Pre-season challenges: What every NRL team can learn from the first round of trials
Time flies when you’re having fun. Cast your mind back a year to when the Pre-Season Challenge was a mere pup, opening its eyes blinkingly to the world.
Cooper Johns was a superstar at rugby league, rather than the radio. We all laughed at the weird ladder rules, until Manly won and it wasn’t funny at all. The Wests Tigers actually won a game.
Now, the trials without tribulations are back for another year, and we can get excited all over again.
It’s real, honest-to-goodness footy, and after a long off-season with, by rugby league standards, comparatively few actual trials, we can get excited again. Strap in for a guide to what every team wants to learn from the next two weeks.
Straight up, the Panthers won’t learn much from the trials because they aren’t playing in them.
Their big challenge is a trip to Wigan to pick up a meaningful trophy, the World Club Challenge, which as everyone now knows, they have never won.
They’ve conquered it all in the NRL, but can they do it on a cold night in the pie capital of the world? Get up early on Feb 25 and watch.
The Broncos start their attempt to go one better with a trip to Mackay to face the Cowboys and then Manly to face, err, Manly.
Their backline is the major issue: with Herbie Farnworth departing and Selwyn Cobbo likely to move to the centres, it’ll one of Deine Mariner, Corey Oates and Jesse Arthars battling it out for a wing spot.
Keep an eye out for Ben Te Kura, the massive middle who is expected to play a much more prominent role now Tom Flegler has left for Redcliffe, and potentially Blake Mozer, who must surely be in for more game time at dummy half.
Nothing like a Thursday night at Belmore Oval to get the footy show back on the road – and guests will be Melbourne, who travel to Sydney with one thing on their mind.
We might have to wait a week later, when they play Newcastle in Fiji, to get a look at Ryan Papenhuyzen after his injury, but expect Sua Faalogo, a star of last year’s trials, to get plenty of minutes.
He impressed late last year with both the Storm and Samoa, and will be looking to give Craig Bellamy a headache for Round 1.
Three simple, slightly hyphenated words: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. The Kiwi star is back in league and will be looking to impress in his new position of centre.
He’ll have plenty of chance to do so against the Wests Tigers and Dolphins, and will surely get plenty of reps on the field.
Three more words (and one more hyphen?): Chanel Harris-Tavita. Another man with a point to prove, but with far less certainty on what he will do and where.
Half? 9? Bench? It’ll be interesting to see how CHT is integrated back into a Warriors team with a lot more competition for spots than the one he left in 2022.
Cronulla are as settled as they come in terms of starting 17 for Round 1, but will be looking to build competition from the outside ahead of a long season.
Newtown Jets, their feeder, have been one of the better sides to watch for several years in NSW Cup and are packed with players who will want to give Craig Fitzgibbon things to think about.
Keep an eye out for Kayal Iro, who has played NRL but not in a while, and winger Sam Stonestreet. Kade Dykes, who debuted then did his ACL, is also an option and should play.
Now then – Huddersfield’s own Will Pryce – son of Leon – comes to the NRL with huge wraps from the Super League and will be in the mix for the five eighth currently held by Tyson Gamble but also disputed by new recruit Jack Cogger.
Pryce is rapid, elusive and will certainly add something to Newcastle in attack, but his defence will be a big question. These games will be his first look at live opposition in Australia.
Annoyingly, his mate (and rare rugby league-playing Londoner) Kai Pearce-Paul is not likely to be fit for the trials, but do keep an eye out going fowards into the year. You won’t miss him – KPP is huge and packs a serious offload.
The backline is already all over the place, with a five into four dynamic featuring Joseph Suaalii, Daniel Tupou, Joey Manu, Billy Smith and new arrival Dom Young.
Trent Robinson is unlikely to put too much stock into trials – though, with Manly and Souths on the agenda, both will be tough tests – but a standout performance, particularly if it were to come from Smith, would make things very interesting indeed.
Also in the backs will be Dom’s brother, Alex, and Lewis Murphy, a tryscoring machine from the Super League. Expect them to get minutes at some point, and keep an eye on Xavier Va’a, long touted as the next cab off the rank in the forwards.
There is a big, Jack Wighton-shaped hole at the Raiders and two men lining up to fill it: Ethan Strange and Kaeo Weekes.
It’s always hard to second guess Ricky Stuart’s thinking, but after games with the Eels and then the Cowboys, we’ll have a good read on who might go where.
There’s also a Jarrod Croker missing from the centres, which could either be taken by Strange or prompt a wider reshuffle to return Seb Kris to his natural role.
Souths and the Dragons play their traditional opener on Saturday evening in Kogarah, and with a trip to Vegas on the horizon, you’d expect the Bunnies to take it very seriously.
Thanks to Campbell Graham’s injury, there’s a centre spot that wants filling. Isaiah Tass might just swap sides – though he’ll be missing the first clash while with the Indigenous All Stars – but that only deepens the discussion further wide, with young flyer Tyrone Munro the frontrunner to take over on the wing.
Tallis Duncan broke out during the trials last year and was a staple of the team come the end of 2023, and it’s not unreasonable to expect similar from elsewhere.
Dion Teaupa was picked for Tonga before making an NRL bow and could feature as Blake Taaffe’s replacement, Josiah Karapani has been long spoken of as a potential outside back and Leon Te Hau could be in the mix too.
The 9 role is the major point of discussion, with both Brendan Hands and Joey Lussick staking claims to start for the blue and gold come Round 1.
They’ll both get time in the trials, though, making Brad Arthur’s true thought hard to gauge. Instead, we can look to some of their young players, notably another hooker, son Matt Arthur, who has been training with the top squad and a half, Ethan Sanders, who has wraps on him like nobody else his age.
North Queensland are second only to the Sharks when it comes to a settled side, and the chances are that Todd Payten will not read much into run outs against the Broncos and Raiders when it comes to picking a Round 1 team.
A few familiar faces return, however, and will be pushing for inclusion on the bench at the very least.
Tom Chester, who did an ACL early in 2023, is back on deck and would surely have played more if fit, while Jake Clifford returns from the Super League to challenge Chad Townsend for a halves role.
Sam McIntyre and Thomas Mikaele are also back from England and hoping to be kept around at the Cowboys.
The Sea Eagles’ attempt at retaining the Pre-Season Challenge will have to go on without last year’s self-declared MVP, Cooper Johns, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be taking it seriously.
Anthony Seibold will sit a few stars in advance of the Vegas trip, but will have a long look at others: Josh Schuster will be looking to prove fitness and two new arrivals, Tommy Talau and Jaxson Paulo, will be attempting to convince the coach that they deserve a start in Sin City on a wing.
From the youth ranks, we’ll definitely see more of Gordon Chan Kum Tong – can you be a fan favourite after only two games? – and fullback Bailey Hodgson, who was always on the edge of selection at Newcastle, gets another go and will be looking to impress.
Redcliffe having been purring about the arrival of Herbie Farnworth and Jake Averillo as their new centre combo, but cult figure Valynce Te Whare will have a lot to prove after being sent to fat camp by Wayne Bennett. How he goes in the trials will be a major read on whether he gets another shot at proper footy or not.
Jack Bostock, who scored a worldie in last year’s PSC, is in line to start the year on the wing, so all eyes will be on him again to cement that starting 13 position.
It’s all about Dessie. We don’t read too much into trial form, but Titans fans will be itching to get a look at the systems in place under new coach Des Hasler, with particular emphasis on how the side are going to defend.
There’s a few spots in the roster up for grabs, too, notably in the halves where Tanah Boyd and Tom Weaver will both get time to impress, and in the backline, where Jayden Campbell, Keano Kini and AJ Brimson will dispute positions.
How are they going to use all the utilities? Which of their many fullbacks plays fullback and which of their many backline options players where? Cameron Ciraldo has a pretty much open book as far as a team selection goes, with more pencil than pen on his Round 1 list at the moment.
The Dogs might be a smokey to win the whole thing, not least because almost everyone on their roster has something to prove to the coach. They might actually have to read into trial form, and the players will have to take it very seriously indeed.
Shane Flanagan’s first official runout as Dragons coach will see much scrutiny. Where does Zac Lomax play? Will he and Tyrell Sloan swap at fullback? Have they got anyone else who can play halves or is it just Ben Hunt and Kyle Flanagan with zero back-up?
Flanno has already talked down 2024 as a year in which the club can achieve anything, but fans will want to see some progress early on. That starts with the Charity Shield, which, though it is just a pre-season bauble, they have won just once in the last 11 years.
Benji Marshall coaches his first official game and Tigers fans, gluttons for punishment that they are, will have high hopes. This is the beginning of a new era, after all.
The line between first and second grade was very blurred late last year, with multiple guys from the Magpies and even Flegg given runs, so few names will be totally unknown to supporters, but nobody really has much of an idea what a Round 1 backline actually looks like.
New signing Justin Olam will be there, but everyone else is less secure. What about Solomona Faataape, the Easts Tigers flyer brought down from Brisbane? Or Solomon Alaimalo, the ex-rugby union star from New Zealand? Or Solomone Saukuru, the gun centre from the junior grades?
That’s just the options called variants of Solomon…anything could happen and, knowing the Tigers, probably will.