Wolves v Dragons: Five things we learned
A new-look St George Illawarra were both gritty and skillful in a high-intensity and low-scoring win over Warrington. Here are five key takeouts from the first match of the expanded World Club Series.
5. Fears over intensity laid to rest
There have long been questions over the value of the World Club Challenge fixture; regardless of whether it is played in the UK or Australia one team will be disadvantaged and minus several (if not plenty) of the players who took them to the previous year's premiership. So there were questions over the value of the expanded fixture, including the decision to include two of 2014's less successful teams in the Dragons and Broncos, rather than say Manly and the Roosters. Well, both the Dragons and Wolves came to play, taking the game very seriously, producing some huge hits and fine pieces of attacking play. And the crowd sounded like there was a grand final on the line.
4. Dragons forwards still need work
There were some good signs for the Dragons' pack: Tyson Frizell, who unfortunately got an early shower due to a possible concussion, played a very strong opening half hour including the first try of the match. George Rose provided impact off the bench but like in the All Stars game played small minutes, which may be a sign of how he will be used in 2015. Rory O'Brien added size but may need to polish his ball-handling skills if he's to play regular first grade. But overall the visiting forwards still didn't win the battle in the middle of the park, struggling to make a serious impact any time Warrington had the momentum.
3. Dragons centres still need some work
Gone are the glory days of Matt Cooper and Mark Gasnier, unfortunately for Red V fans. Dane Nielsen and Dylan Farrell can both play but as a pairing they may lack the impact Paul McGregor needs to take his team back into finals territory. While the back three provided plenty of impact the centres did not. Farrell was unable to capitalise on a Jason Nightingale bat-back when he was bundled into touch; one gets the feeling the NRL's top centres would have earned a four-pointer in similar circumstances. Junior Kangaroo Euan Aitken warmed the bench in this one but may get his chance sooner rather than later if the first-choice pair fail to fire.
2. Eto Nabuli is a first grader
It's one thing for a big Fijian winger to go well at the Auckland Nines, with all its open spaces. The 13-a-side game is different; wingers need to be able to defend, to be safe under the high ball, to fit into team structures, to stay switched on for 80 minutes. Nabuli did all that and more. Warrington targeted him with the high ball, possibly a plan hatched because of his lack of top-level experience, but he was faultless in marking a series of bombs. A stunning first-half try-saver proved crucial in the final washup and was a tackle not every winger would have been able to make. He didn't get too many chances with ball in hand but as he showed at the Nines, attack should be the least of McGregor's concerns when it comes to Nabuli. If he can continue to provide that sort of display without the ball then the tries will follow.
1. Benji's back, baby
Benji Marshall's high-profile mid-season switch from rugby back to the NRL with the Dragons had plenty of detractors, and they all pounced when Marshall produced an understandably rusty first outing at Parramatta after being rushed back into first grade. But he worked his way back into it and by the end of the season was really hitting his straps, later telling NRL.com he hadn't wanted the 2014 season to end. He produced some nice touches at the Nines but was in his element here; he got the scoring underway with a sublime no-look short ball to Frizell and while an attempted repeat shortly after missed its mark badly resulting in a turnover, it was one of very few errors from the 2005 premiership winner. Marshall was very much the dominant half, although Widdop was also good, and he had the ball on a string when it came to his kicking game, repeatedely turning the Wolves around and helping his side to good positions. A tricky, short banana kick back infield led to Josh Dugan's match-winning try. On current evidence, Marshall could be in for a big year.