After a long, close season, a flurry of news activity suddenly surrounds Australian rugby league after the international between Tonga and the Kangaroos ended in a 34-16 win for the Aussies in a sold-out Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland.
Across the same weekend, the 2019 NRL fixture list was revealed, leaving fans’ thoughts to turn to the 112th season of the national competition. There’s a long way to go until the first kick next March but the entertainment across the Tasman leaves us hungry for the start of the new campaign.
The clash between Australia and Tonga was an eventful and a historic one as the sides met for the first time in an international. A crowd of over 26,000 packed into the Mt Smart with a predominantly Tongan presence singing hymns and looking for a divine influence to get their side into the match.
At one point, an impromptu rendition of the Australian national anthem was even heard but while the crowd’s backing inspired a late Tongan fightback, the Kangaroos held firm to avoid their second consecutive loss.
Valentine Holmes added five goals to his two tries while there was another double for Tom Trbojevic. Daly Cherry-Evans and James Tedesco also crossed the line on what was ultimately a comfortable victory. A positive night for Australia was then met with the release of NRL fixtures to cap a busy weekend for the sport.
Team to beat
The Sydney Roosters are the defending champions going into the new season and are ranked as favourites ahead of the new campaign. Trent Robinson’s side are listed at 7/2 by bet365 in the early NRL betting markets, leaving a significant gap to second favourites Melbourne Storm and the rest of the chasing pack.
The Roosters are the only team to have competed in all 112 editions of the NRL/ARL/NSWRL and a number of their players, including try scorer James Tedesco, featured in that win over Tonga last weekend.
It’s been another busy off-season with four players leaving the club including Frank-Paul Nu’uausala who retired at the end of 2018 while Robinson has brought in Brett Morris, Angus Crichton and Ryan Hall. It will be a long, tough campaign but with a stronger squad for 2019, it’s easy to see why Sydney Roosters are the team to beat.
While those four players left the Sydney Roosters at the close of the season, the 2018 Grand Final winners certainly haven’t been the most active club in the winter period. Five players have left the Sea Eagles ahead of the new campaign with both Jackson Hastings and Akuila Uate departing for new challenges in Europe’s Super League, while a new coach has come in.
The switch to Super League seems to be an increasing trend as the Eels have also lost two players to the Northern Hemisphere’s most prestigious club competition.
There is a reciprocal arrangement to an extent with six players travelling in the opposite direction, most notably the Wigan Warriors pair of John Bateman and Ryan Sutton, who will be added to the Canberra Raiders squad for the upcoming NRL season.
The Melbourne Storm have also seen five players leave AAMI Park and it’s been a particularly interesting offseason for last season’s runners-up. As they look to go one better in 2019, Craig Bellamy’s side have been strangely quiet in terms of recruitment. To date, former New Zealand Warriors’ lock Albert Vete is the only new addition to the roster, although there is still time for further new faces ahead of the first kick.
Elsewhere, the biggest rebuilding jobs will be taking place at Wests Tigers and The Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs. Both teams have jettisoned no fewer than seven players as they look to recover from a disappointing 2018 and build a more positive campaign this time around.
The new NRL season gets underway on Thursday, March 14 with the opening fixture between the Melbourne Storm and the Brisbane Broncos at AAMI Park. Round One then moves to Friday where Newcastle take on Cronulla but for the tie of the week, we have to head to the Sydney Cricket Ground.
The Roosters’ title credentials will get their first test when they tackle city rivals South Sydney in a game that promises to be as feisty as it will be entertaining. From Friday’s action, we then head to the first Super Saturday of the new campaign and a schedule that includes the Warriors vs Canterbury and North Queensland against St George Illawarra.
We’re months away from the first kick of the new NRL season but with the fixtures released and the Kangaroos winning in style at the weekend, the countdown is firmly on.