The 2018 NRL season is underway, and each week we'll be taking a look at six things that stood out from the weekend's action.
New players at new clubs, a new crackdown on an old rule, same old interpretations on another, and a reminder that the game is never over until the final whistle, mark the first round of the season.
Tackle 1: How did the new recruits fare?
A lot has been written about all the big-name players who changed clubs during the off season. Of course it's only early and new combinations need time to mature, but the returns over the weekend were certainly mixed. Cooper Cronk and James Tedesco couldn't get Sydney Roosters over the line, with Tedesco particularly shaky against his old club. Matt Moylan wasn't the worst in the Sharks' loss to North Queensland Cowboys, but there is already talk about which is his best position. Kieran Foran and Aaron Woods played well for the Bulldogs, but they were simply outclassed by the Storm. James Maloney was solid in the Panthers' fightback win, but he was overshadowed by young half Nathan Cleary.
In Newcastle, Kalyn Ponga was brilliant and Mitchell Pearce, while he had poorer moments, ultimately brought an unlikely two competition points to the Knights. Blake Green was very good for the Warriors, but we would give the "biggest bang for bucks" award to Dragons' pair Ben Hunt and James Graham. Hunt took control for the Dragons against his old club, Brisbane Broncos, and was key to their victory, but his success came on the back of a dominant display by his forwards led by Graham. The warhorse added real fire to the Dragons' pack, and his work rate was astounding. At one point early in the second half, he had the crowd on their feet after making the first four tackles of a set of six. Things are definitely looking good for the big red V.
Tackle 2: Obstructing our enjoyment of the game
One round into a new NRL season and already the old obstruction rule has reared its ugly head. Thirty-two minutes into their victory over South Sydney Rabbitohs in Perth, a try was awarded to the Warriors after a review of a potential obstruction by a decoy runner. The video referee decided that Souths half Adam Reynolds had made the mistake of committing to tackle the decoy. It was a tough call on Reynolds, as the decoy was the size of a fridge and he could barely see where the ball was going or have time to make a choice. If you're a 90-kilogram halfback with a 120-kilogram ball of muscle careening straight for you, you had better commit to the tackle or you'll end up being road kill.
On Sunday, Panthers centre Tyrone Peachey was penalised for obstructing Parramatta Eels five-eighth Corey Norman during their clash at Penrith. Most observers felt that Norman had instigated the collision on Peachey. The problem with the rule is there is still way too much interpretation left in these often crucial calls.
Tackle 3: Embarrassing crackdown
Referees were obviously under instruction to crack down on the play-the-ball in round one, with many penalties awarded against players for not making contact with the ball with their foot. It is such a petty thing to crack down on, when it has little impact on the game, apart making it look tidier. Players playing the ball before regaining their feet are gaining an unfair advantage, and should be penalised, but penalties were being blown against players who did everything correctly apart from missing the ball by millimetres. A couple of years back, the NRL introduced an interpretation of the rule that said a player had only to make a genuine attempt to play the ball with his foot. That has clearly gone out the window. We can only hope the players get the message and get it right quickly, because it is an embarrassing look for the game.
Tackle 4: Storm are future-proof
Melbourne Storm have everything under control, for now and well into the future. Don't worry whether Brodie Croft is good enough to cover for Cooper Cronk as the brilliance of Cameron Munster will more than cover for any drop in attacking prowess, even the loss of Billy Slater. With Slater a late withdrawal from their clash with the Bulldogs, Storm coach Craig Bellamy moved Munster to the back and brought another youngster, Ryley Jacks, into the halves. Munster cut the Bulldogs apart from fullback, and Jacks more than held his own at five-eighth. It will be a very good team that stops them from winning back-to-back premierships.
Fifth and last: No such thing as a safe lead
We saw again on Sunday something that was evident several times last season: There is no such thing as a comfortable lead in the NRL. On the back of a majority share of possession, the Eels raced to a 14-0 lead against the Panthers at Penrith. Corey Norman crossed for the Eels' third try in the 26th minute and in the same move ended their scoring for the day. On the back of three tries and a perfect kicking display by Nathan Cleary, the Panthers scored the next 24 points to claim victory.
On the Gold Coast the fightback was even bigger. The Raiders ran in three tries in 12 minutes to lead 18-0 before re-establishing that margin with another try taking the score to 24-6 after 26 minutes. With the beer on ice in the dressing room and Ricky Stuart warming up his victory speech, the Titans won the rest of the match 24-4. The 30-28 victory was the biggest fightback win in Titan's history. It pays to remember, the game is never over until it is over.
Handover: Lodged in Kogarah throats
Matthew Lodge's controversial return to the NRL for the Broncos was met with loud booing every time he handled the ball or was mentioned by the ground announcer at Jubilee Oval on Thursday. He was also responsible for the loudest cheer of the night when he threw a pass onto the chest of Dragons half Ben Hunt, who raced away for a crucial try early in the second half. Wayne Bennett said in the post-match media conference that playing football was the best thing for Lodge at this point in his life. It certainly is the only way he has any hope of being able to pay the compensation bill for his disgraceful actions three years ago.
It will be interesting to see what kind of reception he will receive this week at Suncorp Stadium. The following week he'll be off to wilds of Campbelltown Stadium where as a former Tigers player he can expect no favours. The ongoing negative attention could turn into a distraction that Bennett and the Broncos really could do without.