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Weekend Trial Reviews
The Parramatta Eels were in devastating form as they cleaned up the Roosters 34-16 on a wet and windy night in the Central West town of Parkes.
As the lightning crackled overhead, the Eels were electric as they piled on 16 unanswered points to open the NRL trial game before 11,000 fans - almost more people than the town's population.
Eric Grothe scored two ties and Aaron Cannings one with hooker Mark Riddell managing two conversions from the touchline.
With ten minutes remaining in the first half the heavens finally opened and so did the Eels defence.
Chris Walker broke through a flimsy tackle and had too much pace down the left flank to open the scoring for the Roosters.
With the rain making handling difficult, the Roosters were able to dominate territory for the remainder of the half and were rewarded when Ryan Cross scored a simple try after the overlap was created by Brett Finch.
At half-time the Eels led 16-10, and it seemed it was anyone's game but the experience and class of the Eels showed through in the end.
PJ Marsh created a lot of opportunities for the Eels backline when he came on in the second half and scored two tries.
Henry Perenara also scored for the Eels to cap off a strong match, when a neat grubber eluded Amos Roberts at the back and Perenara dived on the loose ball.
With a couple of minutes remaining, Roberts plucked a neat interception and raced 75 metres to score a consolation try for the Roosters.
With so many young players in the Roosters line-up the result was inevitable, but with players like Craig Fitzgibbon, Luke Ricketson and Craig Wing to come into the side, coach Ricky Stuart was pleased with his team's performance.
"This trial match has served its purpose in that a number of the boys got some good experience and questions were asked of them which give me a good idea of where we're up to as a team," he said.
"We had four or five under 20s from last year out there tonight and they should be proud of their performance."
Parramatta coach Brian Smith was also pleased
"It was a bit of mixture like all trial games are, our attack was sloppy at times but our defence was really good," he said.
"John Smith will have gained plenty of confidence from this match and we had the chance to let PJ Marsh play dummy half which is where he likes to play with Riddell in the second row when they were on together.
"The best thing is the way the boys are communicating with each other there is a lot of general banter on the field and there is very good feeling amongst the guys socially which is important." +++++++++++++++++
Nobody in the north is game enough to come out and say it just yet but every rugby league patron is asking themselves the same question.
Can Cowboys' recruits Johnathan Thurston, formerly a Bulldog, and Carl Webb, late of the Broncos, add the extra spark needed to take the Cowboys that final step to the NRL grand final?
After last season's explosive ending with the Cowboys falling one game short of the final, northern hopes could not be higher.
As Cowboys' official Tim Nugent said: "We have always had great support in the north but since last year everybody wants a piece of us. It is just incredible."
And outside the dressing rooms at Saturday night's 18-10 trial win over the Cronulla Sharks at Mackay, Cowboys' coach Graham Murray was playing down the weight of the huge expectations his players will shoulder each time they run out this season.
"The expectations can be there but as long as you prepare right then you can look after that part," he told reporters wanting to know how his chargers would carry North Queensland on their backs this time for a whole season.
"We didn't do anything different in preparation (for Saturday night's trial).
"We train hard and get ourselves physically and mentally ready for the game and I thought we handled it pretty well that way.
"It was a very tough game and we won the game so we are pretty pleased.
"We had a real, good, solid hit out against another NRL side." But Murray could not hide his pleasure at the performance of his new half and backrower.
"Thurston and Webb both showed glimpses of good things particularly in attack - but especially how Thurston went about the whole game - so they are fitting into our side pretty well," he said.
"We needed to pick up our attack a little bit and these two guys are adding a fair bit to us."
A forward pack playing out of its skim, flanked by tough-tackling centres Paul Bowman and Josh Hannay with Matt Bowen adding the razzle-dazzle from the back, took the Cowboys to the brink of history last September.
Now with Thurston, ready to pry open the edges of the ruck and Webb set to crash into the middle the Cowboys are champing at the bit.
So what does the man in charge of the Cowboys during their most pressured season to date feel about the coming months?
"We had a lot of work to do tonight ... we can only get better," said Murray. ********************** Another false dawn at South Sydney?
Richardson assured the NRL club's success-starved supporters that the win over St George Illawarra in the Charity Shield was no flash in the pan.
"We have had a lot of false dawns," Richardson said.
"(This is) not another false dawn."
The Rabbitohs' 30-6 victory in the traditional pre-season clash was special on several fronts.
It produced the first piece of silverware for the Richardson-Shaun McRae partnership at South Sydney and marked only the club's second Charity Shield win in more than a decade.
It also heightened optimism at Redfern ahead of the premiership proper.
"I talked about taking little steps," Richardson said.
"The good thing is we came up under expectations.
"We haven't done that in the past. We have folded like a deck of cards.
"It's a nice feeling. I don't want to deny it, I don't want to take it away from the fans.
"But it's not the be all and end all. We still have to front up for the first fixture against the Roosters."
The signs are certainly encouraging.
Halves John Sutton and Joe Williams were creative, the forward pack showed promise and the outside backs put the finishing touches on an impressive hit-out.
Next up - the premiers in Perth.
"We picked two games to play in the pre-season - one being the Charity Shield against a quality side like St George Illawarra and the second being the Bulldogs," McRae said.
"I guess we wanted two pretty tough games. We're looking forward to the next game as much as we were looking forward to last night's game in that it's getting closer and closer to the season starting."
The Bulldogs are expected to field their strongest available side.
That means no Willie Mason, no Mark O'Meley and no Matt Utai.
But Braith Anasta, Sonny Bill Williams and assorted others will play.
Souths will respond with its best line-up with the exception of former NSW and Australian winger Adam MacDougall, who is expected to miss the trip to ensure he is fit for the club's premiership opener against the Sydney Roosters.
"I probably won't take him," McRae said.
"I think I said last week I would take him to Perth but that was probably based more on the fact we would get injuries last night.
"We came through that pretty well.
"He's just about on the mark. I am probably more likely to bring him back for that first game."
Mind you, the result has given McRae something to think about.
"He's a class player and you don't ignore class players," McRae said.
"I think he would come back in the 17. There might have to be a tough decision as to whose place he takes."
++++++++++++++++++++++ Broncos fans got their first look at the new Justin Hodges on the Gold Coast on Saturday.
Hodges returned to the club he began at after three tortured seasons with the Sydney Roosters that were riddled with injury, personal problems, niggling tactics and patchy form.
He made his Broncos comeback at fullback as an under-strength Brisbane team went down 24-10 to the Melbourne Storm at Gold Coast Stadium.
Broncos supporters had cause to worry that Hodges' chequered history was going to continue when he bumbled a kick and let in a try with one of his first touches of the ball against the Storm.
But he steadied and completed a solid performance that pleased coach Wayne Bennett because of the absence of the niggle that had made Hodges so unpopular in his time in Sydney.
Bennett said he told Hodges he didn't want to see it and the 22-year-old complied.
"It (the early mistake) was just a silly bumble but the rest was good," said Bennett.
"I was very happy with his discipline, he didn't carry on.
"I don't want that stuff carrying on at the Broncos.
"He understands that."
Taskmaster Bennett thinks that maybe the sledging, pushing and shoving that Hodges used to try and intimidate players with was out of character.
"I don't think it is a great change for him," he said.
"I don't think it was a great part of his nature anyway.
"I don't want it here and he knows that. It is not part of his game and it doesn't have to be."
Brisbane will warm up for their opening round blockbuster against the North Queensland Cowboys with a final trial against Canberra in Toowoomba on Saturday night.
Bennett is expected to pick a near full-strength side with Test stars Darren Lockyer and Shane Webcke to play.
Former All Black Brad Thorn is racing the clock to be fit for round one after a hamstring tear.
Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy will this week trim his squad from 24 to 18 for its trial match against North Queensland in Cairns on Friday night.
"It is fairly wide open with a couple of spots in our pack and definitely on the bench," said Bellamy, who lost experienced forwards Steve Kearney, Rodney Howe and Danny Williams in the off-season.
"I don't think we will have too much change from our backline, but a few of our forwards spots are wide open." ++++++++++++++++++++++ A second-half Raiders try blitz overwhelmed an understrength Bulldogs side in their NRL trial match at Gosford Stadium.
The Raiders sparked into action after the break, converting a 4-0 half-time lead into a 30-4 blowout in wet and windy conditions.
Canberra coach Matt Elliott was satisfied with the performance of his team, which was missing Clinton Schifcofske, Jason Smith and Lincoln Withers.
"As our first hit-out it was satisfying," Elliott said.
"Obviously the Bulldogs were not at full strength, but there were plenty of indications that the combinations we want to use this year are working.
"I was pleased with the side physically and our defence on the try-line was a highlight.
"I was over the moon with the performance of the new guys."
The Bulldogs, fielding only a handful of realistic first-grade hopefuls, did well to restrict a Raiders side featuring many of its big names.
Bulldogs props Chris Armit, Ben Czislowski and Nate Myles, all vying for a spot on the Bulldogs first-grade bench, performed strongly.
The Raiders also fielded several new faces - centre combination Jermaine Ale and Craig Frawley, former Australian player Matt Adamson and tryscorer Bronx Goodwin.
Elliott singled out young winger David Milne as one of his side's best, after being a late call-up into the starting side. ******************* Ben Kennedy and Brent Kite made their debuts for Manly in a 40-24 win over Wests Tigers at Leichhardt Oval but the young guns stole the limelight.
While most of the attention focused on the return of Terry Hill and the big-name off-season recruits - who didn't take the field until the second half - Manly's younger brigade propelled the Sea Eagles to a 24-6 half time lead.
Tigers assistant coach Royce Simmons said the game was over by the time Manly fielded the likes of Menzies, Hill, Kennedy and Kite in the second half.
"Their young side came out against our experienced side and their enthusiasm ended up being the difference in the game," Simmons said.
"The young Manly side definitely beat us in that department."
New halves combination Michael Witt and Travis Burns were two of the standouts in a Manly side that dominated possession in wet and windy conditions.
"There were a few things we're not happy with - we let in seven tries, so we're certainly not happy with our defence," Simmons said.
"Our ball control was very poor. We gave some turnovers early in the tackle counts, which put enormous pressure on us.
"Time in possession would have favoured them a lot, particularly in the first 60 minutes, but in the limited time we had with the ball we looked dangerous.
"We tried a lot of positional changes but it's still no excuse."
Manly veteran Steve Menzies said that his side looked good in attack despite the rain-sodden conditions.
"Everyone went well - it is tough to judge in the first trial, but it was a good hit-out for us," Menzies said.
"(The weather) contributed to the dropped ball but the boys were very happy with the win."
Menzies, who scored a try off "a set play we've been working on", singled out Daniel Heckenberg, Kylie Leuluai and Paul Stephenson - who scored two tries - as his side's best.
Former Parramatta halfback Witt landed six goals from seven attempts.
Hill, who is contemplating a comeback dependent on his trial form, played soundly when he came on.
"It was a good hit-out for Tezza," Menzies said.
"He only played about 40 minutes, but he went well."
The Tigers lost Pat Richards in the first quarter after he received a knock to the head and was taken to hospital for precautionary tests.