ST George Illawarra and Melbourne were the most impressive teams out of the blocks in round one of the NRL.
The Titans and the Knights won on the bell, the Warriors foretold of the usual promise and the Tigers’ rebuild is so good, so far. At the foot of the mountain, the Panthers laid to rest, for now, any conjecture over the morale at the joint. The Johnathan Thurston-led Cowboys notched an impressive win against 2016 premiers and short-priced contenders, the Sharks. If the opening exchanges offer any clue, there will be plenty of congestion fighting for seventh and eighth spots come finals time.
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The reduced interchange allowance, while seemingly minor in the scheme of things, appears to have ushered in a leaner, more dynamic physical profile for the modern footballer.
It was also interesting to see the referees stamping down on rolling the ball in the ruck. Irritating for some as we correct the open-slather legacy of last season, but them's the rules. Hopefully they stick to their guns.
Otherwise, some big games this week for those who tasted defeat in round one – woe betide any of those who finish this weekend without a win. The other side of the same coin will see some teams race to a four-point lead on the table. Big stakes already, and we’ve just got started.
On the home front, things have kicked off nicely for the local team. On the back of a low-risk strategy, high completion rate, and superior field position courtesy of a 2-1 advantage in the kicking game, the Knights did something they haven't done for a while. Win a tight one.
Credit where it’s due, the Beagles were perhaps the better side doing more with the ball when they had it.
But with a tenacity that needs to become their hallmark, the Knights defended their tryline like it meant something. Kalyn Ponga’s effort in denying Aku Uate, in particular, a winning touchdown was as masterful as it was brave. And, he kicks goals and score tries. This bloke, he's a keeper!
Along with Ponga, fellow debutants Slade Griffin and “JJ” Pearce were standouts, with Herman Ese’ese and Mitch Barnett busy and effective. On the whole, it's two valuable points and a positive start for all connections. Yeah!
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* NOW for the Raiders. Ricky Stuart’s mob were both desperately unlucky and a tad incompetent to lose from 18 points up against the Titans last weekend. Sticky will be demanding they don't make that mistake again.
Which means if our boys concede as much territory as they have in the past two outings, the monster Raiders could ride roughshod.
You see, the challenge of addressing problems of team cohesion rubs both with and without the ball. Conservative play with the ball can be managed to minimise combination risk.
But a passive, uncertain, or sometimes backtracking defensive line can be terminal and is not an option.
Which is not to say we haven't had our moments, nor that a containment shape isn't the best solution to a given circumstance. Quite the contrary.
But consistently claiming as much of one’s “real estate”, from the ref to the advantage line, each play, needs to become the default setting for this team if they're to compete with the big boys in a game of inches. If not, the big power runners of not just Canberra will set up camp in our half this season.
Knights by 2.
* MARK Twain once observed that history doesn't repeat itself, but it sure can rhyme.
A pearler of an example this week is the similarity between the early public comments of former chair of the ARL Commission, John Grant, and that of his successor, (another Queenslander) Peter Beattie. In stuff you couldn't script, the former labelled Cronulla-Sutherland the “Hawks” in 2014, and Beattie also was unable to the name the same 52-year-old club, who won the grand final not 18 months ago.
Spare me days. A credibility killer par excellence for the new head commissar. All the while, the average fans are shaking their heads at the failed constitutional-vote palava, and, now it seems the guy in charge is not across his brief. It doesn't exactly inspire confidence, especially as issues of strategic importance have been on the backburner.
Meanwhile, his refreshed board is being sold with a sharper edge. I'll reserve judgment as one hopes they get quickly into stride across some big-ticket issues. Recent tax-treatment murmurs, ominous signals from Europe over the future value of pay and free-to-air rights, and ongoing division in clubland, are but the tip of the iceberg.
Just below the waterline we have dwindling junior-boys participation, declining local clubs in the city and the bush, and increasingly scarce trainers, coaches and administrators skilled enough to manage the complex risk and protocol regimes of the modern junior game.
Throw in the festering player-agent scandal, the red herring of expansion, and the policing of rules and practices that reduce concussion risk, and it becomes abundantly clear these leaders need some time to think, and perhaps consult with those who know the game better than they.
On the positive side of the ledger, fans are engaged. The women's league is taking off, player-workplace agreements are in place and the 272 first-graders on display last week did what they do best. On balance, a glass half-full.
* THOSE AFL guys are always a step ahead of us leaguies.
Again this week their players announced they would forgo over $24 million of their funding allocation for it to be redirected into past-player health and welfare programs.
What a brilliant gesture to the old guard. While the NRL has its Men of League foundation, the funding it raises (via a vast and committed volunteer base) is entirely inadequate for the task at hand, nor in the future.
They need help. The AFL players have shown the way by offering support to those that dug their well. Those in the NRL who quench their thirst from a deep well of their own might spare a thought. Just saying.