There’s nothing like a season opener when both teams have something to prove. Last night at Pirtek Stadium we were introduced to the official 2016 NRL season with two teams who, in their different ways, tried – and arguably failed – to start the year with a bang. On the one hand, the Broncos still haven’t quite lived down the frustration of last year’s Grand Final, partly because Ben Hunt definitely hasn’t lived it down. While their victory against the Cowboys in the trial match at Bundaberg earlier in the month went some way to drowning out the shame, and their performance in the World Club Series united them with North Queensland as Finalists on the world stage, nothing compares to regular footy for putting old ghosts to rest. At the same time, Parra are under considerable pressure to prove that their new lineup isn’t just another false hope – or, what amounts to the same thing, to prove that their best lineup in years isn’t going to fall to the curse that has seemed to plague the Eels ever since they lost to the Storm in the 2009 Grand Final.
If that wasn’t enough, the fact that the Eels put in such a ripping performance at the Auckland Nines placed even more pressure on them to cope with the absence of Kieran Foran at halfback. Similarly, the fact that the draw has placed them up against both of last year’s Grand Finalists in the first two rounds – the Cowboys are down at Pirtek next week – has meant that they really need to put in some decisive footy in order to maintain their status and sense of identity in these first couple of matches. And, despite the Broncos’ win, there were some Eels players who came to the table, especially Manu M’au, who was probably the Man of the Match, putting in a blistering and brutal performance in the forwards that was only matched by Nathan Peats, who is fast becoming one of the most accomplished hookers in the game, and a clear contender for Origin once Robbie Farah decides to hang up his boots. As many commentators noted, Semi Radradra was fairly quiet, but that was only really because he didn’t have enough space for the kinds of long-distance manoeuvres he does so well, a situation that undoubtedly had something to do with the fact that Corey Norman was taken off at halftime with a neck injury, leaving Parra to soldier on with a replacement halves pair.
For that reason, the Eels felt more like a trial team than they did in the preseason, especially since big buy Michael Jennings was nowhere to be found for most of the match. I’ve always found Jennings one of the most inconsistent centres in the competition – brilliant at moments, but a bit anonymous and nondescript most of the time, something that was only exacerbated here by James Roberts’ relative anonymity at the Brisbane centre as well. Whether or not Roberts steps up is anyone’s guess, but it’s been a couple of matches now, and there’s only so long that he can fall back on the excuse or explanation of finding his feet at the club. As far as the Broncos were concerned more generally, the game more or less belonged to Corey Oates on the wing, and might have belonged to Jordan Kahu had he not been injured relatively early in the competition. Of course, all eyes were on Ben Hunt as well, who set up the first try of the 2016 competition – there’s a poetic justice in that – with a cut-out pass to Kahu, as well as working fluidly and flexibly with Anthony Milford to take advantage of the absence of a strong halves presence from the home team.
If there’s anything to take away from the game for Parra, it’s that things are obviously likely to improve when Foran returns next week. Not having seen Foran and Norman work together at any length, it’s hard to say just what they can do, but even last night and even without them the Eels had a resilience that prevented the Broncos decimating them in the second half. In fact, Brisbane arguably peaked too soon, scoring their three key tries in twenty-two minutes – no coincidence that this was when Kahu was still on the field – and only managed to ratchet up an extra three points in the next fifty or so. That Parra conceded so little is a testament to their defense – and once, again, to Peats – and the 17-4 victory didn’t feel anywhere near as drastic or as dramatic as it might have at the beginning of last year. If anything, the whole game had a bit of a trial feel, which is perhaps why it felt like the promise of Parra was more important than their actual performance.
That trial atmosphere probably had something to do with the fact that this was the first time that the NRL Bunker has been unveiled during the official season. In fact, it was the first time it has really been unveiled full stop, since while it was officially debuted during Indigenous v. All Stars there were a variety of glitches and transmission problems that prevented it really making an impact, as did the more limited broadcast of the Indigenous v. All Stars itself. Last night, though, it played a genuinely integral part of the game, not least because it was first used extensively to scrutinise one of the most ambiguous of Rugby League refereeing questions (whether or not a double movement has occurred) as well as one of the most scrutinised players in the Eels at the moment (Michael Jennings). That created a kind of voyeuristic fascination for all those fans like myself who have pored over the apparently inscrutable motivations that led to Jennings making the move from one of the most prestigious NRL teams in the competition to the struggling outfit that he is on record as having said that he always hated. It was no surprise that reviews of the game were accompanied by reviews of the NRL Bunker itself, since it promises to add a new element to footy entertainment that will mark this entire season as something of a game-changer.
On top of the NRL Bunker, there was another reminder of the way in which social media impacts our access to sport in the mild controversy that surrounded Corey Norman’s use of his mobile phone in the NRL change room. Captured by the Channel 9 camera, the footage depicted Norman texting during the second half. While it seemed fairly likely he was contacting friends and family to let them know that he was OK after a pretty hair-raising injury, recent scandals in the sporting world led to a brief Twitter storm, despite the fact that there are no actual NRL sanctions against this kind of use of social media during games. Less interesting than Norman’s actual use of the phone, then, was the kinds of questions it raises about players and the media, to the point where I wondered if the most scandalous thing about the photograph was actually the way in which it reiterated Norman’s choice to continue watching the game on a television inside the stadium, rather than on the field. Obviously, this was partly because he required some medical monitoring, but it’s also such a far cry from your regular old-school footy player limping off to cheer from the sidelines that it makes you realise how few people actually experience footy in the flesh in the same way anymore.
The contrast was all the more pronounced in that Jarryd Hayne made an appearance – the final piece of icing on the hype cake. For some time now, we’ve become used to only seeing Hayne on TV, so having him actually present at Parra generated an insane amount of excitement and buzz, especially given the rumours – unfounded, perhaps, but still persistent – that he may yet return to the Eels in the next year or so. After that incredible and charismatic presence – and few players have the sheer presence of Hayne – there was something a bit incongruous about seeing Norman retreat from the stadium to watch the game on a screen. Still, that’s the world we live in now, and the best that the channels can do is to find newer and better ways to recapture the live experience on the big screen, something that the NRL Bunker promises to do with bells on this year.