily the most disappointing team of the opening round – sloppy, disinterested and outmuscled in a stinging case déjà vu, crashing to a heavy defeat to wooden spooners Parramatta for the second Round 1 in succession. Meanwhile, despite showing promising signs, Canberra and Wests Tigers both joined Manly in giving up double-figure leads before going down.
Play of the week
Cowboys magician Johnathan Thurston became the first player to exploit the new quick-tap laws, catching Canberra unawares from a penalty and embarking on a mesmerising 65-metre run for a crucial first half try as the home side successfully mounted a comeback.
Blunder of the week
The eldest of the four Burgess brothers, no-frills prop Luke was pinged for the most blatant double-movement in Rugby League history during the first half. Minutes later, he lost the ball while planting it a foot short of the try-line.
With three tries and 184 metres in Souths’ emphatic win, Greg Inglis just shaded Cowboys talisman Johnathan Thurston as the opening weekend’s dominant player.
Souths’ Adam Reynolds emphatically won the first round of the battle for NSW’s halfback spot, outpointing Roosters opposite and incumbent Blues No.7 Mitchell Pearce. Brett Stewart and Jarryd Hayne threw down the gauntlet to injured Josh Dugan for the NSW custodian role
Rangy Raiders winger Edrick Lee has future Queensland representative written all over him, while Penrith flyer Josh Mansour kept his name in the frame for a NSW debut with a spectacular second half double. Winterstein, superb last season and the match-winner for the Cowboys on Saturday, should be in the sights of the Kiwi selectors.
The Cronulla Sharks have been rocked by the injury withdrawal of five-eighth linchpin Todd Carney and winger Beau Ryan, denting their chances of repeating their emotion-charged opening round victory over the Gold Coast of 2013. Few venues are more unwelcoming than Remondis Stadium on a Monday night, but the Titans’ relatively smooth build-up and the Sharks’ untried halves pairing tip the scales in favour of the visitors – Gold Coast to get up by four points.