Penrith playmaker Matt Burton will follow Trent Barrett to Canterbury, but not until 2022 as the new coach continues his Bulldogs overhaul.
The time has come to pack away the boardies, budgie smugglers and cricket bats because summer is over and, at long last, the footy is officially back.
After a tumultuous off-season, there was a collective feeling of relief among the rugby league faithful when a ball was finally kicked – and the Round 1 action certainly disappoint.
Big hits, star debutants, upsets and wet weather footy were all on show across the eight games of the round.
Although the 2019 season is still in its infancy and it’s easy to jump to conclusions at this stage of the year, here are the main things we can take away from Round 1 of the 2019 NRL season.
The Rabbitohs are genuine title contenders
South Sydney turned plenty of heads on Friday night as they knocked off the reigning premiers and red-hot 2019 competition favourites in the form of their arch-rivals, the Sydney Roosters.
Questions were raised over the off-season as to whether the men from Redfern could build upon their successful 2018 season under new coach Wayne Bennett, after the departure of Anthony Seibold, who reignited the Rabbitohs sputtering attack in 2018.
However, halfback Adam Reynolds demonstrated a renewed sense of confidence and a kicking masterclass against the Rabbitohs’ bitter cross-town rivals as he looks set to take his game to another level under ‘super coach’ Bennett.
Rising star Cameron Murray was a standout at lock, Sam Burgess looked threatening in his new position on the right edge, while incumbent New South Wales and Australian hooker Damien Cook showcased his new found kicking game and looked dangerous around the ruck despite the wet conditions.
Granted, it is still very early days and the Roosters were undoubtedly well below their best, but the dominance of the forward pack and their ability to adapt to the conditions proved that South Sydney will be hard to beat again in 2019.
The Bulldogs are well and truly in the race for the wooden spoon
There’s no two ways about it; the Bulldogs were woeful across the Tasman on Saturday. Recent salary cap issues at Belmore left Dean Pay’s roster looking thin heading into the new season, with many footy fans penciling in the blue and whites as wooden spoon contenders before a ball was kicked.
Recently departed representative forwards David Klemmer and Aaron Woods were notable omissions in their first round clash, as the Bulldogs were run off the park by the aggressive, strong-running Warriors forward pack, led by Agnatius Paasi and Bunty Afoa.
Both Josh and Brett Morris were also sorely missed, as the Warriors wreaked havoc out wide against the inexperienced Bulldogs’ outside backs, while marquee man Kieran Foran failed to make an impact against his former club.
Of course, there is plenty of time for the Bulldogs to turn their fortunes around, starting this week against their Western Sydney rivals the Parramatta Eels. However, the Warriors exposed their lack of experience and a genuine attacking weapon in their side, as the very real possibility of the wooden spoon making its way to Belmore reared its ugly head.
Michael Morgan thrives when running the show
After an indifferent year for most of last season, Michael Morgan bounced back to the form that saw him guide the Cowboys to an unlikely grand final appearance in 2017, with a brilliant performance against the Dragons to kick-start his 2019 campaign. This streak of excellence two seasons ago took place during Johnathan Thurston’s absence from the side and Morgan’s performance on Saturday night proved that this was no coincidence.
The new North Queensland skipper was instrumental in his side’s 24-12 victory, laying on a try and scoring one of his own, albeit off the back of a dominant display from his forward pack, particularly Jason Taumalolo. Morgan’s performance carried with it an air of confidence as he took ownership over the Cowboys attack after Thurston’s retirement.
His running game was at his threatening best, while his kicking game showcased composure and vision. His Round 1 efforts confirmed the theory of many rugby league fans and experts alike; Michael Morgan plays his best football when is his team’s main playmaker. The added responsibility and authority complements the Queensland Origin star’s natural game and brings out his top form as he looks set for a bumper 2019 season.
Dylan Brown belongs in first grade
The Eels’ rookie five-eighth faced a baptism of fire in his first NRL appearance against the Penrith Panthers, facing up to the current New South Wales halves pairing of James Maloney and Nathan Cleary at the foot of the mountains.
However, the New Zealand born 18-year-old more than held his own, playing a starring role in his side’s upset 20-12 victory over the Penrith Panthers on Sunday.
Brown showed no hesitation in taking on the defensive line, showcasing his impressive turn of pace and deceptive strength. He remained composed throughout the 80 minutes, despite a barrage of defensive traffic in his direction, demonstrating composure and maturity beyond his years.
He also showcased his attacking flair, laying on a try through a clever short ball to new recruit Shaun Lane. It remains to be seen whether Brown can sustain this form throughout the entire season, but Eels fans have every reason to be excited about their new number six.
Jury still out on Ponga’s switch
Despite Newcastle’s gritty 14-8 victory over the Sharks on Friday, star play-maker Kalyn Ponga was not at his blistering best.
The Newcastle spine looked disjointed at times and, despite some clever touches and promising moments throughout the game, Ponga failed to stamp his authority over the game, as he did regularly from fullback throughout 2018.
The spirited defensive effort and strong performance of the Knights’ forward pack was enough to see Nathan Brown’s men pick up a hard-fought victory in a dour affair.
However, while it still may take some time for the shake-up of the Newcastle spine to gel, their performance in Round 1 was not enough to prove that Kalyn Ponga is better suited to the halves over his natural position of fullback.