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Trial Takeaways: Pap's back with spectacular try as drug ban centre's return the Xerri on top of Dogs win

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15th February, 2024
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The Bulldogs and Storm kicked off the 2024 NRL season with an entertaining clash at Belmore Oval, won 24-12 by Canterbury after a second half comeback

It was a game that would have fit in well in 2019, with Ryan Papenhuyzen and Bronson Xerri stealing the show.

Both were on return games – Papi after a long injury, Xerri from a drug ban – and had plenty to prove.

Papenhuyzen will be given all the time in the world by Craig Bellamy, such is his talent and bad luck, but the desire to get him up to speed saw him feature in a game with few other Storm first graders.

Papi played a key part in the Storm’s first try with a classic outside man fullback move that showed his deception has gone nowhere, and if it needed underlining, a smart kick play just before the break showed his speed is still there too, with Papi racing onto a Jonah Pezet kick with far too much speed for the Dogs defence.

He didn’t kick goals, with Pezet taking those duties, and based on the one dropout that the fullback took, that’s probably for the best with Papenhuyzen missing the field of play entirely and conspiring to send his effort out dead in goal. Good job that is no longer punished by the rules.

Papenhuyzen was sat down at half time and not called upon later, but as returns go, this was about as much as the Storm could have hoped for. No more injuries, two exceptional moments.

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Xerri is in a different boat. Following his ban, he will also be given time to catch up to the speed of the NRL, but with far less public goodwill.

Cameron Ciraldo showed faith in his new centre by giving him the start here, and was rewarded by a promising performance.

It didn’t start superbly, as Xerri was made to look very static indeed by Papenhuyzen for Dean Ieremia’s try, but in attack, he averaged upwards on ten metres per carry with the ball while taking more than anyone else on the field other than frontrower Sam Hughes.

If Xerri’s size is to be his major selling point, he put in a good audition here, though every team will be looking at how easily he was squared up in defence.

His part in Jeral Skelton’s try in the second half, too, was exactly what Ciraldo would have wanted to see: good decision making, well-executed and, crucially for this time of year, at speed.

Later, a similarly slick move saw him waltz over following exceptional work from Toby Sexton and junior Joseph O’Neill.

Another debutant was Blake Taaffe, starting at fullback, who showed his usual combination of quick hands and enthusiasm.

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Moreover, he brought a deft touch with the boot that could add another level of creativity to a team that hasn’t always had that from the back.

In the middle, Hughes isn’t exactly a new face, with five NRL appearances last year for the Bulldogs, but in a side that drastically needs bulk, he showed plenty of promise that he could be at least part of a solution.

His carry for a try – ultimately disallowed – was a blueprint for what the Dogs have missed with high-contact, good leg drive charge that was able to get the arm over the top in the direction of the line. He didn’t stick the putdown, but the difficult bit before was very encouraging.

Melbourne’s side has fewer questions to be answered, and they will clearly focus on next week’s showpiece trial in Fiji, but Bellamy will have been pleased by Papenhuyzen’s showing and the involvement of a few other youngsters.

Pezet, who will feel the breath of youngster Sua Faalogo down his neck, did his best to state a case with a series of strong moments, none better than the kick for Papenhuyzen, though the likes of Marion Seve and Tyran Wishart have opened door for others to make an impact.

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