The Roar
The Roar



Give it a trial! How to watch the NRL’s Pre-season Challenge (without getting carried away)

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16th February, 2024

Trials are meaningless, but so, when you think of it, is life.

We’re clinging to an overheated rock flying through space, knowing that our ultimate destination is to be deluxe worm food in an overpriced wooden box waiting for the sea to consume us.

With that attitude, a mid-afternoon run out between half of Parramatta’s team and at least some of the Canberra Raiders is put into perspective.

But watching sport is all about the dream. Don’t tell us preseason matches don’t mean anything and then pore over every moment to discern how it might play out in six months’ time. Let us live.

So yes, Bronson Xerri is the answer to Canterbury’s prayers, and yes, Ryan Papenhuyzen’s ability to get through 40 minutes means that he’ll never get injured again. Don’t ask how it works, it just does.

With that in mind, and seven ‘meaningless’ matches set for the next 48 hours, here’s how to watch the NRL Preseason Challenge.

Play Cliché Bingo


Ks in the legs. Cobwebs blown off. Great to get back out there. Still building combinations. Not the finished article. It’ll take a few weeks until we see them at their best. It’s a big year for them this year. We won’t read too much into it. Making a case for Round 1. Giving the coach a few headaches.

Feel free to begin the weekend with a full slab in front of you and take a sip every time you hear any of these phrases uttered. If you’re still awake by the time the Charity Shield starts, you have a problem and probably should try to get some help about it.

‘Remember the name!’

Try to think of the best trial game you ever saw. Admittedly, trying to remember the one that happened on Thursday night is a little difficult, but what about the classics?

Cooper Johns was a real standout in last year, so much that the Manly players jokingly called him ‘MVP’ for several weeks, as the Sea Eagles romped to the inaugural Preseason Challenge title.

Sua Faalogo went alright too, and we all got excited about him, only for no NRL debut to follow until the very last round of the year when there was nothing to play for.

What about Dec Casey, who creased Kalyn Ponga and scored a length of the field interception two years ago, but is now back on a train and trial at the Wests Tigers?


Even better are the Jersey Flegg players who kill it with 20 minutes to go when every first grader is already showered and waiting for an Uber.

Turns out that good reserve graders look really good when playing against other reserve graders, and if we wanted to watch that every week, there’s a whole competition called reserve grade where they play it all the time.

(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

There should perhaps be a secondary, counter section called “Him?!” for every time you see a reggies stalwart getting a run in the top grade side during the trials.

Melbourne fielded Tui Katoa on a wing at Belmore on Thursday, which would have felt right at home given he played three years there for the Dogs’ NSW Cup team, then another two with Mounties, and is now a North Sydney Bear.

Look out for the Dragons, who have another Bear, Jesse Marschke, and the Tigers, who have Cook Islands international/Newtown legend Reuben Porter, and Parra, for whom cult hero Zac Cini gets a game.  

This isn’t to disparage the second grade, by the way, which is almost a utopia of consequence-free, Bunkerless, get-on-with-it footy with cheaper tickets and better beer.


It’s more to wallow in the nostalgia of remembering names that did that thing once, and enjoying meeting old friends again.

Points win prizes

The NRL’s rules for the new-fangled Preseason Challenge reward how many offloads you throw, the number of line breaks made and, of course, how many tries you score.

But wait: is throwing offloads good? The NRL’s best offloader of recent years, Tevita Pangai jnr, just signed to play in the Q Cup and is widely regarded as a bit of a liability in the middle.

What of line breaks? They’re great, of course, but so are tries, and the point of making line breaks is to score tries afterwards. Don’t we just record that?

Hardcore stats fans will know that it’s really hard to score a try without also making a line break – essentially you have to either touch down a kick or take an interception – so surely we don’t need to double-reward things that teams should be trying to do anyway.

Or are we trying to disincentivise good attacking kicking? Won’t anyone think of Jamal Fogarty?


(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

A pet hate is when someone writes “Cody Walker has X try assists and X line break assists”, because almost all of his try assists are also the same line break assists, rendering both meaningless as a result. The Preseason Challenge has essentially taken that logic and given it a trophy.

You can see what the coach is thinking

Can you though? It’s a solid guess that most coaches already know their best 17, certainly their best 13, and won’t be waiting until after seeing a knockabout game against another side’s entire roster to make a call on who gets the jersey.

There might be some, like Manly, who are trying to discern if Josh Schuster is actually fit enough to play, but in terms of actual selection decisions…it’s unlikely.

We like to think that form matters, but these are elite coaching set-ups and they watch these blokes all week long at training, so you’d expect that bit, which nobody on the outside gets to watch, to be the most important part of a decision-making process.

We also like to think that competition is important, but in truth, most coaches know who they think is better and start that way, before making decisions based on what happens in games that matter, not based on knockabouts where you get points for forcing offloads.


If you’re a Bulldogs fan, for example, and you’ve got lots of open spots in the team, it might be tempting to think that the trials will decide who gets the start.

But think about it: Cameron Ciraldo and his team have had four months to watch these boys and decide where they fit. If they’re waiting until they’ve seen them play a team with Tui Katoa in it to decide, something has gone wrong.

MUDGEE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 18: Ben Hunt of the Dragons speaks to his team during a drinks break due to hot weather during the NRL Trial and Charity Shield match between St George Illawarra Dragons and South Sydney Rabbitohs at Glen Willow Sporting Complex on February 18, 2023 in Mudgee, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Ben Hunt speaks to his team during the Charity Shield thumping in Mudgee. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Try to enjoy yourself

The best thing, bar none, about the trials is that they are footy. Footy that is happening now, right in front of us, after such a long period with thin gruel.

Unless you watch the French Elite One, it’s been months with nothing to see, and after that, anything at all that has rugby league in it looks great.

The trials are a bit of a hodge podge, for sure, but what a time for it. We’re starved. We’ll take anything at this point.


So get yourself a bingo card, reacquaint yourself with that groove in the sofa that you made last year. It all starts here.