Here are a few things I think about Round 1 of the NRL season.
Ill-disciplined Eels can’t be considered competition heavyweights
That was an ugly performance by Parramatta on Thursday night. They played like a team who’d spent the whole off-season reading their own press clippings.
The Eels knew that they were the more talented side, and just seemed to expect the Bulldogs to roll over and let them cruise to victory. Canterbury on the other hand, played like a team tired of being told that they simply aren’t good enough to match it with the big boys.
This contrast in mentality was summed up by the performance of the two halves – Mitchell Moses and Brandon Wakeham.
Moses, a preseason favourite to take home the Dally M, played without rhythm for much of the contest. He became rattled by the heavy fifth tackle pressure being applied by the Canterbury forwards. Without the time he needed, Moses struggled with his kick placement and depth, leading to relatively easy returns for the Bulldog back three.
This frustration at himself and his teammates has been a hallmark of Moses’ game during his stint at Parramatta. The former Tiger knows he has all the makings of a rugby league superstar, but he doesn’t seem to cope well under pressure, especially if his side is trailing.
Wakeham looked happy just to be out there playing with his mates. The diminutive Fijian showed more heart than Victor Chang as he routinely flung his wiry frame into the path of much bigger players.
This level of defensive commitment from the smallest member of the team inspired the Canterbury forwards and it was fun to watch them get stuck into the more credentialled Parramatta pack.
For Parramatta fans, this was not the opening hit-out they were hoping for. If their side is to compete with the likes of the Roosters and the Storm, they must dramatically improve their discipline and execution.
For Canterbury fans, watching their team compete against one of the most talented rosters in the competition will give them plenty of hope that the club is moving in the right direction.
If I were Anthony Seibold, I’d be very reluctant to commit to a long-term contract with Tevita Pangai Junior. The hulking Brisbane second rower can be a human wrecking ball when he’s locked in and fully engaged. But his inability to control and channel his aggression is making him a walking judiciary magnet.
And that can be tough reputation to shake. Just ask Paul Gallen. Early in his career, Gallen was one of the dirtiest players in the game. During his first ten years at Cronulla, Gallen had a whopping 17 judiciary charges which saw him spend 19 weeks on the sideline.
He eventually saw the error of his ways and cleaned up his act. However for the rest of his career, even the most minor indiscretion attracted extra attention from officials and the match review committee. And if he doesn’t alter his approach, Pangai Junior may find himself in a similar position.
His first five minutes on Friday evening was a perfect example. Equal parts Sam Burgess and Adam Blair, Pangai Junior made his presence immediately known by leaving an imprint of his right shoulder on Justin O’Neal’s face. The cheap shot on a prone player was penalised, put on report, and will likely see him miss a few weeks through suspension.
In a painful twist, Pangai Junior then spent the rest of the game showing the Broncos just how badly they’ll miss him when he’s suspended. With generational players like David Fifita and Payne Haas shortly needing new contracts, I know where I’d be spending my money.
No need to panic after poultry performance
I’m willing to give the Roosters a mulligan for their Round 1 loss to the Penrith Panthers. Coming off the emotional high of winning their second consecutive premiership combined with the physical toll of travelling to England for the World Club Challenge, it’s hardly surprising that they were a little short of their best.
However their performance may give coach Trent Robinson cause for concern. The Roosters defence, previously a hallmark of their back to back premierships, was patchy at best.
Saturday evening at Pepper Stadium was the first time the Tri-Colours have conceded 20 points in an NRL game since Round 9 of last season. And they let in an uncharacteristically soft try on their own goal-line.
The Roosters would also have been disappointed with their inability to close out the game. Up 12 points early in the contest and rolling through the middle of the Penrith defence with obscene ease, Robinson’s men should have put this game to bed.
Yet without the leadership and game management of Cooper Cronk, they let the Panther backs into the game.
These are both areas that Trent Robinson will tighten up, and his side will surely improve as the season progresses. But this was first time in quite a while that the Roosters looked mortal.
Rugby league tackles corona
Temporarily suspending the NRL season to prevent to spread of Coronavirus is inevitable. It’s happening in sporting leagues and at major events all around the world, and the Australian sporting landscape in hardly unique.
At this stage and against precedents set by the NBA and Premier League, the NRL are searching for alternative arrangements to ensure that games of rugby league will continue to be played. But it will only take one player or club official to test positive, and the competition will have no choice but to suspend operations indefinitely.
It’s an impossible position for Peter V’Landys. Suspend all NRL games, and you risk the long-term financial viability of the entire game moving forward. Continue playing games, and you risk the health and wellbeing of the players and their families.
As a fan, I’m just happy that V’Landys is the man charged with navigating the NRL through these unknown waters. He has the stones and political clout to keep the game afloat during this crisis. Thank heavens Peter Beattie stepped aside when he did.
The bunker accepts the captain’s challenge
The captain’s challenge was introduced to help the on-field officials. By gifting each captain an opportunity to challenge a decision they don’t agree with, it was hoped that the potential for an indiscretion to be missed or ruled on incorrectly would be minimised.
In principle I’m a big fan of this rule change. Not only will it increase the probability of reaching correct decisions, but it also adds an element of theatre to those watching on at home.
But instead of overruling the ‘howler’, most of the challenges that I saw sent up to the video referee were contentious, 50/50 calls. There were loose carries where the defender had an arm draped across the footy and contested high balls with more hands involved than a Harvey Weinstein casting call.
By challenging these controversial calls, the emphasis is being shifted from the on-field officials to those in the Bunker. The video referees will be forced to make a call on the challenged play even if the evidence to rule one way or the other is not compelling.
For a code already grappling with the invasive influence of technology on officiating, I will be interested to see if this idea takes hold.
Hometown boy makes good
The Canberra Raiders made the right decision in extending Jack Wighton’s contract, making him one of the highest-paid players in the competition. But I’m sure they would have thought long and hard before they pulled the trigger on the lucrative deal. And who could blame them?
Recent history is littered with young, ascending halves who were given massive new deals but failed to perform at the level that their salary demanded. Anthony Milford, Ben Hunt and Ash Taylor are all examples of the risk of paying players based on potential rather than performance.
On Friday evening, Jack Wighton proved to the Canberra Raiders that he’s worth every cent. The strapping five-eighth was in everything, scoring two tries, recording two line breaks and even notching the year’s first 40/20. And that’s without even mentioning his punishing defence, which is hard not to compare to a young Laurie Daley.
The Raiders could have low-balled Wighton, using his off-field indiscretions to justify offering him less money, but they would have risked him signing elsewhere.
Instead, even after being burned time and time again by talented local players who were unable to control themselves off the field, Canberra gave Wighton the contract he deserved. Here’s hoping this is a contract both parties look back on fondly for years to come.
I predicted the Melbourne Storm would be premiers in 2020, and nothing I saw at Brookvale oval yesterday afternoon has made me question my choice.
The Storm are the best coached side in the competition. Their ability to play to their potential each and every week is something that no other club can match. And while they certainly weren’t at their prolific best against Manly, they still accounted for one of their top four rivals without breaking much of a sweat.
Don’t get me wrong, the Sea Eagles certainly proved a stern test of Craig Bellamy’s incredible 16-year Round 1 winning streak. Daly Cherry-Evans looked in mid-season form and Tom ‘Trbo’ was a threat every time he touched the ball, allowing Manly to keep pace with the Storm for over 60 minutes. But when the game was there to be won, Melbourne took their opportunities.
With the Roosters and South Sydney losing a few of their key players over the off-season, Parramatta clearly lacking big-game performers, and the Raiders needing to break in a new halves pairing, I struggle to see many obstacles to Melbourne claiming another premiership.
Without doubt the biggest disappointment from the opening round of the NRL season was the choice of eyewear by Fox Sports promo maestro Matt Nable during his Week 1 hype piece.
When I first saw him appear on screen, I wasn’t sure if he had just finished whipper snipping his front lawn or whether he was one of the scientists working on the COVID-19 vaccine.