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Trial Takeaways: Bunnies too strong for Dragons, Young taken to hospital, Raiders romp away from Eels, Cogger impresses

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17th February, 2024
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Souths claimed the Charity Shield from the Dragons, Canberra claimed a big win over Parramatta, Dominic Young was injured in the Roosters’ triumph over Manly while Jack Cogger impressed as Newcastle proved too strong for Cronulla.

Here’s all you need to know from a busy day of four trials in the NRL Pre-season Challenge.

St George Illawarra 6, South Sydney 26

Dragons committed but Bunnies better

St George Illawarra brought greater intensity to the Charity Shield but South Sydney had the advantage in class. 

The Dragons fired up at Kogarah for the annual pre-season showdown but they didn’t have the firepower to match s

Souths even though they were without injured Cody Walker, suspended Jack Wighton and Latrell Mitchell after his All Stars performance the previous night. 

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 17:  Keaon Koloamatangi of the Rabbitohs is tackled during the NRL Pre-Season Challenge round one match between St George Illawarra Dragons and South Sydney Rabbitohs at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium on February 17, 2024 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Keaon Koloamatangi is tackled by Matt Eisenhuth. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

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New coach Shane Flanagan has mixed up the Dragons to put Zac Lomax on the wing and sending Jack Bird back from the pack to centre but the roster needs quality recruits before he can even think about challenging a finals contender like Souths. 

Luciano Leilua is likely to be back at the club by Round 1 but the pack and spine in particular need further reinforcements if the Dragons are to avoid finishing among the also-rans. 

For the Bunnies, young playmakers Dean Hawkins and Jye Gray showed they are going to be pushing for NRL game time this year. 

Manly recruit Sean Keppie put in an impactful performance up front in his first match in red and green, giving them another hard-hitting option in their middle forward rotation. 

After a scoreless first quarter, the deadlock was finally broken in the 36th minute when Dragons fullback Tyrell Sloan spilt the pill after a crunching tackle on his line and Jacob Host coasted over. 

Mikaele Ravalawa knotted the score at 6-6 just before halftime when he pounced on a loose pass near halfway. 

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Braidon Burns, back at the Bunnies after an injury-riddled stint at Canterbury, finished off a backline movement to make it 12-6 and the contest was all but over when Souths forward Davvy Moale motored through some fragile Dragons defence on the goal line. 

Burns, who could prove a more than handy pick-up for the foundation club in the outside backs, crossed for his second late in the contest from a superb cut-out pass from Jarrett Subloo as both coaches gave their extended bench reserves a run. 

Taane Milne latched onto a Peter Mamouzelos chip kick on the stroke of full-time to complete the 20-point triumph which, without any injury concerns, was a perfect warm-up for coach Jason Demetriou heading into the Las Vegas season opener agaisnt Manly.

Roosters 36, Manly 22

Daniel, Dom, Billy and the Joeys

The Roosters survived a scare from Manly – and over the health of new star signing Dom Young – as they eased to a 36-22 win in Gosford.

The Chooks fielded an almost full strength side and were too strong in the end, but Manly, with just five expected starters, put on a more than creditable showing.

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Indeed, they could have been level going into the final five minutes but for a missed conversion, before Connor Watson and Junior Pauga made the result secure.

The major worry was over Dom Young, who left with a neck issue following a crusher tackle. He was taken to hospital in a neck brace though the Roosters insist that it was merely precautionary.

“He’s good, it’s just when you’re dealing with the neck, you want to be precautionary, so he’s just gone to the hospital to get a scan,” coach Trent Robinson said.

“He was good in there (in the sheds) talking and sitting up and all that, but they just want to keep it stable just so we know what’s exactly wrong with it.

“But he was in good spirits and he was fine.”

Tof Sipley might not be so lucky: he was put on report for the incident and could be out of the American adventure as a result.

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All eyes were on the Chooks’ backs with a five-into-four dynamic emerging. Joey Manu was the man to miss out from the start but won’t be come the real kickoff, leaving the others to fight for inclusion.

Of those who started, it was Daniel Tupou who showed the most to Trent Robinson.

Robbo has admitted that Tupou might have been the man to miss out, despite being the club’s all-time record tryscorer, but was forced to include him based on preseason form, that was compounded today with two more tries.

The winger also averaged over ten metres per carry and broke multiple tackles, including one that saw him score from an unlikely angle in the second half.

(Photo by Izhar Khan/Getty Images)

Young had a few moments early on that showed he still has a little to go, but the topline speed was there to see on several occasions, as well as the eye for the tryline.

Both Billy Smith and Joseph Suaalii had moments of good play with their hands, but the big question remains over the defensive aspect, which was less than stellar against what was very much a second string Manly side.

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As unit, the Roosters were able to withstand a huge spell of pressure early on with six sets in a row on their line, but will be furious to have thrown all that away by allowing a pushover try from Tof Sipley at the end.

Robinson couldn’t have asked for a better chance to test his side’s cage D early on and will take heart from the huge run of possession that they withstood, but will also know that there is plenty to go yet if the Chooks are to be back to their 2019 best on the goalline.

Manly are going to be fun

There was even less than usual to read into the Manly performance, as they had far fewer big names out, but on the evidence of this, they will be a lot of fun in 2024.

The Sea Eagles were always ready to turn defence into attack and iced several transitional moments that kept them in the game, not only pouncing on the ball but then staying alive to immediately shift the footy and create chances.

The set attack was less impressive, though without all the major creative players and against a strong Roosters defence, that was perhaps to be expected.

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Of the fringe candidates, Ray Vaega was the one to give Anthony Seibold food for thought.

There is a spot on the wing up for grabs Vegas, and did his chances no harm today with several key moments and a heap of less flashy work.

Under the high ball remains an issue and caused a second half try, but the same could be said of Jaxson Paulo, and it might be that Manly just have to mitigate that threat to get the most out of their backline in yardage and defence.

In the middle, Nathan Brown did his best Jake Trbojevic impression with a key ball-playing role and a lot of tackling, which adds to the depth available to the Sea Eagles and perhaps moves the former Origin star closer to a spot on the bench.

Seibold said Josh Schuster would play in next Saturday’s pre-season match against Brisbane at Brookvale, before he flies to the US the following day.

“He’ll fly to Vegas on the Sunday and then we’ll make a decision whether he is in the 17 or not,” Seibold said on Fox Sports. 

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“It’s a long season and this is quite a unique preparation for us. The physio decided to pull him out and give him a good prep for the Broncos trial.”

Parramatta 16, Canberra 38

Raiders still at sixes ans sevens

Canberra’s spine conundrum appears no closer to being solved despite a 38-16 defeat of Parramatta in the NRL pre-season challenge.

The Raiders entered the summer with uncertainty as to who would play in three of four spine positions, following the departure of five-eighth Jack Wighton and movement at hooker and fullback in 2023.

Only halfback Jamal Fogarty appears assured of a spot in the starting team for round one.

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There was ample opportunity for a hero to announce himself in a game that was close until the final 20 minutes at Jubilee Stadium on Saturday.

But none was forthcoming on the edges for the Green Machine, who were bulldozed to a big victory late in the piece by a cast of up-and-comers.

In the halves, Kaeo Weekes and fellow five-eighth option Ethan Strange were solid without setting the world alight.

Weekes scored Canberra’s second try after putting a bomb up, chasing through and then finding himself on the receiving end of a second kick from Nick Cotric.

Strange looked comfortable with the boot himself, forcing a dropout in the first half.

“Obviously there’s opportunities that we missed, but there were opportunities that we did take,” said Weekes. “It was a good first hit-out for the boys and good to run around again.”

The Raiders’ usual starting hooker in 2023, Zac Woolford was given first chance to impress at dummy-half but an early head knock cut his night short.

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Young Chevy Stewart defused a 40/20 attempt in the first half but never cut loose with the ball as fullback rivals Seb Kris and Jordan Rapana watched on.

Brendan Hands staked his claim to start at hooker for Parramatta, who are set to anoint either the Penrith junior or Joey Lussick as Josh Hodgson’s permanent successor.

Ousted from starting duties by mid-season recruit Lussick last year, Hands was the Eels’ most impressive player, setting up the first try with a dart out of dummy-half.

He was held up from scoring his own try, and later cut through the middle on a line break that could’ve led to Parramatta’s third try had he found an inside ball.

After a solid first half, highly-rated young Eels half Ethan Sanders struggled, putting one kick out on the full and failing to find touch from a penalty with another.

Parramatta recruit Kelma Tuilagi struck up a formidable partnership with Bailey Simonsson on the left edge after usual second-rower Shaun Lane went to the bench.

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Tuilagi burst past former Manly teammate Weekes on a break that led Simonsson to score the side’s third. 

Eels forward Makahesi Makatoa is likely to face scrutiny from the match review committee after laying a hip drop-style tackle on Raiders winger Xavier Savage in the first half.

Matt Arthur, son of Parramatta coach Brad, knocked himself out cold attempting to tackle Peter Taateo off a kick return and left the field following a five-minute break in play.

Newcastle 44, Cronulla 18

A vital Cog for the Knights, towering Tom might sit out Round 1 for Sharks

Newcastle eased to a 44-18 trial win over the Cronulla Sharks, but Adam O’Brien’s list of difficult selection choices only got long after several standout performances from new recruits.

Jack Cogger was top of the list thanks to a strong performance in the halves, but two-try backrower Dylan Lucas and new arrival Will Pryce were also impressive.

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Krystian Mapapalangi might well have been in the thinking for an outside back role, but lasted just one tackle before departing with a concussion, a rotten stroke of luck after missing most of 2023 with injury. He must now sit out the second trial next week.

Another who might be out of the second week of the Pre-season Challenge will be Tom Hazleton, who was binned for a nasty looking shot that will surely interest the Match Review Panel.

A vital Cog

Adam O’Brien will be forced to read into trial form given the depth of his halves options, and he had several stand up demanding to be picked for their season opener.

Jackson Hastings will be there as the incumbent halfback but underlined his importance with two smart assists, but he’ll have Cogger breathing down his neck after the new recruit made a strong case for inclusion.

There was a 40/20, a try and plenty of other nice contributions, not least in the less-obvious, but vital angles work that kept Newcastle from playing too sideways.

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The way the Knights attack is often aimed at the corner post, which requires whoever plays further in to keep the direction under control, which Cogger did superbly.

Also making a mark was Will Pryce, who did stints at fullback and five eighth.

The English import showed exactly what he can bring, with an individual piece of brilliant to create a try for young winger David Armstrong and another one for himself thanks to a killer sidestep.

Anyone who has watched Pryce’s Super League highlights reel will know that he can turn on the style in broken play, and Knights fans got their first glimpse of that today.

It’ll be interesting to see which position O’Brien thinks is best for both Cogger and Pryce.

Tyson Gamble did nothing wrong but will know he is in a fight for that 6 jumper, and while Pryce isn’t going to unseat Kalyn Ponga from the fullback position, that flexibility might earn him a spot on the bench before long.

Two Sharks stand up

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The pickings were slim for Sharks fans, though that was to be expected given the settled nature of their starting 13 and the simple fact that most of them were sat in the Gosford grandstand.

The one space that is up for grabs is among their bench rotation, and it will be pleasing for Fitzgibbon that both of the contenders on show put their hands up.

Oregon Kaufusi and Hazleton will likely be the 16 and 17 for the bulk of the season, and showed in patches what they can offer.

Hazleton is always a threat with the ball due to his size but got himself everywhere in defence and, crucially, played bulk minutes, which will be needed this year as he looks to average longer stints on the field.

On top of the usual, Hazleton showed deft hands wider out to create a long-range try for his side, which will certainly be encouraging.

Less so was his stint in the bin for a late, high shot on Mat Croker that may rule him out of the first week of the season.

Kaufusi was his usual bustling self and managed some strong charges as well as setting up an early try for Jayden Berrell with a nice offload around the ruck.

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