With the Tigers’ much-anticipated opening match against the Warriors set to unfold in just over two weeks, the pre-season trial against the Sharks was probably a pretty good indication of how the team are going to look in Round 1. First and foremost, it’s clear that this is initially going to be a fairly pretty depleted Wests outfit, not only because Luke Brooks is yet to undergo his suspension from the last year’s Finals match against the Dragons, but because Robbie Farah was injured early in the game, and will probably be out now for at least the first month of the 2016 season. Just as the Tiges were starting to negotiate how to deal with two first-grad hookers, they’re now left with none for the forseeable future, since Matt Ballin is still injured as well, adding yet another dimension to one of the most complicated and confounding club configurations of the last couple of years.
With their star halves and hookers out of the picture, then, the Tigers were given an opportunity to showcase some of their young guns, in what occasionally felt a bit like an Auckland Nines side, with Jack Littlejohn stepping up to fill Brooks’ boots, but Josh Drinkwater also making enough of a noise to make it clear that he’s a legitimate contender as well. Given the Tigers’ run of bad luck over the last twelve months, as well as the mounting speculation over Brooks’ and Moses’ future movements, it wouldn’t at all surprise me if the team weren’t forced to fall back upon this secondary halves pair at some point in the upcoming season, so it was good to see them flexing their muscles a bit during week’s match, Nevertheless, Brooks and Moses have spent a great deal of time and energy developing and finessing their halves rapport, and while Littlejohn may have put in a valiant performance, he didn’t quite sync up with Moses as consistently or as elegantly as Brooks, one of the main reasons why the Tiges weren’t quite capable of carrying their momentum over int a decisive win.
In the absence of a really emphatic halves or hooker presence, then, the burden of the game’s big moves fell squarely on James Tedesco, who more than delivered, in what has to be his greatest opening to a season to date. Although Aaron Woods put in a powerful, if guarded, game, Tedesco felt like the real captain, making up for the absence of Brooks, Farah and Ballin by playing a part in virtually every try and rallying the team around his drive, determination and perception as only a fullback really can. For Tigers fans, there was something quite poignant, as well as something quite nervewracking, about seeing Tedesco hit his stride in this way, partly because he’s been waiting for so long, partly because he’s almost reached this moment so many times, and partly because there have been so many moments when it felt as if he might only finally achieve his potential once he’d left the Tigers. Even now, his affiliation with the club is by no means set in stone, but here’s hoping that he sticks around for some time and that he manages to remain injury-free this year. If he does, he has to already be a contender for both fullback of the year and Origin, especially if Josh Dugan makes the move to centre. And for a Tigers fan, there’s also something desperately exciting about the prospect of Farah, Woods and Tedesco all playing for the Blues while they’re all still at Wests – it would be the boost we really need to make up for the chaos of the Jason Taylor era.
On the other side of the ball, fullbacks were the name of the game for the Sharks as well, although they also had a powerful hooker presence in Michael Ennis, who is finally starting to feel as if he is giving as much of himself to his adopted club as he did in his iconic captaincy of Canterbury-Bankstown. With Ennis controlling the ball in a fairly fluid, flexible manner, young gun Jack Bird was given the chance to make one of his most decisive arguments for Cronulla fullback to date, even if he wasn’t completely consistent, scoring his second try only after he was shifted back to centre in the second half. At the same time, however, my eye kept wandering to that other great fullback, Ben Barba, who was moved back to his position of choice after Bird was shifted to the centre in the second half. Seeing Barba recapture something of his 2012 verve in this years Indigenous v. All Stars match made it particularly poignant to see him facilitating the next generation of Sharks fullbacks without having had time to really enjoy his moment in the spotlight, and if I have any great desire in terms of the Sharkies this year, it’s that Barba will find a way to regain his voice, although I’m not quite sure what that would mean or what form it would take.
Nevertheless, for all the poignancy of Barba’s presence, trials matches don’t lend themselves to strong emotional investment: they’ve got a more provisional, casual, off-the-cuff kind of feel that perhaps draws them closer to a particularly intensive training session than to a first-grade match. In the case of the Sharks and the Tigers, that atmosphere is only enhanced by the organic connection these teams have to their training and community venues – something you don’t really get in the same way if your home ground is, say, Allianz Stadium – and there was something about the match as a whole that really captured the community vibe and grassroots spirit that make both these outfits so great. Both of them have struggled significantly over the last two years and, in their very different ways, have probably replaced the Eels as the NRL’s resident cellar-dwellers, or running jokes. Seeing them play footy away from the media spotlight, then, left an impression of deep solidarity that made the 30-30 tie feel appropriate and well earned, as well as a good counterpoint to the Golden Point frenzy that gripped last year’s Grand Final, as well as last year’s World Club Challenge. However their respective seasons pan out, they couldn’t have set a better tone for themselves and for the competition at large than in the friendly fire we saw last Saturday night.