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The Roar


Trial Takeaways: Problems abound for Dogs after Sharks loss, Roosters-Souths 'reserve grade' highlights format farce

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23rd February, 2024
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The farcical nature of the Pre-Season Challenge was on display at Belmore Sports Ground on Friday when the Roosters and Rabbitohs clashed while fielding NSW Cup standard line-ups.

Later in the night, the Bulldogs and Sharks rolled out near full-strength sides in a much better quality contest but for Canterbury coach Cameron Ciraldo, he has a few glaring headaches before the start of the regular season as his club tries to qualify for the finals for the first time since 2016.

Bulldogs 6, Sharks 12

Halfback, fullback a headache for Ciraldo

If Cameron Ciraldo thinks Drew Hutchison is the answer to their halfback problem, he’s asking the wrong questions. 

The former Roosters playmaker struggled in the first half with a poor defensive read to concede the opening try, bombing a Bulldogs four-pointer with a poor pass and giving a couple of his runners hospital passes as they were crunched by the grateful Sharks defence. 

For all the millions spent on new recruits in the past few years, the Dogs still haven’t solved their highest priority – finding a halfback who can harness their talented stars. 

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 23: Josh Curran of the Bulldogs runs the ball during the NRL Pre-season challenge match between Cronulla Sharks and Canterbury Bulldogs at Belmore Sports Ground on February 23, 2024 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Josh Curran runs the ball for the Dogs against Cronulla at Belmore. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)


Whether Ciraldo goes into Round 1 with Hutchison or ex-Titans playmaker Toby Sexton alongside Matt Burton, chances are the half will become the latest in a long line of playmakers who have been handed the role but have been chewed up and spat out of the kennel’s revolving doggy door. 

Sexton only got 16 minutes of game time at the end when Burton was given a breather so he is highly unlikely to be given the keys to the team for their trip to Parramatta to kick off the season.

Fullback is Ciraldo’s other problem spot with former Rabbitohs utility Blake Taaffe making a string of fundamental errors at the back. 

Stephen Crichton came to Canterbury from Penrith hoping to establish himself in his preferred position of fullback but after being selected for his club debut at centre, he was benched after 20 minutes. 

He should have been running at fullback every training session in the pre-season and getting a chance to establish some on-field combinations from the back in this game but Ciraldo seemingly has other plans for their marquee signing. 

As things currently stand, the Dogs are on course for another season of disappointment with not even a sniff of the playoffs in their nostrils. 


For the Sharks, they played as you would expect their professional outfit to operate. 

Even with Nicho Hynes in cotton wool for Round 1 after blowing off his summer cobwebs in the All-Stars game last week, they looked solid as always. 

Second-rower Teig Wilton looked strong, touching down for the opening try, in his comeback from a knee injury which cut short his 2023 campaign. 

They will be strong again this season but whether they can knock over the top dogs, not teams like the Bulldogs, will be the lingering question hovering over them until they prove otherwise. 

“That was way too easy … paper thin,” said Fox Sports analyst Cooper Conk when Wilton sliced past Hutchison to draw first blood on the scoreboard. 

Briton Nikora prevented Canterbury equalising on the half-hour mark with a diving cover tackle on ex-Sharks centre Bronson Xerri but was banished to the bin for holding on way too long afterwards. 


The hosts eventually capitalised on their numerical advantage with Jacob Preston crashing over just before the break. 

With both coaches emptying their bench to give extended squad members a taste of NRL action, the attack in particular was ragged for each team even though both sides muscled up in defence.

The winning try from a Bulldogs passing error with winger Chris Vea’ila sprinting away for an early birthday present the night before he turns 21.

Burton may have a judiciary drama to deal with after he was placed on report for a high shot in the second half – it goes without saying (or typing in this instance) that if he is suspended for Round 1, the downward Dogs will be at even longer odds to upset Parra.

Sharks forward Jesse Colquhoun could also be missing when they open their account away to the Warriors after limping off with a foot injury.

Rabbitohs 10, Roosters 46

Young Chooks ready for step up


Because the two clubs are involved in next weekend’s Las Vegas opening round double-header, they were missing their top players and virtually unrecognisable teams duked it out.

A similar scenario will unfold at Brookvale on Saturday evening when Manly and Brisbane trot out reserve-grade squads.

The NRL is trying beyond all logic to fashion some sort of pre-season tournament as a way to drive up the broadcast rights when the next deal is up for negotiation but it’s impossible to come up with a format for 17 teams over two rounds that is workable or interesting.

Bless those Fox Sports commentators for following orders from above by spruiking the permutations of what each result means in the grand scheme of the Pre-Season Challenge standings which are determined not just by wins but the amount of tries scored and an array of stats which are then divided by the number of spanners in a Sidchrome toolkit.

With the four Vegas teams running dead in Round 2 and the Panthers in Wigan as they try to add the World Club Challenge to their bulging trophy cabinet, there are a dozen sides in contention for the $100,000 carrot which has been dangled in front of the clubs to treat this competition seriously.

From the evidence of last year and this pre-season, coaches have not changed their pre-season routines one bit with even the teams unaffected by the vagaries of Vegas giving their stars just one hit-out before rotating through their fringe first-graders and young prospects coming through the ranks.


For the match itself, veteran prop Dylan Napa was the only Rooster with NRL experience but it was the uncapped players in their pack who caught the eye.

Powerful lock Salesi Foketi is one to watch – he scored a try, made 224 running metres and topped the tackle count for his side with 34.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 23: Alex Young of the Roosters runs the ball during the NRL Pre-season challenge match between South Sydney Rabbitohs and Sydney Roosters at Belmore Sports Ground on February 23, 2024 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Alex Young runs the ball for the Roosters against South Sydney at Belmore. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Dominic Young’s younger brother Alex turned out on the wing but was relatively quiet as his fellow outside backs cashed in on the Roosters’ dominant performance.

Fullback Callum Gromek crossed for two tries as the Roosters raced to a 20-6 lead at half-time before registering a comprehensive 46-10 triumph.

In the grand scheme of things, this result will not matter for either club but for Roosters fans, they can be assured that the club has yet another crop of young prospects ready to step up to the top grade with Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Joseph Manu, Joseph Suaalii and potentially Angus Crichton leaving Bondi Junction at season’s end.