Where Round 1 of the NRL 2021 season was all about one-sided blowouts, Round 2 saw several highly entertaining close games where leads were traded and the little things could make a big difference. History was made, scuffles broke out, and rain played a major factor in several games in Sydney.
Even this early in the competition, we begin to get a clearer idea of where each team is headed this season. The usual powerhouses and disappointments are separating from each other and a handful of surprise packets are making their mark. Here’s how Round 2 played out over the weekend.
Eels v Storm
Heavy rain welcomed the Eels and Storm in Western Sydney. But in the soggy conditions, Parramatta weren’t the same error-prone team that trailed early last week.
The Melbourne Storm still put up a strong fight that kept scores at zero for the first twenty minutes. Despite promising attempts from Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Josh Addo-Carr, it was Parramatta who would open the scoring with Maika Sivo taking a Dylan Brown kick in the corner. Clint Gutherson had an integral in Parramatta’s defence, taking a bizarre small kick from Addo-Carr who conceded a penalty shortly after, and knocking the ball from Cameron Munster’s hand just before the try line. The latter play, however, would be followed immediately by the Storm working the ball down the width of the field and Reimis Smith finding a gap to equalise before half time.
Felise Kaufusi landed himself in hot water for a dangerous tackle that resulted in Ryan Matterson coming off the field from a head knock. But Parramatta kept attacking over another 20-minute scoreless period and began to tire out the Storm defence. It finally paid off when Junior crashed through three defenders. A crafty Justin Olam brought Melbourne on par again, but Sivo secured the win with three minutes to go with a surprise leap and catch.
The win cements Parramatta as a genuine contender for the premiership but leaves very few questions over the Storm who still put up a gutsy effort.
Warriors v Knights
With both the New Zealand Warriors and Newcastle Knights coming off hard-fought wins, the sides met on the Warriors’ temporary home ground on the Central Coast to decide which would walk away with two wins from two games.
Despite their opening kick landing out of bounds on the full, the Warriors had a heavy share in early possession with several consecutive sets attacking Newcastle’s try line. But the Knights held on and their rigid defence eventually paid off when Jayden Brailey made a short charge from dummy half for the first try of the game. But they couldn’t quite shake off the determined Warriors who continued to fight for their first points with offloads and heavy hits.
Ben Murdoch-Masila scored the equalising try with eight minutes to go in the first half, but it was hooker Wayde Egan’s own dummy half run a minute earlier which drew the most attention when it was controversially denied. Despite the try initially being awarded, video referees determined a knock-on from a slight movement of the ball in Egan’s hands. The decision appeared costly shortly after as a penalty goal became all of Newcastle’s lead at half time before Hymel Hunt scored in the corner in the 49th. But despite some more missed opportunities the Warriors finally shot into the lead with successive tries from Adam Pompey and Ken Maumalo.
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However exciting young centre Bradman Best made the difference when it mattered most, poking through a gap in the Warriors line before handing off an outstanding flick pass to Hunt to claim victory for Newcastle.
Newcastle’s defensive effort can be expected to play a major role in a string of relatively easy match-ups for the team coming up, while the Warriors will be looking to clean up their discipline as they prepare to come up against premiership contenders Canberra and Sydney.
Titans v Broncos
The South-East Queensland derby had a new air of intensity around its first instalment for the season, indicative of a new era for the Gold Coast Titans.
And it lived up to its potential in the first twenty minutes with various displays of Gold Coast’s newfound skill in attack and some brutal Broncos tackling. Titans prop Jarrod Wallace and Broncos centre Tesi Niu scored within three minutes of each other, but the game began to turn one-sided after that. As errors began to mount on both sides the Titans kicked into gear, starting with David Fifita dancing around his former club for his first try in sky blue. Within six minutes Erin Clark and Jaimin Jolliffe also added on for a 22-4 half time lead, the former off some crafty teamwork including a surprise left-foot kick from Anthony Don.
Fifita scored his double in the 54th against a much lighter defence before the Broncos finally found themselves some new footing. Their first try of the second half came in sloppy fashion with a pass that found nobody and Niu losing the ball backward before Xavier Coates grounded the ball in the in-goal. But with most of the damage already done and the Titans still in reasonable shape, Brisbane could only manage one last try in the dying minutes thanks to a penalty and a solid short-distance charge from Tevita Pangai Jr.
The massive Titans victory and in particular the first twenty minutes of the game are a key turning point in this local rivalry, which had previously been stagnant due to the Gold Coast’s poor record in several seasons. It may also give the NRL something extra to exploit in its quest to introduce a second Brisbane team in a potential three-way rivalry in South-East Queensland.
Bulldogs v Panthers
Coming off polar performances last week, 2020’s minor premiers and almost-wooden-spooners came together for arguably the most one-sided match-up of the week.
Even despite missing usual hooker Apisai Koroisau from a wrist fracture, Penrith had just about everything against the Canterbury Bulldogs. In another set of rainy conditions at the same ground that hosted the Eels and Storm, the Panthers hit the board early with Viliame Kikau diving in the left corner. Canterbury had some opportunities of their own but struggled to navigate the Panthers defence. Their only look at the tryline thanks to some desperate offloading play was denied when Dallin Watene-Zalezniak was found to have knocked the ball forward into Brian To’o after taking a catch. But their persistence was enough to keep the scores at 4-0 for over thirty minutes until Jarome Luai found Tyrone May with a grubber kick shortly before half time.
Kikau piled on some more pain in the 59th with the help of Mitch Kenny who took Koroisau’s place as hooker for the game. Ten minutes later the Panthers felt some pain of their own as key playmaker Nathan Cleary took a high shot from Watene-Zelezniak and left the field for the remainder of the game. That wasn’t enough to stop them steamrolling as Paul Momirovski scored his own double, first nearly sliding into the advertising after grounding a grubber from May before he passing through four defenders to close out the game.
With this win, the Panthers have become the first team in rugby league history to keep their first two opponents scoreless in a season. But heading into a Grand Final rematch potentially without Cleary as well as Koroisau, they may find themselves hard at work just trying to win. The Bulldogs’ next hope for their first win of the season is in Brisbane against the Broncos.
Sea Eagles v Rabbitohs
Manly Warringah’s first home game began with a momentary silence to mourn the loss of Fred Jones, who had captained the Sea Eagles in their first ever top-level premiership in 1972.
The match itself turned out to be another disappointing affair against South Sydney, with Manly lacking coordination in their attack early on. Alex Johnston and Cody Walker caught them napping and the latter crossed over seven minutes into the game. Adam Reynolds and Latrell Mitchell also found the line, with Lachlan Croker the only Sea Eagle to score in the first half out from the dummy half.
Injuries were rampant through the game with Rabbitohs Reynolds and Jaxson Paulo and Sea Eagle Cade Cust all taking knocks to the head and Andrew Davy having been taken out early with a rupture in the knee. But the points kept coming in the second half, first with Martin Taupau crashing through to close the gap to two. The Rabbitohs hopped away with it afterwards, first with Damien Cook exposing a stretched defensive line in the 64th. Alex Johnston sealed the deal with plenty of space in the corner.
Injuries weren’t the only potential selection issues: A brawl just short of full time saw Souths second-rower Jaydyn Su’A sin-binned and on report for his conduct against Reuben Garrick.
Cowboys v Dragons
From his infamous decisive knock-on in the 2015 Grand Final to his recent up and down performances at St. George Illawarra, Ben Hunt has been a much-maligned player. But his latest performance as halfback has earned plenty of praise in an unexpected win for one of the sides that come into the season with some of the lowest expectations.
Coen Hess’s opening try off a Jake Clifford kick appeared to be setting the tone for North Queensland’s night at home, but after the Cowboys’ next crack at the tryline was not awarded and a silly knock-on ruined a dash almost out of their own half of the field, the Dragons hit back with Mikaele Ravalawa finding the right corner. St. George was largely steered forward by Hunt and fellow former Broncos Andrew McCullough and Corey Norman, who all combined to set up some exemplary plays. McCullough helped Josh Kerr to the try that put the Dragons in front before Norman kicked a field goal from 40m for a 13-6 lead at half time.
That field goal may have made the difference, helping ensure the Cowboys never even made it on par with the Dragons in the second half. They did however find themselves within a point of the Dragons twice. Valentine Holmes worked around several defenders and picked up his own grubber in the middle before Hunt managed to shake off a tackle from Hess. And Jake Granville ran through from dummy half before Zac Lomax caught a kick from Hunt.
North Queensland still presented themselves with opportunities but, as has been the case for three years, tiny errors made them their own worst enemy. Meanwhile, St. George Illawarra may be able to take some confidence out of this when they take on the winless Sea Eagles.
Tigers v Roosters
The Sydney Roosters’ two hat-trick players from last week shone once again against Wests Tigers in Campbelltown, even claiming the first two tries of the game.
James Tedesco once again managed to get to everywhere he needed to be, being ready and waiting for Brett Morris’ kick from the sideline. Morris gave Wests plenty of headaches down the right side, almost effortlessly getting around the defensive line in his own first try. Like the Manly Sea Eagles last week, the Tigers’ only try against the Chooks came early on, in the form of Jacob Liddle catching the defenders off-guard in a dash from dummy half. They came close to another try two minutes later but Luke Brooks put too much power into a grubber kick and sent it dead.
Sitili Tupouniua and Fletcher Baker also found the try line for Sydney but this game was all about Morris, who is believed to be the first player to score hat tricks in the first two games of a season. He scored his second with the help of Luke Keary who broke through the line before handing the ball over with a one-handed flick, and his third was passed to him from Lindsay Collins.
Every Roosters try was executed with skilful coordination against a muddled-up Tigers outfit, and both of Sydney’s performances bode well for their next game against old rivals South Sydney, who flogged them 60-8 in the final round of last year’s season.
Sharks v Raiders
Rounding out the weekend was the Cronulla Sharks hosting the Canberra Raiders in the hope of marking captain Wade Graham’s 250th NRL game with a victory.
The early stages were hard-fought and no score was posted until 23 minutes in when Sebastian Kris lurched over for the Raiders. Cronulla did what they could to respond but missed one golden opportunity when William Kennedy passed back only for the ball to find Raiders fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad. Their defence made up for it and kept the margin within reach but Canberra looked like they could run away with the game when Hudson Young busted through just before half-time.
The Sharks wrestled their way back into contention afterwards, first tightening up their defence to hold off some incredible attacks until Kennedy ran through in front of the try line to pick up Chad Townsend’s grubber kick. Tensions flared up after Young came off second-best against Matt Moylan and Curtis Scott subsequently came in to knock over Ronald Mulitalo. This gifted the Sharks a penalty which led to Josh Dugan scoring. But it was goal-kicking that made all the difference: Townsend missed both try conversions and one of two penalty kicks.
The second penalty goal attempt, which came after Dugan was knocked without the ball, would have evened up the scoring with less than a minute to go. But Townsend kicked the ball to the left of the goalposts to hand Canberra the two competition points. And so it finished in bizarre fashion with the Raiders bobbling the ball backwards in the final seconds until full time.
Townsend will want to remember his kicking boots next week when the Sharks face the red-hot Eels.