If you can have a statement win in Round 1, this might have been it. South Sydney’s 27-18 win at Cronulla, where they lost in golden point last year, puts the competition on notice that the Bunnies are looking to go further than the Prelims in 2023.
It’s very early days, of course, and a Thursday night trip to Penrith in Round 2 might bring them bouncing back to earth.
But it was the sort of performance that combined their best from last year, with fluent attack and plenty of flair, with clear defensive principles and better game management.
“We want to build our season on defence, we make no secret about that,” said Jason Demetriou.
“There were two tries from kicks we could deal with better but we were pretty clinical defensively and they struggled to break our line. If we keep doing that, we know we’ve got points in us.”
The Sharks will know that they were in this game for a long time, but couldn’t handle the best of the Bunnies and imploded late with too many errors.
Like Souths, they also favour a high-risk style at times and, on this occasion, it didn’t come off. Too many errors is a regular cry at this time of year and was certainly the case for Cronulla.
They might have worries, too, about skipper Wade Graham. He was binned in the second half for a flying high shot on Davvy Moale and might find himself in trouble with the judiciary.
Latrell Mitchell is elite. Cody Walker is elite. Damien Cook is elite. Lachlan Ilias is, to date, a one-year rookie with potential.
South Sydney’s spine could make a claim to be the best in the business if the young halfback keeps up the trajectory he is on, but this is the difficult second album of his rugby league career.
On the evidence of tonight, the Bunnies are onto a winner. This was probably the best performance of Ilias’ young career, the first time he has truly dominated another top team. He was man of the match by a distance.
His attacking skills were always what shone in the junior ranks, with an ability to spot gaps a few tacklers out – watch his pass for Latrell Mitchell for Campbell Graham’s second try – and no fear when playing close to the line.
His kicking and defence, however, were suspect and while they improved as 2022 went on, they were clear deficiencies.
Tonight, he was dominant on both sides of the ball. Twice he was able to dislodge the ball with perfectly placed ribs tackles, denied Ronaldo Mulitalo with a superb trysaver and dealt with the dangerous Siosifa Talakai comfortably.
He also continued the trend of late last year by taking more and more of the kicking away from Cody Walker, gradually assuming more responsibility from the senior man.
And he’s done the lot while maintaining all the bits that made him good in the first place: a smart running try of his own and a hand in multiple tries.
“He was good,” said Demetriou. “He wasn’t perfect, I don’t think anyone was going to be perfect today, it’s round one, but he’s first grader. He’s an established first grader and he knows how to play footy.
“I thought he identified some areas that we could exploit in the first half and in the second half they were clinical in going after him.
“That effort in the first half was a big play. We went up the other end and scored as well. I’ve watched him do that all preseason. Him and Campbell Graham have made those efforts in preseason every week and it wasn’t a surprise to see him put it in. We packed it up and got the rewards from it as well.”
Craig Fitzgibbon will face a three-into-two dilemma when Nicho Hynes returns to the halves.
Hynes is hoping to be back from a calf strain next Friday against Parramatta and the Dally M Medal winner will slot straight back into the halves.
But given the form of Braydon Trindall against Souths and the lack of it shown by Matt Moylan, it’s not a straightforward decision on who partners Hynes.
Trindall was dynamic for Cronulla as halfback, kicking a 40-20 in the first half, scoring one try and setting up another.
Moylan was a liability in defence, missing crucial tackles on Lachlan Ilias and Keaon Koloamatangi to let in four-pointers.
He also came up with a basic fumble midway through the second half which halted three home side’s momentum at a crucial stage.
“He’s done that before for us and I’m really pleased that he took the opportunity and stood up,” said coach Craig Fitzgibbon.
“He’s got a bit about him – he’s got good chemistry with the players inside and outside of him and he feels comfortable. I thought he was strong tonight and his kicking was really good.”
The Sharks re-signed Moylan on a two-year deal after he revived his career last season but unless his form improves dramatically, the veteran former international could lose his spot to his younger teammate in Trindall.
The question about South Sydney hasn’t ever been around their attack, rather about their defence. They’re going to play expansive footy when they have it, and inherent in that is extended periods of defence that come from errors.
Jason Demetriou will know that this is far from the finished article, but the intent and effort – on which all great defences are built – was there in abundance. To win at tough opponent with essentially one interchange is exactly what the coach wants to see.
Tevita Tatola went off with a HIA early and Jai Arrow left with a suspected hamstring problem, leaving Davvy Moale and Shaq Mitchell, who rarely play more than half an hour, on big minutes and Michael Chee Kam covering middle and edge.
Cam Murray and Tom Burgess were running on empty by the end, but their job was done. For the defensive effort to work, it needed the pack leaders to show the way.
Two new eras began on the Northern Beaches as Anthony Seibold’s Manly downed Cameron Ciraldo’s Bulldogs 31-6 on a sunny afternoon at 4 Pines Park.
The new look Sea Eagles produced plenty of new things, but it was their old firm that carried them home: Daly Cherry-Evans ran the show and scored a hat trick, Tom Trbojevic was back and brother Jake was as good as ever.
There’s a lot to be said for Seibold’s tactical innovations, but plenty too for having close to $3 million worth of salary cap on the field and firing.
The Dogs debuted eight players, and at times, it looked like it – they never managed to build significant pressure thanks to successive errors and, crucially, plenty of yardage errors into the bargain.
This wasn’t the day for Canterbury, but there will be others.
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Anthony Seibold’s debut had provoked questions about how he would switch up the Sea Eagles, especially given his reputation for big-braining at Brisbane and a sabbatical in rugby union in England.
Jake Trbojevic was clearly removed from ball-playing duties and told to tackle his heart out, while Haumole Olakau’atu and Kelma Taulagi seemed to have advanced roles in the back row, with ball moved to them earlier.
The most impressive aspect, in the first half, was the ability to play from inside to out quickly, with both backrowers, in combination with Turbo, able to generate attack towards the corners, with their tackle-breaking forcing the defenders to stay honest and, in the process, creating areas for Reuben Garrick and Christian Tuipulotu.
Manly’s defence was also well up to the task. Their defensive intent was excellent, forcing errors and, in particular, causing several wayward kicks through kick pressures. Manly were last in that metric in 2022, but that appears to have changed.
“It’s a really good feeling to see the boys compete really strongly for the best part of 80 minutes today,” said Seibold in the post-match presser.
“That was what was most pleasing. It was a great performance by our leaders, they’ve done a really good job over the pre-season.
“We wanted to build our game in the early part of the season on our D, and it feels like today we defended our tryline really well. The couple of times the Bulldogs threatened was when they put some grubber kicks through. We had good intent with what we did defensively.”
If Ciraldo had to gauge how well the Dogs had taken on his defensive messaging, then he got it in the first half. They gave Manly more than their fair share of chances to attack their line, with eight errors before the break and multiple kicks that flew out on the full.
Despite the huge territory imbalance, the resolve was there and it took Kyle Flanagan going to the bin for them to be prized open. The desperation from Max King to deny Cooper Johns a try late in the first half exemplified the sort of effort the Bulldogs showed.
Errors are to be expected at this time of year, but typically they are through lack of cohesion: these, largely, were through contact.
The Dogs, as if spooked by their poor handling in the first half, seemed gunshy in the second and all too frequently played to points and then attempted a shift.
Their left edge is filled with superstars, but if the defensive side can pick the move, even the best will struggle to make an impact. On top of that, Flanagan played far too far from the line to convince anyone that the big move left wasn’t coming.
The tiredness from all the tackling eventually caught up with them, further blunting their ability to attack. It’s a mixed report card for the first outing for Ciraldo. Defence, his calling card, was good – but they had to do far too much of it.
“I thought we showed a real lot of grit there at different times and I was happy with a lot of things out there,” said Ciraldo.
“We made it really hard for ourselves against a team that was really committed and got the simple things right.
“We lacked cohesion at times. We’re a new team, we had three debutants today and five on club debut.
“We’re going to be better every week but today there was some things that we didn’t do well that are unacceptable for us going forward, but we showed a hell of a lot of grit there at times too to defend our tryline, stick together and stay in the contest physically. There’s a lot of lessons learned.”
Pretty much everything in 2023 rides on the health or otherwise of Manly’s best player: not just his ability to stay on the field, but his chances of impacting the game when he does turn out. Last year’s edition of Tommy T looked unfit long before he actually went down, and as evidenced by subsequent injuries, he was never at 100%.
Now that he’s fit, he has to fit back into the side, and that means vibing with Daly Cherry-Evans. Within the first 15 minutes, that connection seemed to be as good as ever, with Turbo touching down from a clever inside kick.
He returned the favour, too, with an assist for DCE midway through the second half in a classic, up the guts Sea Eagles move that could have been airlifted from 2021.
He might have had more too, with one chase forcing Kyle Flanagan to commit a professional foul and another ending the half in chaotic fashion.
There were other moments that were less convincing, however. Faced with a long sprint to the line after a break, Trbojevic chose not to stretch the legs. It could be nothing, but it could be everything.
He was later withdrawn, but returned moments later as Lachlan Croker was taken off with a head knock.
“He was just cramping,” said Seibold. “I took him off because he was starting to cramp but we had to put him back on, but he’s got through fine and feels good physically. He’ll be better for that run too.
“It wasn’t because we were ahead, it was just that the message came up from the touchline that Tom was starting to cramp so we thought with Kaeo Weekes sitting down there, we’d put him on. Tom had some pickle juice or something and was able to come back on when Lachie Croker came off.”
By Danielle Smith
It was another cloe match in Round 1, with the North Queensland Cowboys have hung on for a 19-18 win against the Canberra Raiders in Townsville on Saturday night, after shooting out to an 18-point lead before the halftime break.
The home side were close to perfect in the first 40 minutes, constantly on the attack and starving the visitors for possession and opportunities. Canberra’s fourth tackle in the Cowboys half finally came in the 27th minute of the match. Canberra were their own worst enemy, with errors and frustrations piling up rapidly, with just a 9/12 completion rate compared to the Cowboys 21/23.
Trailing 18-0 after a flying Murray Taulagi try in the corner that we have all grown custom to, along with a double from fullback Scott Drinkwater, the Raiders finally got in the scoreboard just before halftime and headed to the sheds down 18-6.
But like we have seen many times with Canberra behind in the scoreboard, the tide certainly changed after the break. and the momentum was all in the Green Machine. By the 60th minute that had levelled the scores to 18-all and looked like they were on their way to causing an upset.
With the clock ticking down and the tempers starting to flare, an as-cool-as-you-like field goal from Cowboys captain Chad Townsend broke the deadlock, with the home side hanging on for a 19-18 win.
Last year they stunned everyone, now they are ready to prove it was not a fluke.
Looking to hold onto their title of the most entertaining side in the competition, the Cowboys came out of the gates firing, and hardly missed a beat in the first half.
Reuben Cotter and Jason Taumalolo were both at their wrecking ball bests, Drinkwater keeps putting his hand up as one of the top fullbacks in the NRL, and Reece Robson will hopefully get the recognition he deserves this season after another stellar performance.
While coach Todd Payten won’t be happy with the second half, there was enough to smile about in the first half to know the Cowboys are already well on their way.
The Raiders winger is known for his hot-headedness and pushing things to the limit, and Saturday’s match was no exception.
After an early intercept attempt backfired, Rapana booted the ball away in frustration, costing his team a penalty right near their goal line. Then later in the first half, a hit on Cowboy’s fullback Drinkwater looking extreme;y close to a shoulder charge was followed by a swinging arm. Rapana once again cost his team a penalty, with many believing he was lucky to not get sent to the naughty corner.
Let’s see what he does during the rest of the season.
I know, I know, Round 1 is never pretty.
But seeing players absolutely exhausted, busting their guts, out of their feet, blowing out the cobwebs and trying desperately to not start the year in the bottom half of the ladder is just so good.
I’m so glad footy is back.