Why NRL trials are more important than ever

North Queensland Cowboys are the only team able to field the same spine in round one as they did at the start of last season and just two more teams – Canberra Raiders and Gold Coast Titans - could have an unchanged halves pairing.

The unprecedented number of transfers during the summer months, particularly among big-name playmakers, is why pre-season matches are more significant than previous years.

While only the World Club Challenge between Melbourne Storm and Leeds at AAMI Park and the international double-header at ANZ Stadium - featuring the St George Illawarra Dragons and South Sydney Rabbitohs - attracted NRL-sized crowds, the other six trials were still of value to the clubs.

Ideally, more would follow the lead of Wigan and Hull FC, who brought 5000 fans from England on a two-game visit to Sydney and Wollongong, or the Brisbane Broncos, who will play PNG Hunters in Port Moresby next Saturday.

The Broncos' trip to PNG is the first time an NRL club has played in the league-mad nation since the Super League war when pre-season matches were held in the Pacific countries as a way of repaying their support for the breakaway competition.

Bryce Cartwright in his first appearance for the Titans in the pre-season.
Bryce Cartwright in his first appearance for the Titans in the pre-season. ©Jason O'Brien/NRL Photos

However, the fact the Storm and Newcastle Knights recently played a trial behind closed doors at AAMI Park suggests developing combinations is of more consideration in the pre-season than gate receipts and spreading the rugby league gospel.

In the past, coaches have shielded their stars from trials but last Saturday night the likes of James Maloney, Ben Hunt, Josh Reynolds, Bryce Cartwright, Matt Moylan, Trent Hodkinson and Kieran Foran made their debut for their new clubs.

While the role of a forward or outside back generally doesn't vary greatly from club-to-club, playmakers need to understand which of their teammates is likely to offload in a tackle or try to play the ball quickly, and where they will stand in attack and defence.

The Dragons fielded a near full-strength line-up against Hull and after starting alongside five-eighth Gareth Widdop, hooker Cameron McInnes and fullback Matt Dufty for the first time, Hunt said he was looking forward to playing with Test back-rower Tyson Frizell in Saturday night's Charity Shield at Mudgee.

"When you come into a complete new side you have got to work out how everyone plays, so there is a lot to learn," Hunt said.

"It's not just me and Gaz, I have got to learn how Cam plays, how Dufty likes to play and I am going to have Friz [Frizell] on my edge so I need to learn how he likes to play the game.

"Even your forwards, you have got to work out which one of your forwards gets the quick play-the-balls for you and stuff like that."

Bulldogs five-eighth Kieran Foran.
Bulldogs five-eighth Kieran Foran. ©Scott Davis/NRL Photos

Johnathan Thurston also made his comeback last weekend and with the superstar playmaker fully fit the Cowboys are set to field the same spine combination of Lachlan Coote, Michael Morgan, Thurston and Jake Granville in the opening round as they did in the 2017 season opener.

The Raiders are expected to have the same scrum-base pairing of Aidan Sezer and Blake Austin but will have a new hooker following the knee injury suffered by Josh Hodgson at the World Cup, while the Titans no longer have Jarryd Hayne at fullback to combine with halves Ash Taylor and Kane Elgey.

All other clubs will have a different halves combination, including Parramatta, who secured the transfer of Mitchell Moses from Wests Tigers before last year's June 30 deadline.

Cooper Cronk's decision to join Sydney Roosters created a domino effect, with Newcastle Knights snaring Mitchell Pearce and Hodkinson moving from the Hunter to the Cronulla Sharks.

Manly Warringah Sea Eagles released Blake Green in a bid to sign Pearce and he went to the New Zealand Warriors as a replacement for Foran, whose move to Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs resulted in Reynolds taking over Moses' No.6 jersey at the Tigers.

Maloney switched from the Sharks to Penrith Panthers in a virtual swap with Matt Moylan, while the Dragons signed Hunt from the Broncos, who have replaced him from within with utility Kodi Nikorima to partner Anthony Milford in the halves.

Tigers halfback Luke Brooks.
Tigers halfback Luke Brooks. ©Dave Acree/NRL Photos

The Sea Eagles are likely to promote rookie Lachlan Croker to play alongside Daly Cherry-Evans after the club's unresolved salary cap issues prevented them from bidding for Hodkinson, who played for the Sharks after training with his team-mates for less than two weeks.

"He is fit and healthy and he is training well but we need to do a bit of work with him to get him up to speed in our systems and with what we want to do defensively and the stuff we want to do offensively as well," Sharks coach Shane Flanagan said.

"He has to think about it because he has only been here a week and when that comes naturally he is going to be better for us."