Out of all the trial matches this pre-season, the clash between the Dragons and the Warriors at Nelson Park felt the least like an actual trial game. For one thing, these are the two teams that put up the most intact collection of players for their trial match. For another thing, both teams were going through something of a changing of the guard, taking this trial match as an opportunity to unveil a new lineup and configuration. On the one hand, this was the first match where the Dragons showcased Josh Dugan at centre, as well as marking the return of Gareth Widdop in the halves. More momentously, however, this was both Simon Mannering’s last game as Warriors captain and the first game in which New Zealand presented their much-touted threesome of Shaun Johnson, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Issac Luke. While this big three have always theoretically been contenders for the preseason, a combination of injuries and timing has meant that they haven’t had a chance to perform together until this moment.
The match felt all the more dramatic in that Nelson is also Mannering’s home town. While small-scale venues are part and parcel of footy trials, the turnout at Nelson – close to 10 000 – combined with the clear fandom for Mannering, gave this more of a finals season vibe, at least compared to the other trial matches happening around the same time. Over the last couple of years, Mannering has had to lead a team that has continually been plagued by poor strategy, hasty decisions and a coaching and executive culture that doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with the abundant talent on show. Unfortunately, the trial match seemed to confirm some pundits’ worst fears that even the trifecta of Johnson, RTS and Luke will be hard placed to combat that, since they failed to gel in any decisive way before Tuivasa-Sheck was taken off with a rib injury in the second half. While it’s understandable that they need some time to find their feet, a loss of 46-10 doesn’t look good even in the trials season, and especially not from a team that’s supposedly debuting the successors to Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater.
What went wrong was anyone’s guess. Although Johnson has claimed that he’s OK with playing at five-eighth instead of halfback, he did seem to be slightly lopsided on the other side of the field, while Luke never quite seemed to be in the right place at the right time. While Luke may not have the speed of other players, he reaches his maximum spede very quickly – he’s a great accelerator – and yet his performance at Nelson was sluggish compared to his time at Souths. At the same time, Manu Vatuvei, the club’s record try-scorer, was taken off after 25 minutes, which might have had something to do with it all. By the same token, Konrad Hurrell’s absence was notable, and while Tui Lolohea and Blake Ayshford may have put in the most impressive New Zealand performance in the centres, Hurrell’s increasing confidence and maturity over the preseason, both in the Nines and the All Stars, makes me feel that he should be a presence in the Warriors’ main squad in some way. While it’s not clear exactly what position he might fill at this stage, relegating him to the NSW Cup seems a waste for a player who is just starting to hit his stride, as well as the one player on the team who seems to have really tapped into the Johnson-RTS-Luke momentum.
If the Warriors were most noticeable at the centre, then so were the Dragons, with a strong attack that indicated that they had learned the lessons of the Charity Shield, and a smashing performance from Dugan that saw him pair with Widdop for the second try and conversion, following an opening try for Euan Aitken. Watching Dugan in the Shield and Inglis in the Indigenous v. All Stars match was an interesting experience insofar as both fullbacks are faced with the same quandary at the moment – whether to make the move from fullback to centre to cope with niggling injuries – and watching Dugan make the centre his own made me wonder whether this might be the best option for Souths as well. In any case, the fluid combination of Dugan, Aitken and Widdop arguably outdid the more-touted threesome of the Warriors and, while it may be the Tigers fan in me, it did also feel as if this new combination might also offer Benji Marshall a new lease on life in the halves, as well as another shot to re-establish the legacy that seems to have deserted him ever since he made the move to St George-Illawarra, with Widdop setting up fluid and flexible lines of communication between Dugan and Marshall that would have been impossible if Dugan was still at fullback. For all the hype surrounding the Warriors, then, it’s the Dragons who could really come from behind this season, with Dugan providing New Zealand with an object lesson in how quickly you can adapt to a new position if you have a good club and coaching culture behind you. If this debut is anything to go by, it’s my bet that he’ll be a lock for Origin centre, freeing up space for James Tedesco at fullback – yet another way in which this reconfigured Dragons outfit is giving the Wests Tigers legacy that little bit more room to breathe as well.