WIZ: Pre-season pressure cookers getting NRL on the boil
Storm celebrate their win. AAP Image/Action Photographics, Colin Whelan
Rugby league is back on the box this weekend, which means The Wiz will be like a kid with a new toy. I have been hanging out for some top class action and I think there will be plenty for the fans to savour.
Providing the missus gives me some peace, I won’t miss a minute of the World Club Challenge between grand final champions Melbourne and Leeds, the traditional Charity Shield (Rabbitohs-Dragons) and the Roosters versus Tigers, even though Sonny Bill Williams won’t be playing.
Let’s start with the WCC, coming to us from the famous Headingley ground at around 6am Saturday EDST. This contest will be a ripper: two very talented attacking teams, each with a great defensive platform.
The Rhinos bowled over Manly in this game last year but I reckon they’ll find the Storm and their big three (Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater) too hot to handle over 80 minutes. The Eagles were good but they couldn’t parade three of the best players seen in the modern game.
I will watch the debut of young Melbourne back-rower Tohu Harris with special interest. He played with my son, Krys, in the Storm’s Under 20s two years ago. I reckon this kid has enormous talent; he’s big and mobile and hungry enough to accept the chance handed out by coach Craig Bellamy.
Kenneath Bromwich, younger brother of big Jesse, is another young gun getting a shot from the Storm bench. I like his prospects too and what a wonderful way to start your big time career, representing the Aussie premiers in front of a TV audience that could easily topple a million.
The Rhinos will play in conditions that suit them. I note from the forecast that the temperature will be icy (from -1 to 4 degrees Celsius).
Perhaps the Storm won’t be too badly affected. After all, they do play out of Bleak City, Melbourne.
Leeds are coached by former Great Britain hard man prop, Brian McDermott, which means they will run onto the field with passion plus. Brian never took a backward step in his hey-day and I’m sure his players will be keen to display that same sort of steel.
I notice that ex-Tigers man Kylie Leulai is in the Leeds starting line-up. He is one of the biggest hitters I’ve seen and, even though shoulder charges are now outlawed, there will be many holding their breath that he doesn’t unleash one of his terror tackles on the Storm’s superstars.
Rhinos skipper Kevin Sinfield was the controversial choice as winner of The Golden Boot and there will be big pressure on him to live up to that lofty tag. He can certainly play but I’m not so sure he was the game’s best performer last season.
We will know if he was a worthy recipient in the next few days.
The game is being refereed by a local man, Ben Thaler. The 10 metres will be just that which means there will be plenty of close marking, big collisions and niggle.
Except for Origin time, I didn’t tip against Melbourne all last year and I’m not going to change now. Storm by 6 to 8 points.
Souths, in my opinion, are a good thing to finish in the top four this year and I think they will start the season nice and strong.
They have a settled combination with a couple of interesting recruits in Ben T’eo and the returning Beau Champion.
T’eo will add firepower to the Rabbitohs’ attack. He is a lethal runner on the edges, but for mine, the big interest will be on how Souths’ young halfback, Adam Reynolds, handles his assignment.
The 2012 Dally M Rookie of the Year looks to be headed for big things. A few weeks ago, he had a run in the All Stars game but this game will provide a sterner test. The Dragons will be coming to play, not necessarily to entertain.
I want to know how this kid is mentally handling all of the attention. It’s OK to train well in the pre-season getting the body in shape but has he got it between the ears?
If I were coaching St George-Illawarra, I’d be targeting him for sure. Pressure does very strange things to young men in this game, especially when they feature in play-making roles.
I don’t agree with many experts who are tipping the Dragons to run near-last or last this year.
They have a solid core of experienced performers and some exciting young kids eager for an opportunity.
Josh Drinkwater, a recruit from Manly’s Under 20s, is an impressive type who will get a chance from the bench. I saw him play several times last season won’t be surprised if he makes the Dragons’ No 7 jumper his own before very long.
Big Trent Merrin needs to become a starting prop and I think he can become a big weapon for the Dragons in 2013. He also appeals to me as a top front rower for the NSW Blues.
I am tipping the more settled Souths team to win this one by 12.
Otherwise, there are a number of important trials taking place in NSW and Queensland this weekend.
The Roosters-Tigers match holds plenty of interest, especially with veteran Braith Anasta lining up against his former team. I’m tipping him to have a big influence on the game, he has plenty of good football left and a point to prove to the people who did not want him.
I see a good win for the Tigers at Allianz, providing Benji Marshall runs the ball all night.
Wooden spooners Parramatta play their neighbours Penrith at Centrebet Stadium tomorrow night and Eels fans won’t settle for anything less than a win.
I sure they noticed Ricky Stuart’s comments last week: “Have patience – we need time to mould”.
Well, I say that’s a load of hog-wash. Time’s up.
The Eels need to show they are a good footy side not in the making. A competitive, winning team right now. Anything less is simply an insult to the fiercely loyal blue and gold army.
Gary 'Wiz' Freeman is one of the great halfbacks in New Zealand rugby league history. Now an outspoken and popular media personality, he joined The Roar in 2012 as an expert rugby league columnist, and continues in 2013.
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