It can be tempting to get over-excited after the first week of any season, but as the viewers of WandaVision will tell you, it’s important to temper those expectations so you don’t accidentally set yourself up for disappointment.
As we’ve come to expect in the Peter V’Landys era, round one of the NRL was another exercise in rebooting the league.
Melbourne, Newcastle, Brisbane, Gold Coast, the Tigers and the Dragons all had new captaincy set-ups, seemingly every team debuted a new goal-kicker at one point in their matches, but the results were all relatively predictable.
So let’s try to keep things in check before anyone flies too far off the handle.
No team is as good or as bad as the first 80 minutes would suggest
The Roosters are back and the Broncos are heading for another wooden spoon, while the Rabbitohs are overrated.
Except of course it’s not all that.
James Tedesco and Brett Morris scoring hat-tricks against an underwhelming Manly side distracted temporarily from the fact that the issues they had leading into the season remain.
None other than Immortal Andrew Johns had the 2018 and 2019 premiers a step below his top four of Melbourne, Penrith, Parramatta and South Sydney and it’s easy to see why.
Boyd Cordner is missing the first half of the season and the team seems to still be looking for the best man to partner Luke Keary in the halves.
Throw in last year’s late-season fade-out and another ugly head knock for co-captain Jake Friend, and the Roosters don’t seem like the unstoppable force they were in previous years, even if Tedesco looks a man on a mission to remind everyone he’s the number one number one in the league.
At the other end of the ladder, despite surrendering a 16-0 lead to Parramatta feeling eerily familiar for Brisbane fans, there are reasons to be optimistic. Not ‘booking tickets for the grand final’ optimistic, but maybe ‘not coming last’ optimistic.
The Broncos were without Payne Haas and Kotoni Staggs, and while Staggs’s mid-season return from a torn ACL may not see a return to his Origin-level form from last year, those two are probably the best players on the roster.
They also lost starting prop Matt Lodge in the first half, and winger Xavier Coates and bench forward John Asiata in the second — the sort of matchday casualty list that would challenge even the best teams in the league.
Watching the team in their first game under Kevin Walters, it was clear Anthony Milford had some energy back in his game and more performances like Friday night’s effort from Jake Turpin will go a long way to helping them off the bottom of the table.
Meanwhile, South Sydney’s misfortune in running into the eye of the Melbourne Storm should not stop people from getting excited about their prospects in 2021.
The fastidious nature of things in Melbourne means their off-season is always the best in the league, hence 20 straight first-round wins.
The Storm scored all their tries in the first 30 minutes of the game on Thursday, during which time South Sydney completed about half of their sets of six, not out of some fatal error in their game plan but simply because they kept dropping the ball. Frustrating, but not a structural disaster.
Once they got their feet under them, they matched it with Melbourne, and Cody Walker, Latrell Mitchell and Alex Johnston wisely directed traffic at the inexperienced pairing of first-gamers George Jennings and Reimis Smith.
The three tries they scored in that 25-minute period seem a more accurate reflection of the Rabbitohs’ abilities than the butterfingered first 30.
Meanwhile, the reigning premiers’ opening gambit was so strong that people seemed to ready to ignore the fact that it was the third straight game where they’ve shot out of the gates and then just held on.
Of the 13 tries they scored in the preliminary final, grand final and round one, only one came after the 45th minute of the game. A nice problem to have, but certainly something Craig Bellamy will want to adjust.
Is scrappy the way of the future?
And making adjustments on the fly is what life in the new NRL is all about.
After the rapid pace of the game in 2020 won so many plaudits, the higher-ups at Rugby League Central decided to keep speeding things up on the field.
But like the USS Enterprise breaking apart as Scotty gives her all he’s got, sometimes you need to slow things down.
Changing the interpretation of ruck speed and effectively ditching penalties for infringements in the tackle amped up the pace last year, and now they’ve moved to get rid of as many scrums as possible while still having the game be recognisable as rugby league.
The irony of having fewer scrums — it’s now a play-the-ball if it goes over the sideline — is scrum-base plays became an exciting regular part of the game last year, thanks to a different rule change by the V’Landys administration.
By allowing teams to move the scrum to anywhere on the field, teams executed some slick as butter set moves that added a new attacking element.
We barely saw any of that in round one this year. Instead, we got a lot of ad-lib footy, but an awful lot of scrappy sets of six.
Once again, we saw that a run of one or two sets of six can completely turn a game on its head because the ball simply doesn’t leave the field of play.
And while that sounds exciting, the final quarter of matches has become something akin to the last rounds of the Thrilla in Manila, with teams just trying to keep from collapsing rather than playing particularly enterprising football.
Like everything else in round one, it’s too early to make a decisive ruling, but most of the games on the weekend were ugly affairs with long chunks of dominance for one team or the other, rather than a persistent back and forth between two sides at peak performance.
Probably the biggest winner of round one was the new bunker rule, which only sends on-field ‘no try’ decisions directly to the video referee, while tries are awarded on the field with the bunker checking behind the scenes if there’s anything wrong.
It was a subtle change that made sure there was more of a flow from moment to moment. Now if we can just find a way for teams to run as smoothly with ball in hand, the season will be hitting warp speed before too long.