Finally we have some real football. None of it counts towards the end result of the 2020 NRL season, but it was a welcome relief after a putrid summer of cricket to watch some decent 80-minute games.
Saturday night was a fantastic match between the Maori and Indigenous All Stars. This fixture has become a feature of the preseason calendar and was good fun to watch, with both teams ripping in.
But once again we saw everything that is great and everything that is rubbish about rugby league in the space of a few days.
The 23,599 people who showed up on the Gold Coast got right into the game, and 634,000 watched live on Channel Nine and Fox NRL, well up on the 2019 edition. The 20-minute quarters worked, the first-ever captain’s challenge worked (or didn’t, for the Maori). The pre-match haka and war cry were just incredible, leaving aside Paul Vautin’s horrific attempt to joke about ‘who won the dance contest’.
But while the on-field product was great, more than a few people made clowns of themselves off it, particularly when it came to the national anthem. Paul Kent rambled in the Daily Telegraph the game will “no longer be a celebration, but a protest match”.
The ‘debate’ over no national anthem being played gave racists and dickheads a free swing on social media, and they didn’t need a second invitation. Who knew there was so much passion about playing the national anthem at a preseason game?
In the end the game went ahead, no-one noticed there were no anthems played and the football did the talking.
And it was talking on the other side of the world as well. Is the World Club Challenge an exhibition game? Roosters fans don’t think so, because their team are now back-to-back NRL premiers and world club champions after an enjoyable game at the fantastically named Totally Wicked Stadium.
The 20-12 result over Super League champion St Helens was played at anything but ‘exhibition’ standard – it was two high-quality teams going after each other. I enjoyed this one as a neutral, although I will admit to being Trent Robinson’s No. 1 fan. If you don’t like him, watch his tactical review on UK television after the game. It’s the sort of thing Aussie rugby league fans are crying out for but only gets squeezed in between ex-players making lame jokes in the winners sheds.
The World Club Challenge is a game that doesn’t get the respect it deserves from most quarters in Australia. It was a shame a lot of the press leading into it focused more on the Roosters having a training session with Catalan Dragons and possibly Israel Folau, but that’s life these days and isn’t going to go away.
We’ll be hearing a lot more about Israel Folau and the Roosters this year, so keep your commenting fingers loose and limber.
There were also eight trial matches played at various locations around the country on the weekend, with teams of varying selection strength blowing out the cobwebs in ‘real’ competition after months of training and delicately tackling their own teammates.
I know it’s an obvious point to make, but trial game results really need to be taken with a grain of salt. This is said after more than a few Dragons and Knights fans fired right up when the Dragons towelled Newcastle 38-12 in Maitland and a number of Broncos fans (and haters) put too much stock in Brisbane’s loss to Queensland Cup side Wynnum-Manly.
Thanks for the entertainment, folks, but like I said last week, relax. It’s February. We’ve got a long long way to go and you’ll need all the energy you can preserve.
There’s no point trying to read anything into a trial game result. Usually teams that made the finals the previous year don’t have great trial form. Teams coming off a down year are busting to show they’re better and take the trials a bit more seriously. First team starters play limited minutes, up and comers are trying their best to make a good impression and on the whole everyone just wants to get through unscathed.
But forget all that – as a media and sports broadcasting rights nerd, the most exciting thing for me this week was seeing the NRL.com platform live streaming six of these trials. With the next NRL broadcasting rights up for negotiation ahead of 2023, the league could do worse than keeping a game or two for exclusive broadcast on NRL.com.
Granted, there’s a multiverse of difference between the quality of the streams and production values of trial games and what a full-blown NRL match would need, but the platform is there, the league has ploughed a fortune into it. What was the reason for doing that if you’re not going to make the best use of it?
Exhibition, trial – whatever – I loved getting some ‘proper’ rugby league back. The regular season draws closer and closer and cannot get here fast enough.