The NRL opened with a bang and the action will only get harder and faster as players gain match fitness. Here we look at the key clashes for Round 2.
Sea Eagles v Rabbitohs: Burgesses v young pups
Specifically: Sam, George and Luke Burgess v Josh Starling, Dunamis Lui and the not-so-young Brenton Lawrence in a Members' Round barnstormer. The big South Sydney forwards last week steamrolled an impressive Roosters pack featuring internationals Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Sam Moa and Sonny Bill Williams, with Sam Burgess named man-of-the-match in a powerhouse start to the season.
Manly certainly conceded momentum in their second half last week, so the above-mentioned players have an even more massive task (literally) in front of them in facing a mob of giant Rabbitohs. The Sea Eagles have named captain and former NSW Origin prop Jason King for a return from injury off the bench, giving them some more strength and experience in the engine room.
Broncos v Cowboys: Ben Barba v Michael Morgan
In full flight, Barba is nearly impossible to defend against and if the Broncos forward pack can overcome the likes of Jason Taumalolo, Matt Scott and James Tamou, Brisbane’s marquee signing can weave his magic. The Broncos fullback was also impressive in his defensive duties last week, preventing a couple of tries through his precise positioning in the in-goal area.
Like Barba, Morgan was impressive at the back against the Raiders in Round 1. The Cowboys’ caretaker custodian also showed great anticipation and positioning by denying Milford a try in the 13th minute last weekend, narrowly winning the race against the Raiders fullback in order to ground the ball first. He’s sure to be tested by Ben Hunt, who has been polishing his short kicking game with help from club legend Allan Langer.
Warriors v Dragons: Chad Townsend v Gareth Widdop
Widdop played his role to perfection in a man-of- the-match performance for the Dragons last weekend, laying on four try assists and kicking a perfect eight-from-eight off the tee. In a team accustomed to five-eighths who are brilliant one minute, nowhere to be seen the next, the Englishman’s consistency is welcome.
Townsend also stamped his authority on his new side, controlling the Warriors kicking game and booting the pill for over 150 metres. Despite a couple of poor decisions he was solid with ball in hand. In defence he responded well to plenty of attention from the opposing big men, making 18 tackles and missing just one. Both teams will be asking for reliable rather than remarkable from their respective standoffs, and he who can control the game best will be crucial.
Storm v Panthers: Jamie Soward v Cooper Cronk
Cronk returns from shoulder surgery for his first game of the season and you would expect the reigning Dally M Medallist will be underdone. Soward’s impact was immediately felt by the Panthers, which gained the most metres of any side by foot (917) last week. These two players both possess elite kicking skills pivotal to their side’s attack.
Cronk averaged 390 kicking metres per game last year to go with his 25 try assists (equal second in the NRL) and Soward averaged 341 metres before he departed for the UK midseason. Given the threat both teams possess on the wing, the ability to set their try-scorers up by foot makes these two playmakers vital on Saturday.
Roosters v Eels: Boyd Cordner v Manu Ma'u
The young bull v the new bovine on the block. The NSW Origin second-rower was one of the Roosters' best in their defeat to South Sydney, playing more than three-quarters of the game and running with his usual gusto on the left edge. But Ma'u was one of the finds of the season-opening weekend. The recently re-signed Kiwi was simply outstanding in his first grade debut, playing almost the entire game and leading the team in metres.
With both players heavily involved in the first game of the year for their respective clubs, it will be interesting to see whether the young duo can back up that effort.
Titans v Wests Tigers: William Zillman v James Tedesco
Tedesco could have a massive influence on the Tigers’ attack in 2014 and on Monday Zillman further illustrated why coach John Cartwright holds him in such high regard. Zillman was battered from pillar to post – often illegally – but continued to throw his body directly into the line of fire and when his team needed an extra effort in the final 10 minutes, it was Zillman who sliced through to regather Albert Kelly's grubber with fingertip control and score the match-winner.
In a competition currently blessed with a plethora of freakishly gifted fullbacks, Zillman rarely gets the raps but as the No.1's role has expanded the 27-year-old continues to find ways to adapt. In 16 games last year he scored six tries, laid on six more, had nine line breaks and eight offloads, and in the pacier game we have seen thus far is a very dangerous dummy-half runner.
Knights v Raiders: Jeremy Smith v Shaun Fensom
This match-up is shaping up to be a battle of the warhorses. In one corner is a young Raider synonymous for being one of the main powerhouses for the Green Machine. Yet to reach his 100th first-grade game or notch up a representative game, he’ll go face-to-face with the hardened and furthermore experienced Knight, Jeremy Smith.
Smith – a Kiwi international and a veteran of 159 first-grade games – will certainly welcome the challenge. While Smith is an aging warrior and needs a break every so often, the fresher Fensom is accustomed to churning through the full 80 for his side. This is reflected in last season’s stats, with Fensom averaging 96 metres and 41 tackles a game to Smith’s 80.6 metres and 27.3 tackles. Expect a tough showing when these two men collide this weekend.
Bulldogs v Sharks: Josh Reynolds v Todd Carney
It’s all sixes and sevens for this one, with Reynolds and Carney the focal points of their sides’ attacks. Reynolds will be out to improve on his quiet showing in Round 1 and pick up the form that saw him bust into Laurie Daley’s Blues Origin camp last year off the back of 12 try assists and a healthy nine meat pies himself.
The Sharks will be desperate for Carney to slot straight back into their toothless attack, allowing halves recruit Daniel Holdsworth to find his feet without having to direct the side in just his second NRL match in four years. Carney will have his work cut out – he won’t have quite so strong a platform to play off with top forwards Paul Gallen and Andrew Fifita missing.