The National Rugby League is back, and there’s plenty to unpack in an eventful NRL opening round.
This year sees the introduction of several new rules, most of which are designed to create a faster, more free-flowing game. They were first seen on display in February’s trial matches and copped plenty of criticism, their first appearances in the regular season have had a mostly positive impact, with the fast pace resulting in a higher level of entertainment.
Here’s how the first round of the season played out.
Storm v Rabbitohs
279 days since the last game in Melbourne and 537 since the last home crowd and the Storm’s premiership defence campaign kicked off in blistering fashion. The new rules made an instant impact as the Storm dashed through for two tries in the first ten minutes.
Ryan Papenhuyzen’s speed was on full display as his double put them 22-0 up on South Sydney in thirty minutes, with the Rabbitohs’ defence and attack taking too long to finally click. Alex Johnston scored on either side of half time to propel Souths to near striking distance, but two penalty goals kept the margin beyond a converted try.
The 26-18 result has largely expelled any talk of the Storm’s performance receding in the wake of legendary hooker Cameron Smith’s retirement. Even with young gun Harry Grant also unavailable to play the hooker role due to a knee injury, Brandon Smith stepped up to help lead the charge in a performance that may help him challenge for the position on Grant’s return.
Souths on the other hand will be disappointed with their star-filled side’s inability to combine when it was needed. The second half comeback demonstrated what can be, but it was too little too late. Off-season signings Benji Marshall and Jai Arrow proved to be valuable new inclusions to the side, however, a lot falls on a usually intimidating spine to come together and drive a stronger Rabbitohs attack.
Knights v Bulldogs
A heavy downpour welcomed a sold out crowd prior to Newcastle and Canterbury’s showdown and the wet conditions were a small hazard at times. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak’s opening try resulted in him sliding several metres across the turf and ploughing into a bench.
Despite the decent early start, gaps showed in Canterbury’s defence and Knights co-captain Daniel Saifiti was the first to expose them with an easy try in the tenth minute. The Bulldogs still kept neck-and-neck with Newcastle for most of the first half, showing signs that 2021 would be their year of resurgence.
But with an almost one-sided affair in favourable penalty calls and a strong all-around performance from Saifiti that included a second try off a Jayden Brailey pass, Newcastle ran away with it. The forwards continued to poke holes and only a desperate right-side effort from the Bulldogs in the 75th kept the margin below 20.
Newcastle’s victory was dampened with five-eighth Kurt Mann and centre Bradman Best both succumbing to injuries. However, the side appears to have righted the defensive mistakes that cost them several games at the business end of last season.
Canterbury’s attack showed plenty of promise but still showed room for improvement. New coach Trent Barrett will be looking to get more out of the back row to drive the Bulldogs out of bottom four territory.
Broncos v Eels
After last year’s wooden spoon, the Brisbane Broncos appeared to be on the right track for redemption as they piled the pressure on Parramatta in the first half.
The Eels were near disastrous to begin with, mishandling the ball over and over to hand Brisbane plenty of possession. The Broncos didn’t make the most of every opportunity but David Mead and Xavier Coates put in outstanding efforts on either side to open their 2021 campaign with plenty of new promise. Anthony Milford was a big improver, setting up all three Brisbane tries.
But it began to turn sour after Coates’ second try in the 32nd minute finished with an awkward landing on his shoulder that ended his night. The second half saw John Asiata and Matt Lodge also fall to injury and Parramatta finally found their footing to charge back into contention. Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Isaiah Papali’i led much of the charge with the metres they made and Blake Ferguson played his part with a kick to set up Clint Gutherson before putting the ball down himself in the corner.
Brisbane spent the final minutes of the game with battered players and an inability to interchange them. Yet they were still a chance of a matchwinner throughout and had a crack at the tryline in the 63rd only to knock the ball on.
Parramatta finished it off by sending Junior Paulo over the line with just over a minute to go. While neither team put in a solid 80-minute performance, both are serious finals chances.
Warriors v Titans
Just two weeks beforehand, these two exciting teams met for a 12-all draw. However their latest encounter was not so tight and leaves Gold Coast in a riskier position over the next few rounds of the season.
The two teams took much longer to trouble the scorers than the preceding matches of the round, despite the Titans’ best efforts at the tryline. Bailey Sironen kicked it off for the Warriors in the 25th, powering through two defenders to barely get the ball down. The relatively low scoring game was not without other highlights as several Titans players combined to avoid being caught in their own in-goal and go on to make 45 metres.
The Warriors’ defence kept the desperate but mistake-prone Titans from scoring for 73 minutes, by which time they’d added another 12 points to their total, including a dash from Kodi Nikorima set up by Bunty Afoa. It took a much simpler passing game ending on the left edge with Corey Thompson for the Titans to post some points of their own, but a field goal from Chanel Harris-Tavita put the result beyond doubt.
Despite the result, the Titans still at least partially demonstrated that they’re not the same side that struggled for much of the past decade. But the exciting play needs to be turned into points as the next few games don’t get much easier.
The Warriors came into the season in the same boat as Gold Coast, but come out of this match in a much stronger position and as a bigger finals threat. Both teams will still be watched keenly as they seek to prove their respective new eras really have begun.
Roosters v Sea Eagles
Out to redeem themselves after exiting last year’s finals in straight sets, the Sydney Roosters were all over Manly Warringah at the SCG.
Sydney had the edge over the Sea Eagles from the get-go as James Tedesco caught a Luke Keary bomb to crash over within three minutes. That set the tone for the remainder of the match as the Chooks scored try after try, with Reuben Garrick the only Sea Eagle to post any points and in just the tenth minute.
Tedesco and Brett Morris both notched up hat tricks, the former doing so with some sneaky left and right steps in the 26th before taking a wide pass from Keary to dive over in the 53rd. Morris meanwhile powered through several defenders on the right edge for all three of his tries. The Roosters didn’t come out unscathed, as hooker Jake Friend copped a head knock while trying to tackle Andrew Davy.
The Roosters otherwise couldn’t have asked for a better start to their season, claiming the largest winning margin of the round. Manly meanwhile has plenty to ponder as they prepare to take on another powerful side in the Rabbitohs next week.
Panthers v Cowboys
For all the hype surrounding a fresh coach in Todd Payten, it’s looking a lot like the past three disappointing years for North Queensland after a scoreless effort against last year’s minor premiers.
Penrith however couldn’t roll over the Cowboys quite the same way the Roosters had done over Manly, with the first half only producing an early try from Kurt Capewell and a penalty goal from Nathan Cleary. Capewell had another attempt at the try line late in the half but was shut down by a hard tackle from Josh McGuire. Scrappy defence was all the Cowboys could muster up as they had little ball and gave it up too often.
The Panthers hit the accelerator in a fast ten-minute span in the second half, starting with Dylan Edwards who spotted a wide gap in the middle. Brian To’o exposed a lightly-guarded left edge before Liam Martin caught a kick in the in-goal and offloaded for Isaah Yeo to score.
While 17 wins in a row is unlikely to be achieved again anytime soon, Penrith are still the same team that surprised their way to the top in 2020. The Cowboys are facing up to the same old problems but may be able to stick clicking together again with an easier match-up against St. George Illawarra.
Raiders v Tigers
No doubt the fans in Canberra were missing their beloved Viking clap in the off-season.
Both teams stayed neck and neck in the first half, although the Raiders’ big men threatened early with some powerful runs. Wests Tigers would instead open the scoring as Luke Brooks almost made it over himself before offloading to Jacob Liddle. Canberra responded ten minutes later as Jordan Rapana put down a George Williams grubber kick.
Despite having more of the ball and coughing it up just a little less often, Wests otherwise failed to do much with it and the Raiders would take full advantage in the second half. In his first NRL game in nearly two years, Ryan James put the Raiders in front as he carried three Tigers with him over the try line. Wests’ errors continued to prove costly as Williams ran 70 metres after picking up a poor pass attempt by James Roberts, and Curtis Scott and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad combined to do the same thing 26 minutes later.
Not everything went against the Tigers though; their only try in the second half was followed by a surprisingly successful conversion by Luke Brooks, which appeared to be travelling left of the goalposts before swinging back in. However the Raiders had all but secured the two competition points by then.
Dragons v Sharks
The only other wet weather game of the week was all about the “lessons learnt” by the Cronulla Sharks after going down to Parramatta in similar conditions last year.
The slippery surface had a serious impact on play with Josh Dugan going for the opening try off a grubber kick as Dragons Matt Dufty and Ben Hunt couldn’t get a hand on the wet ball. The next try occurred in similar circumstances and it wasn’t just in the in-goal where the Dragons were troubled – Dufty lost the ball twice in just over five seconds before a high shot made on him during a tackle sparked a near-brawl between players. The offending player, Jesse Ramien, was sent to the sin bin to leave Cronulla with only 12 on the field for ten minutes but the Dragons still couldn’t crack the Sharks defence.
They didn’t find the try line until the 47th when Adam Clune received a lucky bounce in front of the goal posts. But with 15 errors to Cronulla’s five and a sloppy completion rate, the damage had already been done. Dufty poked a tiny hole and ran half the field to bring them within striking distance, but two quick tries for Cronulla shut out any hope of a comeback.
Aaron Woods sealed the deal in the 77th in a match that went swimmingly for the Sharks. They’ll stick around when they play Canberra next week at the same ground while St. George Illawarra will need to adjust to entirely different conditions when they travel to tropical Townsville to play the Cowboys.
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