Dragons won’t get the spoon but concerns grow at a few clubs, downtown rule worth a spin: NRL Week 2 Trials Talking Points

St George Illawarra are the bookmakers’ favourites to collect the wooden spoon in 2024 but they shouldn’t be.

While trotting out the usual caveat that trial form does not hold much water, based on the small sample size of a fortnight’s worth of pre-season fixtures, the Dragons look like they are on a mission to prove everyone wrong this year.

It should be of slight concern to the joint-venture club’s eternally frustrated fans that coach Shane Flanagan said they were primarily concerned with being strong in 2025.

But with most of the deadwood of the Anthony Griffin era already excised from the roster and experience across the park, the Dragons could exceed their low expectations this season.

They look a helluva lot fitter than last season. 

Jack Bird has slimmed down to fit back into a centre’s jersey, while Moses Suli and Mikaele Ravalawa didn’t look smaller but definitely looked more powerful as they scattered defenders on the left edge.

Flanagan’s decision to shift Zac Lomax to the right wing gives them a potent edge duo on either side of the field in attack and defence.

Tyrell Sloan’s defence is still a concern/work in progress. He was bamboozled by Jahream Bula for one try, which is fair enough because the young Tiger is the hottest stepper since Ini Kamoze, but his effort on Heath Mason late in the game was not up to first-grade standard.

And Ben Hunt actually looks happy, like the skipper actually wants to be there, which is a significant improvement on last year.

The Dragons are skinny when it comes to experienced back-up options in a few key positions, particularly their spine options, but the addition of Luciano Leilua on top of the recent acquisition of Raymond Faitala-Mariner gives their pack a much sharper edge alongside Jaydn Su’A, Blake Lawrie and Jack de Belin.

Jack Bird was fit and firing for the Dragons in Mudgee. (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

They were much more impressive than the Wests Tigers on Saturday night in Mudgee in beating the “reigning” dual wooden spooners 34-18. 

The Tigers should be better this year with Aiden Sezer steering the ship at halfback and Justin Olam adding starch out wide but they otherwise have a pretty similar squad to last year’s outfit which tasted victory just four times.

They also have a rookie coach in Benji Marshall and a few players who like they’re at the club because that was the only option to keep cutting an NRL pay cheque.

Canterbury didn’t do much to disprove the theory that their recruitment drive is going to lead to few wins in their six-point loss to an understrength Sharks side on Friday night – with creativity at halfback and fullback still a glaring problem.

And if you happened to catch Gold Coast’s mediocre showing against the Eels on Sunday, don’t count them out for wooden spoon contention. 

Kieran Foran is another year closer to retirement, Tanah Boyd and Tom Weaver are limited in experience and creativity and with Jayden Campbell again injured, they will start the season with a 19-year-old starting fullback in Keano Kini after Des Hasler shifted AJ Brimson to centre full-time.  

Their pack is strong but they could struggle to score points. 

Eels are running away with this one!

???? Watch #NRLTitansEels on ch.502 or stream on Kayo: https://t.co/B1ijnGXtqA
BLOG https://t.co/0whYMClHTH
???? MATCH CENTRE https://t.co/WBTdk00LjS pic.twitter.com/0hFmHyEY1P

— Fox League (@FOXNRL) February 25, 2024

Tino Fa’asuamaleaui is under contract for the next decade but hopefully that deal comes with free chiropractic care because it looks like he’s going to be carrying this side yet again.

The Dolphins can’t be discounted from spoon calculations either, particularly if Tom Gilbert’s ACL tear is confirmed on Monday. The addition of Herbie Farnworth, Tom Flegler and Jake Averillo means they should be stronger than their promising foundation season but depth is still an issue around Redcliffe way.

Canberra could be a spoon smokey, with their fortunes relying on Jamal Fogarty to be the fulcrum of their spine after Jack Wighton signed with Souths. 

Cowboys look lethargic with imbalanced roster

There are no alarm bells ringing in the tropics and the Cowboys did indeed win on Sunday over Canberra but it was as unimpressive as a trial victory can get.

The Raiders rested several top-liners from the match and seemingly gave everyone at Seiffert Oval in a green jersey a run in the second half but Todd Payten kept many of his first-choice side on the park to give them a thorough workout before Round 1.

They have a curious roster with several 30-somethings in Chad Townsend, Jake Granville, Jordan McLean, Kyle Feldt and now Jason Taumalolo mixed in with a lot of players in their early 20s.

It could mean little to nothing once they get their campaign underway but the Cowboys seemed to lack cohesion although Scott Drinkwater stood out as an attacking weapon whenever he chimed in from fullback.

We’re level in this one! ????

???? Watch #NRLRaidersCowboys on ch.502 or stream on Kayo: https://t.co/B1ijnGXtqA
BLOG https://t.co/hDeQmvszRl
???? MATCH CENTRE https://t.co/uOOs2LwHNr pic.twitter.com/d9zfWEm0s3

— Fox League (@FOXNRL) February 25, 2024

They are shaping as one of teams, if not the hardest, to predict – they could be top-four contenders again or finish among the also-rans, especially if they don’t capitalise on a soft opening schedule in which they only play two 2023 top-eight teams in the opening six rounds.

Downtown good for fullbacks

The NRL’s recent crackdown on the old downtown rule should benefit fullbacks in getting some much-needed room to move when making kick returns.

There was a string of penalties blown during the trials for players trotting off downfield, usually the guy who had been tackled on play five, before a clearing kick with the sole intention of getting a head-start on rounding up the kick returner.

Players should get the message quickly because coaches will be fuming at giving away possession and a penalty on the last play, a harsh sanction for what is only a marginal gain of a player jumping the gun by a few metres on a kick chase.

Now the onus is on the NRL’s officials to not only continue this trend in Round 1 but throughout the season. 

The NRL’s history of maintaining crackdowns on certain rules by more than a few weeks is not exactly exemplary.

On a side note, the NRL’s downtown rule also applies to players after the game this weekend in Las Vegas – all venues on the Strip south of the Oregon border are off limits.

Sami strikes in the corner! #NRLTitansEels pic.twitter.com/oGQkbdeuAU

— NRL (@NRL) February 25, 2024

Wingers still can’t tackle 

If you ever want to know why wingers score so many tries, the answer is simple – they’re defended by wingers.

There were a few examples over the course of the weekend where wingers who rushed up and inwards were found out by looping passes over the backline.

It’s good for a winger to make a crunching tackle when they charge up to take out the other team’s centre. That is, if they get the ball. 

When the playmaker spirals a pass over the top to their unmarked winger it creates the easiest of tries. 

What’s the rush? The guys on the flank should have the pace to stand back, hold their width and if a centre does get outside their opponent, then rush in to defuse the situation.

In unrelated news, the top 10 tryscorers last season all wore No.2 or No.5.

Lucky Broncos cash in

Oh yeah, and the Broncos won the Pre-Season Challenge.

What will that mean for their regular season? Nothing.

An omen for going one better this year? Only if you believe in fairytales.

They won this “prestigious” tournament after their first-choice team thrashed North Queensland’s second-string side when Todd Payten opted to rest his stars for their other trial against Canberra.

Got the job done ????

2 from 2 in the Pre-season Challenge ???? pic.twitter.com/O0aQZsMCCS

— Brisbane Broncos (@brisbanebroncos) February 24, 2024

And then the Broncos’ young bucks proved too strong for their Manly counterparts in a virtual interstate challenge between Queensland Cup vs NSW Cup outfits. 

Which means the NRL’s richest team gets another $100,000 added to their bottom line. Don’t let the players have it in Las Vegas next weekend.

The Roosters were the only other team to win both their trials – they had a similar scenario in that they fielded a much stronger line-up in beating Manly first up before their reserves towelled up their South Sydney counterparts. 

But because ultimately Brisbane kicked one more conversion than the Roosters, they are this year’s Pre-Season Challenge champions. Can’t wait for next year’s totally meaningful, balanced and well thought-out tournament.

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