The Canberra Raiders held on to defeat the Cronulla Sharks in a highly entertaining and sometimes spiteful encounter at Remondis Stadium. Here is five key points from the Round 1 clash.
Mitch Cornish's kicking game will be an asset
Young halfback Mitch Cornish produced a series of quality kicks under pressure that may have gone largely unnoticed, but without the Junior Kangaroo's efforts the Raiders probably wouldn't have been able to earn the start they did. Cornish gave veteran Sharks fullback Mick Gordon a tough night; an early towering bomb came down a metre and a half in front of the Sharks' line, allowing the chasers to barrel Gordon back in goal for a drop out. A downfield kick in the 11th minute after a strong defensive set by Cronulla split the fullback and his winger allowing Canberra to get back into the grind. And a 39th minute kick under incredible pressure found the turf and bounced away past Gordon, turning an outstanding defensive set from the Sharks into a so-so one. Cornish will only get better the more he plays.
Ben Barba's kicking game needs work
Ben Barba made his name as a fullback and although he spent plenty of time at five-eighth at Brisbane last year, he's still very much a work in progress as a playmaker. He put an early touch-finder out on the full by several metres and what was meant to be a probing kick towards the Raiders in-goal in the 27th-minute from barely 20 metres out almost sailed dead on the full. It would actually have been better for the Sharks if the ball had sailed into the crowd because it was marked by Raiders fullback Jack Wighton who raced out to the 20 for a quick tap, jinked through some non-existent defence and streaked 80 metres to score. Barba did throw a quality pass for a second half try and after the game both his coach Shane Flanagan as well as senior man Mick Ennis backed the pivot to have better games for the club in coming weeks.
"I think he'll have better [games] for the club that's for sure. He got off to a bad start. He passed [to set up] a try too, he'll be better for the run," Flanagan said at the post-match press conference.
You just can't punch anyone. Full stop.
Like it or loathe it, you can't throw a punch in the NRL in 2015. There was plenty of conjecture about whether Sharks winger Sosaia Feki deserved to cool his heels for 10 minutes after being on the wrong end of a Jack Wighton haymaker and throwing an attempted jab in return. A pragmatic Flanagan was confused as to what was expected of Feki in that situation but refused to suggest it had an impact on the game's outcome.
"It was a bit strange, he pushed [Wighton] and there was a bit of retaliation. Sosaia Feki, he's a good kid, what's he supposed to do? The other bloke punched him in the head.
"He's got to look after himself. I don't hold anything against Sosaia there. We don't want fighting in our game but I don't think too many fans will be turned away by that.
"He got sin-binned for retaliating, it wasn't the turning point of the game and we'll get on with it."
Like it or not, rules are rules and everyone knows them. If you throw a punch you will be sent to the sin-bin. Let's get on with the footy.
Soliola a smoky for buy of the year?
St Helens premiership winner and former Roosters centre Sia Soliola is hardly the highest profile off-season recruit across the NRL, or even at his club with the likes of Frank-Paul Nuuausala and Sisa Waqa joining the Green Machine in the off-season. But the players have been gushing of the leadership Soliola has been showing around the club over the off-season, the new recruit has been doing plenty of talk and mentoring the younger players. And in an understated performance on Sunday night, Soliola made 40 tackles – second in the match only to tackling machine Shaun Fensom – and his 137 metres was the most of any Raider on the night other than runaway fullback Jack Wighton. Soliola played under current Canberra coach Ricky Stuart for a time at Bondi and his recruitment from St Helens at this early stage looks an astute one.
Both coaches have some thinking to do
Ricky Stuart sprung a surprise over the weekend, dumping veteran Dave Shillington and young man-mountain Shannon Boyd to Mounties while calling up Jarrad Kennedy and handing an NRL debut to promising youngster Luke Bateman. Both are back-rowers, meaning Josh Papalii had to shift to his less-preferred front row position (ignore the team-sheet suggesting Soliola was used at prop). Bateman was kept on ice until late in the piece and bench hooker Josh McCrone was also hardly used. Bateman is clearly being eased into grade footy, but can the Raiders afford to hardly use two bench players across 80 minutes or is there a better option? For the Sharks, winger Mitch Brown had a poor error late in the game while young sensation Valentine Holmes had earlier had a run in the Holden Cup. Fellow young gun Jack Bird was also not used and while the forward pack was largely impressive there will be some decisions when the likes of Luke Lewis and Sam Tagataese become available.