Round 1 of the 2023 NRL premiership was a smorgasbord of everything we love about rugby league. But amid the upsets and nail-biters, there’s only one team’s name of everyone’s lips as the dust settles on the opening weekend.
How could the Dolphins’ triumphant debut not be the number one takeaway from the opening round?
Rank outsiders to compete with Sydney Roosters’ galaxy of superstars, the Dolphins put on a clinic in underdog spirit and brutal physicality to carve out a 28-18 boilover in front of 35,000 at Suncorp Stadium.
The early signs were dangerous for the new boys, falling behind on the scoreboard twice and struggling for ideas at the attacking end. But the Dolphins continually dug in, started bustling the Roosters’ big guns and piled on 22 unanswered points.
Arthur Beetson Medal recipient Felise Kaufusi led the Dolphins pack’s defensive onslaught, ruining the ribcages of multiple Roosters forwards. Jeremy Marshall-King and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow were a threat all afternoon, while 19-year-old rookie Isaiya Katoa grew in confidence to star in their surge.
Inevitably, one of the great unexpected wins had Wayne Bennett’s fingerprints all over it. Copping wave after wave of criticism for failing to lure big names to the fledgling outfit, the master coach revelled in his understated, underrated squad’s blockbusting performance.
The Dolphins have already moved off the top of the Least Wins market ($2.50 out to $3.60), while they have shortened to $4.50 for a first-year finals appearance. The club’s maiden match in Redcliffe – this Saturday against 0-1 Canberra – promises to be another special occasion.
The Dolphins have done what most believed they couldn't, pulling off one of the greatest upsets in NRL history.
Wayne Bennett's men today beat the Sydney Roosters in a historic debut at Suncorp Stadium.@njkelly9 #9News pic.twitter.com/KR1T5DOGRi
— 9News Queensland (@9NewsQueensland) March 5, 2023
Early setbacks for NRL premiership powerhouses
The top two teams in the premiership market heading into the first round, Penrith and Sydney Roosters both suffered shock season-opening defeats as prohibitive favourites.
The Panthers were giving away a 13.5-point start to Brisbane Broncos but went down 13-12, while the Roosters were beaten up on the park and the scoreboard by the Dolphins despite going in as 18.5-point favourites.
The two-time defending champs had no answer to the Broncos’ gallant display without the ball, only setting up a grandstand finish when interchange hooker Soni Luke darted over with four minutes left. The Panthers’ left edge – stripped of Viliame Kikau and Taylan May – barely fired a shot.
Api Koroisau’s loss was immediately felt, too, with starting No.9 Mitch Kenny unable to provide the Panthers with the dummy-half zip they are accustomed to. Luke’s performance was the undisputed silver lining of the night and he can expect to be injected much earlier from now on after a belated 54th-minute entry on Friday – or even claim the starting role for himself.
Panthers teammates Jarome Luai and Jaeman Salmon didn't hold back 😮https://t.co/H2Ih54lX6J
— Fox League (@FOXNRL) March 5, 2023
The Panthers remain firm as runaway title favourites at $3.80, while the Roosters still occupy to the second line of premiership betting at $6.00 – despite their insipid first-up showing in Brisbane.
The Roosters crumbled meekly when the Dolphins applied the blowtorch. Luke Keary and Sam Walker were fairly anonymous, Brandon Smith struggled to make an impact on club debut and James Tedesco faded out of the game after a hot start. Their vaunted pack was made to look second-rate.
Angus Crichton, Sitili Tupouniua and Connor Watson are on the indefinitely unavailable list, and Roosters could be without Matt Lodge (facial injury) and Victor Radley (head knock) for Round 2. It will require more than the potential return of Kiwi internationals Joey Manu and Jared Waerea-Hargeaves to fix the Roosters’ frailties as they prepare to host the rejuvenated Warriors on Saturday.
Matt Lodge will undergo surgery after suffering a depressed (“divot” in the bone) facial fracture yesterday. No expected recovery range provided by the Roosters as yet – though have often seen a return within 4-6 weeks for fractures of this nature in the past pic.twitter.com/l9JCc7xeqH
— NRL PHYSIO (@nrlphysio) March 5, 2023
Meanwhile, the Panthers face a heavyweight showdown with South Sydney on Thursday night.
Statement game of NRL Round 1
The Broncos and Dolphins were both heroic in producing massive boilovers. The new-look Storm and Warriors snared hard-fought wins. The Titans took a significant early step with a victory at Leichhardt.
But Manly was the most emphatic victor of Round 1, trashing Canterbury 31-6 in front of a jam-packed Brookvale Oval in an ideal start to the Anthony Siebold era. It was the Sea Eagles’ first win since mid-July – and a continuation of a summer rebirth that saw the club take out the NRL Pre-season Challenge.
Tom Trbojevic coming through unscathed – and starring (173m, two line-breaks, one try, one try-assist) – was the most obvious takeaway, while Daly Cherry-Evans’ second-half hat-trick to go with an assist was vintage stuff from the skipper. Moving into the front-row, Jake Trbojevic hit like a freight train all afternoon to provide the backbone to a dynamic collective engine-room effort.
It was a nice day out for the Skipper 🍒✨#ManlyForever pic.twitter.com/OiFMs1Is2d
— Manly Warringah Sea Eagles (@SeaEagles) March 5, 2023
Consequently, Manly’s premiership price has been slashed from $21 to $18.
But the Sea Eagles’ real test comes over the next fortnight as they eye off clashes with Parramatta and South Sydney. Manly – and ‘Turbo’ – picked up the flat-track bully label in 2021 and failed to shed it last year before their campaign fell apart.
Career-best displays huge boost for Warriors, Rabbitohs
A vital piece of South Sydney’s premiership puzzle looks like its smoothed out its rough edges and is ready to slot into place, courtesy of sophomore halfback Lachlan Ilias’ man-of-the-match display in the Rabbitohs’ 27-18 defeat of the Sharks.
Ilias made his mark early by scoring the first try but looked a No.7 reborn throughout, calling the shots with confidence and tackling like a demon. His breakout display has helped see Souths – so reliant on Latrell Mitchell and Cody Walker in 2022 – shorten from $11 to $8.00 in the premiership market.
A gradual improver in a dreadful Warriors team over the past couple of seasons, hooker Wayde Egan provided the impetus for a gritty 20-12 victory over the Knights on Friday. He displayed the high footy IQ good rugby league judges have long heralded the Penrith junior for and capped a stellar performance with the match-sealing try after returning form a heavy knock.
Egan was stiff to only get two of a possible six votes in the revamped Dally M Medal format. But the homecoming claims of Warriors fullback Charnze-Nicoll Klokstad – who finished off a sizzling team try and pulled off an incredible try-saving (and game-saving) tackle on Kalyn Ponga – were hard to ignore.
Nicoll-Klokstad joined Ilias, Harry Grant, Daly Cherry-Evans and Jeremy-Marshall King at the top of the Dally M leaderboard, the quintet picking up three votes from both judges.
Five players are tied atop the Dally M standings after picking up maximum points in Round 1! 🏅
Details: https://t.co/fDTy1MZ6JK pic.twitter.com/3IF0iu3PQb
— NRL (@NRL) March 5, 2023