What we learned from the last NRL trials
IT was a huge weekend of NRL matches and our experts covered every game.
This is what we learned in the final hit-outs before season 2018 kicks off.
STORM 14 COWBOYS 16
FULLBACK CRISIS: Billy Slater could be rested for round one after he took a bump to his troublesome shoulder against the Leeds Rhinos last weekend. His replacement for Melbourne's trial against the Cowboys, Jahrome Hughes, also suffered a similar fate but with more serious consequences. He too injured his shoulder and his subluxation diagnosis will see him out for at least three weeks. It could mean a shift to fullback for Cameron Munster. The other option is bringing in Young Tonumaipea.
The Cowboys didn't get away unscathed. Lachlan Coote only lasted for around 15 minutes before he left the field with hamstring soreness. Kane Linnett could be sidelined for an extended period with a pectoral injury.
JT'S BRILLIANCE: Very few players possess the competitive zeal of Johnathan Thurston. It was the last minute, the last play, in what was only a trial match, but JT still went looking for the win. And he found it via a banana kick on the outside of his right boot to find Kyle Feldt in the corner. North Queensland are everyone's early favourite for the title and JT's performance bodes ominous for their rivals.
FREAK OR FLUKE?: We all remember Kyle Feldt's heroics in the 2015 grand final. The Cowboys winger is making a habit of finishing off the most unlikely of tries that surely his efforts can no longer be considered the occasional fluke. Feldt landed a hat-trick on Friday night and his first try is worth a special mention. Michael Morgan's cross field kick looked long but somehow Feldt managed to not only drag the ball in, but beat a flying Josh Addo-Carr, by reaching out with one arm to snatch it from the Melbourne winger's grasp to score.
- Fatima Kdouh
PNG HUNTERS 12 BRONCOS 26
MILF IS BACK: Broncos fans can breathe easy - their $1 million man Anthony Milford made a successful return from shoulder surgery in PNG. Milford came on at the 20-minute mark and helped set up two tries in a 35-minute cameo, bringing direction to a Broncos side that trailed 12-6 at half-time. His kicking game was vastly improved.
LETHAL LODGE: Brisbane have found their new enforcer with 116kg prop Matt Lodge producing another fine performance. Lodge will have his critics this season but no-one can dispute his talent. His second-half defensive effort was outstanding. The 22-year-old will be the first prop picked for Brisbane's round-one clash against the Dragons.
BACKLINE GEMS: With Corey Oates keen to move to the back row, several young guns are staking claims for backline berths. Fullback Jamayne Isaako turned in a slick display, setting up a try for winger Jonus Pearson, who shapes as the frontrunner for Oates' No. 2 jumper. The 22-year-old Pearson is likened in style to former Origin winger Jharal Yow Yeh and is primed for a bumper year.
- Peter Badel
TITANS 14 WARRIORS 20
TITANIC PROBLEMS: Titans coach Garth Brennan needs to sort out his team quickly after a winless pre-season. The Titans lacked defensive mongrel against the Warriors and need to find a front-row firebrand who will dominate teams. Ryan James was outstanding on the edge playing back row but perhaps they need his work ethic and aggression in the engine room.
HALF HEADACHES: Titans scrumbase duo Ashley Taylor and Kane Elgey must finetune their partnership. Elgey is talented but looks down on confidence and while Taylor scored an early try from a grubber-kick rebound, some of his last-play options were poor. They need to lift for Canberra in round one.
GREENER PASTURES: Blake Green is shaping as one of the buys of the season. His reliability is the perfect foil for the brilliance of Warriors halves partner Shaun Johnson and the duo combined well to sink the Titans. Warriors rookie Sam Cook looks the goods and sealed victory with a clever try from dummy half.
- Peter Badel
PANTHERS 10 BULLDOGS 24
MOUNTAINS OF TROUBLE: Penrith's near full-strength side were belted by Canterbury's NSW Cup team. There's no way of sugar-coating the loss that will have Anthony Griffin second guessing his entire preseason. While it's only a trial match, this should have been a game comfortably won by the Panthers and loomed as a great opportunity for new combinations to gain rhythm ahead of their round one clash with rivals Parramatta. Penrith have been left with plenty of questions to answer after a highly embarrassing display.
DOGS' DEPTH: Dean Pay gave his B side an opportunity to match it with the NRL's best, and boy did they deliver. Bench players Greg Eastwood and Francis Tualau were the only members from the likely top 17 on show at Belmore Oval. Kerrod Holland was outstanding while deputising at fullback, Nu Brown was a constant threat from hooker and five-eighth Lachlan Lewis - nephew of King Wally - was exceptional against his far more experienced opponents. The depth on display will be reassuring for the club as the season progresses.
SPINAL PROBLEMS: While impressive on paper, Penrith's spine may take a little more time to gel than Anthony Griffin would have hoped. The attacking quartet of Dylan Edwards, James Maloney, Nathan Cleary and Peter Wallace played big minutes and largely failed to trouble the Canterbury reserves in a worrying sign ahead of their NRL opener. Poor defence led to the Panthers' first try when Nathan Cleary put Regan Campbell-Gillard through a yawning gap, while swift hands from Waqa Blake presented their second four pointer.
- Tim Williams
SEA EAGLES 26 ROOSTERS 28
MAGIC MITCHELL: Trent Robinson says Latrell Mitchell has returned in the best shape of his life in 2018. And judging his first up effort against Manly, it's an ominous sign for not only opponents of the Sydney Roosters, but anyone trying to stand in Mitchell's way from claiming a NSW jumper this year.
He scored two outstanding tries that both highlighted his amazing athletic ability and power. But the fact Robinson said that the 20-year-old has returned "the fittest he has been in his NRL career and in his life" is the really positive sign.
READY TO ROLL: Robinson made the point after the game that he doesn't agree with the popular opinion that it is going to take time for the Roosters' new-look spine to gel.
No doubt, Robinson has seen the work Cooper Cronk and James Tedesco have put in behind the scenes that gives him confidence others might not have that their combinations are ready.
Even when the Roosters were trailing 16-0 after 10 minutes, Cronk didn't stop barking instructions and literally pushing his teammates into position.
The way he controlled the team to get the Roosters back and ultimately win 28-26 showed the value his direction gives them.
Meanwhile, Tedesco scored two tries including a chip-and-chase effort few players in the game would have been capable of.
What it showed is that if the forwards hold up their end of the deal the team that finished last season second on the ladder won't be going backwards.
PROMISING SIGNS: Don't despair Manly fans. If you weren't at the game take it as fact the Sea Eagles were unlucky not to be leading by a lot more than 22-16 at halftime.
They butchered at least two more tries in the first half.
While they made too many errors in the second half to win the game, they showed enough in the first half to suggest people saying they over achieved last year might be off the mark.
And with all the questions about whether Lachlan Croker could fill the void left by Blake Green, it was the ball-playing performance from Jake Trbojevic that was the highlight.
The tough lock played like a 110kg halfback at times and had a hand in the opening three tries, absolutely owning two of them with a couple of magical touches.
While Croker has been brought in to do a job, Jake Trbojevic's performance probably best outlined how Trent Barrett plans to use his skills to take the pressure off Daly Cherry-Evans this year.
- Paul Crawley
SHARKS 24 WESTS TIGERS 12
TIGERS ARE STILL IN FLUX: The Tigers have experienced tremendous turnover over the last 12 months and as a result, their combinations are still developing. Josh Reynolds and Luke Brooks had their moments in their second match together, but neither player has worked out the other's tendencies just yet. Likewise, the change from Tui Lolohea to Corey Thompson at fullback hamstrung the attack somewhat, especially in the attacking quarter. It remains to be seen just who will earn a start for Round 1, but it seems likely the club will take some time to get going.
HOLMES DAZZLES, MOYLAN STRUGGLES: There have been question marks over Valentine Holmes's ball-playing abilities following his move to fullback but the Test and Origin flyer made every post a winner, looking right at home and combining well with Chad Townsend. Conversely, Matt Moylan struggled to put his stamp on the game at five-eighth - his transition to that new position is still in progress. Having said that, the skills of Wade Graham on the left edge will take the pressure off the former Penrith skipper - Graham's grubber for Sosaia Feki in the first half was a play any half would be proud of.
CRONULLA'S STRENGTH STILL IN THE MIDDLE: For all the talk of their new-look spine and the recruitment of Josh Dugan, Cronulla still do their best work up the middle of the field. The Sharks look most dangerous when they followed up power with power, even without skipper Paul Gallen. It may take some matches for their spine to fully gel, but Cronulla can rest assured they'll have the platform to get things done.
- Nick Campton
KNIGHTS 6 v EELS 26
FRENCH IS BEST: Bevan French has a lock on the Eels No. 1 jersey after a scintillating display against Newcastle. French scored two tries, laid on another and was ever present with the ball. He comes into the season with doubts surrounding who should play fullback for the Eels given the return of Jarryd Hayne and Clint Gutherson's outstanding 2017 before a serious knee injury. But if the performance against the Knights is anything to go by, French has found a home at the back.
KNIGHTS SLIP INTO BAD OLD WAYS: Despite a huge turnover of players and the signing of some representative stars, Newcastle may find it harder to overcome their poor habits than they thought. The Knights started strongly in the opening 20 minutes but faded away, badly. While continuity is going to take some time, it was the simple skills in the match which let Newcastle down. Coach Nathan Brown was highly critical post-game. The Knights showed enough in the opening 20 that they are on the improve, it is just going to take longer than many thought.
HAYNE HAPPY TO BIDE TIME: If it was not Jarryd Hayne trotting out in the No. 4 jersey for the Eels, then his performance would have gone largely unnoticed. Some decent touches without being flash was the best way to describe Hayne's return. He laid on a try in the second half when he played 20 minutes at fullback before coming from the field. Hayne will be a strike player for the Eels, but there is certainly no over-reliance on the two-time Dally M Medal winner.
- Michael Carayannis
RABBITOHS 22 DRAGONS 18
GI IS BACK: He only played 20 minutes, ran the footy twice and dropped a bomb inside his own in-goal - but Greg Inglis is back, baby. Not only played without strapping on his knee at left centre, but appeared relaxed and happy in his return from that ACL injury.
COOK LOOMS AS RABBITOHS NO. 9: Only 12 months after NSW Origin hooker Robbie Farah arrived at Redfern with much fanfare, Cook is now firming to usurp him permanently. Often looked threatening against the Dragons and set up a nice long range try.
MUDGEE IS NO. 1 IN BUSH FOOTY: Saturday's Charity Shield atmosphere was easily the best of the four NRL fixtures that have now come to town - with the $14 million mecca that is Glen Willow Sports Complex once again living up to its reputation as the best ground in country NSW.
- Nick Walshaw