One round down, 25 to go. Despite the disappointing crowds that turned up throughout the weekend, there were some matches worth mentioning as the 2014 NRL season officially got underway.
The season officially kicked off on Thursday night, with last year’s premiers, the Sydney Roosters, taking on the South Sydney Rabbitohs, and despite all the hype that built up this clash of the early season favourites, the turnout at ANZ Stadium was a bit disappointing.
Just over 27,000 turned up for the season opener, a far cry from the corresponding match last year, in which under 36,000 turned up at Allianz Stadium, which is geographically closer to both Redfern and Bondi Junction.
To the match itself and after a tight and physical first half, as most fans would expect given these two teams finished one and two on the ladder last year, it was the Rabbitohs who, led by Greg Inglis, pulled away in the second half.
The Bunnies eventually recorded a 28-8 victory, potentially exposing the premiership hangover their rivals may be suffering.
It appeared the Roosters would start this season the way they finished last year, having entered their premiership defence on the back of winning their third World Club Challenge in as many attempts.
But now the Chooks face a challenging month ahead, with Sonny Bill Williams to miss the next three matches against the Eels, Broncos and their victims in last year’s grand final, the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, after being suspended following a careless shoulder charge in the final minute of the game.
Roosters fans, though, need not panic. Last year, they also lost their season opener to the Rabbitohs but eventually got better as the season wore on, culminating in their 13th premiership victory.
The Roosters next face Parramatta, who belied their wooden spoon favouritism by defeating the New Zealand Warriors by 20 points at home, more of which will be recapped later.
The round continued on Friday night with the biggest grudge match of the opening round – Ben Barba and the Brisbane Broncos opposing to the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs in Sydney.
Barba’s defection to the six-time premiers was the biggest story of the off-season, and it added some spice to this first round match, with Bulldogs fans turning out in force to unleash their anger towards the 2012 Dally M medallist.
The man himself did not appear to be affected, setting up the Broncos’ first try as they shot out to an early 12-0 lead.
Though his old club would close to within two points late in the match, a controversial late try to Lachlan Maranta ensured Barba got the last laugh on his old club and launched his Broncos career with a victory.
Despite the win, the Broncos’ attack needs to improve (according to coach Anthony Griffin) if they are to return to the finals this year, and they simply cannot rely on Barba to revive their attack in big matches.
There was a lot spoken about the off-season activity at the Penrith Panthers, and their imports, Jamie Soward and Peter Wallace, lived up to their worth as the mountain men thrashed an injury-hit Newcastle on Saturday afternoon.
The Knights’ chances were not helped when Darius Boyd suffered a hamstring injury early in the first half, his departure from the field forcing a reshuffle, with Kurt Gidley moving to fullback and Travis Waddell to hooker.
And it was the Panthers who pounced, their 22-point victory ensuring they finish Round 1 as competition leaders, the first time since Round 4, 2004, they have held top spot (to my knowledge).
There is a lot to like at Penrith this season, the arrivals of Soward and Wallace from the Dragons (via the Super League) and the Broncos respectively, the result of a recruitment masterstroke from Phil Gould.
The modern day rivalry between the Sea Eagles and the Storm resumed later that day, and after the Sea Eagles shot out to a 20-point lead in the first half, the Storm, who were without last year’s Dally M medallist Cooper Cronk due to the effects of post-season shoulder injury, were in trouble.
A repeat of the record 40-0 drubbing they copped in the grand final six years ago looked on the cards, but a hamstring injury to Brett Stewart would prove to be the catalyst behind the Storm’s comeback.
Trailing 20-4 at half-time, the team ‘stormed’ back after the break, and 40 minutes later golden point would be required to reach a verdict between the two rivals, one of which have appeared in seven of the last eight grand finals, the lone exception being 2010.
Cameron Smith kicked his first career field goal as the Storm completed a remarkable comeback and Manly surrendered a 20-point lead at Brookvale Oval for the first time.
In Townsville, two coaches, one brand new and the other recycled, went head-to-head as the Cowboys and Raiders rounded out the first Saturday night of the NRL season.
The Raiders, coached by favourite son Ricky Stuart, led early before the Cowboys, coached for the first time by Paul Green but still led brilliantly by Johnathan Thurston on the field, fought back to secure a 28-22 victory as they attempt, in their 20th year of existence and Thurston’s tenth season at the club, to finally secure a maiden premiership.
On Sunday, the new-look Dragons gave its fans a glimpse of the future with new recruit Gareth Widdop – brought to the club as a replacement for Jamie Soward – proving he’s worth every cent with a man-of-the-match performance in which he had a hand in four of his new team’s seven tries and kicked a perfect eight-from-eight with the boot.
It was thought the Dragons would be in for a long afternoon when they trailed 18-6 midway through the first half, but a collision which resulted in Liam Fulton being stretchered off the field proved the turning point, with the Dragons scoring 38 of the next 44 points to secure their well-deserved victory.
It marked the first time since Round 18, 2009, when the Dragons thrashed the Sea Eagles 48-18 in Wollongong, that the team have scored more than 40 points in a match, something not even achieved by the premiership class of 2010.
The Dragons’ tactics centered around shutting down rookie Tigers halfback Luke Brooks who, on debut late last year, was the star of the show in their last meeting at the SCG.
Such was the Dragons’ effectiveness in shutting down the young kid that Brooks and five-eighth Braith Anasta (who was opposing the Dragons at ANZ Stadium for the first time since leading the Roosters to a grand final defeat against them in 2010) were given a talking-to by Mick Potter after the match, with poor last-tackle options contributing to the Tigers’ downfall.
Later that evening, the Parramatta Eels kicked off the Brad Arthur era with an excellent 20-point victory over the Warriors, Will Hopoate impressing in his NRL comeback after embarking on a Mormon mission for the last two years.
His impressive showing, as well as that of fellow import Corey Norman and the various new faces in the team, will give hope to long-suffering fans, who have had to endure two consecutive wooden spoon seasons and no finals appearances since losing to the Melbourne Storm in the 2009 grand final.
Though it’s only Round 1, Dragons and Eels fans are already excited at what the future holds for them, after two seasons of unrelenting disappointment.
Eels fans, in particular, must hope their season-opening victory over the Warriors is not a false dawn, as it proved to be in their only season under Ricky Stuart last year.
Finally, life for the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks could be just about to get worse; not only did the team narrowly lose to the Titans 18-12 with Todd Carney and Beau Ryan among the casualties, captain Paul Gallen could also miss the bulk of the season after suffering a serious ankle injury in the first half.
The Sharks’ season-opening loss was the culmination of a difficult pre-season, which saw coach Shane Flanagan fail in his bid to overturn a 12-month suspension attained as a result of the NRL’s findings into their controversial supplements program.
Gallen’s long-term injury is also another cruel blow to the Blues’ hopes of avoiding a ninth-straight State of Origin series defeat to Queensland – it was his absence from last year’s decider which also proved the difference between glory and pain.
That is the last thing Sharks and New South Wales fans will want to hear; in the former case, injuries to the club’s senior personnel will only make their chances this season all the more difficult, while in the latter, there could be no ending to their Origin misery which has seen them lose the last eight series to the Maroons.
It’s possible by the time Gallen returns, and if it is in time for the third Origin match in July, the Maroons may have already wrapped up a ninth consecutive series victory.
Tough as it is, that’s the reality facing Blues fans this year.
Can the Dragons and Eels bounce back this year? Can the Roosters survive three weeks without Sonny Bill Williams?
Have recruitment masterstrokes by the Broncos and Panthers paid off?
There’s still 25 rounds to go until the finals, and anything could happen.