There might have only been one try. There might have only been a kicking game and not much else from the two sides in attack. There might have been faulty captain’s challenges. But footy is finally back, and boy does it feel good to write that sentence.
Whatever your take on the issues confronting the world right now, footy gives you an excuse to sit down and forget about them for 80 minutes, plus ridiculous captain’s challenges and bunker time.
The season’s opening round never carries great expectations for amazing footy, but last night’s game was a slogfest, with the Parramatta Eels eventually toiling away to an 8-2 victory over the Canterbury Bulldogs.
The fact their only try came on the back of the biggest turning point the match had – a Blake Ferguson kick from the sideline that was unceremoniously dropped over the dead-ball line by Raymond Faitala-Mariner, before a Lachlan Lewis fumble allowed Reed Mahoney to scramble away with the crumbs – is worthy of its own point.
And for sure, plenty will be made of the Eels’ performance, but they looked nervous. Let’s wait a few weeks before ripping into a side who are dealing with weighty expectations of taking the blue and gold to the promised land for the first time in decades.
Let’s wait. The pieces are there. It’ll happen eventually, even if it looked a million miles away last night.
At this point of the season, as the saying goes, it’s about getting the two points, not how you get them.
No, instead of talking about those men with their big shiny stadium, their blue-and-gold jumpers, and now the holder of the first-ever failed captain’s challenge, let’s talk about expectations for the Canterbury Bulldogs in 2020.
Now, I can’t sit here and pretend to be a Canterbury fan. I don’t really know what the wider Bulldogs fan group think their team should be achieving in 2020.
But last night might have been about it for the neutral fan looking into their squad. A lack of experience, a lack of pace playing in the halves and spine, and a lack of imagination in their attack, to go with a hard-hitting, ruthless defence that will make every team they play work very hard to beat them.
The only problem for the blue and whites is they had that latter part of their game in check last season.
If you cast the mind back to the back end of 2019, some of their performances against the likes of the Sydney Roosters and Penrith Panthers at the defensive end of the park were simply phenomenal.
And it was again against Parramatta last night, even if the home side didn’t throw the kitchen sink at them all that often.
The Eels had opportunities to score early in the game, but they just couldn’t find a way to break down the scrambling defence of their opposition, who kept showing up for each other, their fans, and their coach time after time.
One of the problems for the blue and white in 2019 was the mere fact they finished 2018 playing a fairly similar level of footy, at least at the defensive end, but couldn’t replicate it for most of last season.
Expectations need to be realistic though, and while last night indicates they now have a side who are willing to work hard for each other, you have to wonder how long it’ll be able to last and glue together if Dean Pay’s attacking structures aren’t working.
A grand total of zero tries, despite all the possession and territory they had in the season opener, just won’t be good enough moving forward if they want to be in contention for a top-eight berth.
Whether that’s realistic for Canterbury this year is another issue, but I tend to think their fans wouldn’t expect anything less, even taking into account the injury to Kieran Foran.
While rust and a slow start to the season in attack isn’t uncommon – just look at Parramatta – it was bad last night for the Bulldogs, and their rebuild clearly hasn’t come even close to full circle yet.
Lachlan Lewis’ kicking game has potential, as it always has, while Brandon Wakeham showed promise on the limited opportunities he was able to get involved, but the problem lies in the fact that there was no imagination.
Most of Canterbury’s sets, no matter where on the field they started from, were five hit-ups, followed by a Lewis bomb. It was hope-and-prayer stuff, rather than any actual solid foundation for how to score points in the best rugby league competition on the planet.
It leaves two questions. The first is what the hell has Dean Pay been doing during the off-season in attack? And the second is do the Bulldogs have the cattle to complete a rebuild with the squad they currently have?
I’m not going to pretend I have the answers to the first part of that. What Pay did during the off-season may not show for some weeks yet as things take time to gel, but there should have been better signs than what was on display last night.
It was same old, same old, even when they needed points at the back end of the game, rather than any actual difference in the way they were playing their footy.
As for the second part of the question, yes. Lachlan Lewis has lots of potential and ability, and so does Brandon Wakeham. They need him to be more involved, as they do with Jeremy Marshall-King, but the hardest factor will be changing the structure of their play to go above anything more than realistic expectations of where the rebuild is at this year.
But they need the forwards to take a back seat – that or get some more agile bodies who enjoy offloading and creating time and space for the backs, rather than just carting it forward.
This is where Corey Harawira-Naera would have been invaluable last night, had he not been suspended. More worrying was the start Joe Stimson made at his new club, hitting the ground and not running, but barely crawling.
At the moment, those problems are wide and varied, and escaping the bottom four without scoring points on a regular basis will take a mighty effort.
The promise is there for the future, but the future can’t come soon enough for the blue and white, who could have heads start rolling if things don’t work this season.
Unfortunately, being realistic about the current state of the club, those expectations just aren’t realistic, and for them to fail, it could be back to square one all over again.
This could be another long winter at Belmore.