Like it or not, the Rabbitohs and the Roosters are the two flagship teams of the NRL and it doesn’t feel as if the season has been fully launched until they play their first match at Allianz or ANZ. Over the last couple of years, this has always been one of the most anticipated matches early in the season, with both outfits coming out of Grand Final wins and showcasing international talent in Sam Burgess and Sonny Bill Williams. This year, however, there was a different kind of tension, since while Souths were unveiling the return of Burgess, the Chooks are more depleted than they have been in years, with the absence of Mitchell Pearce, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Boyd Cordner forcing a slew of Sydney young guns to make a name for themselves against some of the most stalwart Souths players in the game.
Even with that contrast, however, nobody could have expected the landslide that was Souths’ victory on Sunday afternoon, with the Bunnies leading 26-0 at halftime and only conceding 10 points to the Roosters as they ratcheted up the score to 42, the highest in this first round of the competition. With the exception of the Warriors’ shocking first half against the Tigers on Saturday night, there was no bigger upset in the first week of footy than seeing the prestige team par excellence playing more like they were taking a masterclass from the Rabbitohs rather than offering up any kind of serious defence. Virtually every report on the match used the word “clinical,” and there’s no better way to describe a Souths pack that left literally no room for the Chooks to move, especially in the first half, with even the most barnstorming Sydney City efforts seeming to disperse into chaos whenever they got within a metre or so of the try-line.
That victory was all the more noticeable in that Souths had a fairly underwhelming conclusion to the 2015 season, ending up seventh only to lose to the Sharks in the first week of finals. At the same time, that has given the team a lengthier pre-season as well as exempting them from the heavy-duty travel and football of the World Club Series, resulting in a freshness that was already evident in their trial against the Titans and Pizzey Park, but really came into its own on Sunday afternoon. Yet while the trial was all about the Burgess Show, Slammin’ Sam took a while to warm up at Allianz, putting in a more than competent performance, and demonstrating all of his typical physical bravura, but not quite reaching the highs of his final three months with Souths in 2014. Having played a year in Union, he’s still acclimatising to League – as well as the Australian climate – and it seems likely he’ll regain his stride over the next couple of games.
Another reason why Burgess wasn’t at the centre of the spotlight was that Adam Reynolds claimed it so completely, putting in a kicking game in the first half that would be considered perfect even by Origin standards, capping off every set of six magnificently to rack up fourteen brilliant completions. Like Mitchell Moses, Reynolds seems to have started off the 2016 season at a totally new level, making it doubly agonising to see him carried off in the second half with a fractured jaw after a tackle on Kane Evans. Combined with a pectoral strain for John Sutton and ongoing knee and neck issues for Greg Inglis and Kyle Turner respectively, there was a lingering sense that this level of entertainment might be a bit fleeting for Souths, although nothing could take away from the sheer conviction of the team and their supporters at the end of the game either.
On the other side of the ball, it was a bit of a sorry show for an outfit that have been the minor premiers for the last three years. While Jackson Hastings and Jayden Nikorima put in a more than respectable halves effort for the most junior pair in the competition, the flair that they brought to the World Club Series was largely absent. If there were two standout players, they were Joe Burgess, who had a part in most of the Roosters’ points, and Shaun Kenny-Dowall, who made not have busted through the Souths line as often as he had hoped, but still made more of a go for it than most of his teammates. This was his first appearance on the field since his acquittal, and he played like he was busting out of prison, garnering some of the biggest cheers from the home crowd.
Still, there was a sense of anticlimax in the air for Sydney supporters. This was my second live match of the season, and the first Roosters game I’ve attended where they’ve been utterly decimated, which was a bit of a strange feeling, especially since Allianz was decked out with all the pomp and regalia you’d expect from a Sydney City season launch. The Chooks are nothing if not the PR kings of the NRL universe – how many other teams could manage to rehabilitate both Mitchell Pearce and Blake Ferguson? – so there was something interesting about seeing a defeat so dramatic that it seemed to defy any kind of spin. As the game progressed, it actually started to feel more and more like a Souths home game, which is one of the weird byproducts of an era in which some home grounds are massive and anonymous and some are still small and local. As a bit of a Roosters hater, I’m actually surprised by how sorry I was to see the team at the bottom of the ladder. Love them or hate them, they’re integral to Sydney Rugby League, and here’s hoping that they find a way out of this mess when they take on the Raiders in Round 2.