It has
taken rugby league to do it, but the nation’s two political leaders –
John Winston Howard and Kim Christian Beazley – were united
yesterday… united in their grief at the results of round one of the
2005 NRL premiership. The former is the number one ticket holder of the
St George-Illawarra Dragons, while the later is a recent, though no
doubt genuine, convert to the Newcastle Knights.

And
the opening
round performances by both teams were simply awful – and one fears it’s
going to be a long Canberra-like winter for the clubs, and their
political patrons. But more about the Dragons and the Knights later.
The weekend has plenty of positives – record average crowds, the
largest total crowd for a round since 1999 (when a double header
distorted the totals), and, importantly, a weekend in which the game’s
two young and emerging stars (according to yours truly in my end of
year awards) were simply outstanding. Readers may remember that The
Storm’s Billy Slater was my player of the year in 2004 and Sonny Bill
Williams the rising star of the year. It’s early days – but I am
delighted they are already proving me right.

But in rugby league
some things never change – for the performance of the referees, and the
video referees, again grabbed more than their fair share of
headlines… though I for one think somewhat unfairly so! In this
belated – and apologies all round for that – review of the weekend I
thought I would focus on how the notionally top teams performed.

Before
the start of round one, most commentators agreed that the Bulldogs,
Broncos, Roosters, Cowboys, Storm and then maybe Sharks, and Panthers,
and maybe, just maybe, the Eels and Knights, would do well. After round
one there must surely be a re-think… and it’s risky saying that so
early in the season. But there’s no risk that the Bulldogs are going to
be the team to beat this season. The ruling premiers comprehensively
disposed of the Dragons in the opening game of the season, and Sonny
Bill Williams was, as I for one expected, simply awesome. So much so
that Phil Gould has now labelled him potentially the “best ever” in the
game. (Phil must have had a substantial win at the Rosehill races when
he wrote that).

And on Sunday the Melbourne Storm simply wiped
the Newcastle Knights off the park with a 48 to 10 demolition… with
Billy Slater running in three tries and Matt Orford helping to turn
Andrew Johns’ comeback game into a nightmare. The Storm were one of the
surprise packs of the 2004 season and they showed enough on Sunday to
convince me they will be serious premiership contenders in 2005.

After
a first half scare, the Roosters had a comfortable, if not exactly
convincing, win over a much-improved Rabbitohs. The Roosters will be
thereabouts come finals time. The Broncos were given a real test by the
Cowboys before a massive 43,440 crowd at Lang Park, but ended up worthy
winners, 29-16. Both teams look like sure-fire eight contenders… and
the Broncos might just deliver for their patient fans this season.

The
Sharks will most likely be a real threat to every team they meet, if
their 20-14 win against the Panthers was a guide. They looked better
in the forwards, and the God-fearing Jason Stevens is still three weeks
away from his comeback match. Now to the Eels. Well, the improved
performance – though much too late – we saw from the Eels at the end of
the 2004 season continued at the weekend when the Eels disposed of the
Tigers by 28 points to 12. Perhaps the patience of Eels’ fans is about
to be rewarded? The other team that showed real promise over the
weekend was the Manly Sea Eagles.

Though I must add that if they
have to continue relying on Terry Hill (isn’t he the same “vintage” as
John Winston Howard?) then I will have my doubts they will go the
distance. And their opponents, the Auckland Warriors, performed better
than last season… and so they should have! These are early, early
days. But you would have to say that the Bulldogs, Storm, Broncos,
Roosters, and the Sharks look good. The Eels, Sea Eagles and maybe the
Cowboys look promising. And the Canberra Raiders don’t take the field
for the first time until this weekend. The Rabbitohs will do better
than in 2004, and so might the Warriors. Not at all sure about the
Panthers or Tigers. And VERY worried about the Dragons and the Knights.
(Little Johnny might be wise to focus on the Waratahs for a while, and
Big Kim on the West Coast Eagles).

That’s how I see it after round one.