By STEVE MASCORD
MELBOURNE Storm are the most successful round one team in the history of the NRL – and the reason is simple.
Since the club was founded in 1998 – the same year the competition was rebranded – getting bashed for 80 minutes has been a relief compared to what the players endured during the pre-season.
Melbourne have only ever lost one game on the opening weekend of the season, a 14-6 defeat to the Warriors in Auckland after returning from the first World Club Challenge of the current batch, a thrashing of St Helens at the start of 2000.
“At the Melbourne Storm, you are put tested mentally every day – to a far greater extent than you are in matches,” says five-eighth Scott Hill, who played 177 games for the club between 1998 and 2006.
“So when you get to a game situation, you are raring to go. The training has tapered off and you are confident that if you stick to your processes, you’ll be successful. After what happens in the pre-season, you’re just happy to have football underway.
“You know how much it’s going to hurt, but you also know it’s not going to last forever. Once the season starts, it’s a matter of maintenance.
No-one trains harder than the Storm but in 2000, the long trip to England – before it was a common pre-season practice for the NRL premiers – may have had an impact.
It was the night their football manager, Michael Moore, died when he fell into Auckland harbour. Hill can’t say for sure why the game was lost, because the death of Moore overshadowed everything else that weekend.
“There are memories from that weekend that will live with us forever,” he says.
But Hill – who with 29 has made the most offloads in round one NRL matches – does believe that the Storm’s rugged pre-seasons also insulates them against injury. “If you look at Wests Tigers last year, by round three or four they had 11 players out or something,” said the man who will soon start a new life as a player agent.
“That, to me, indicates they didn’t prepare hard enough for the season.”
League Week asked Sportsdata to assess the performances of all teams on the opening weekend of the premiership since the NRL was born in 1998. That means we had results for St George, Illawarra, Western Suburbs, Balmain, Adelaide, North Sydney and the Northern Eagles as well as the current 16 franchises, and the feats of certain individuals who love the start of the season.
We also had a look at previous opening-round match-ups between the sides playing over this (long) weekend.
Sydney Roosters have played South Sydney 11 times in round one, the tricolours winning eight of these matches; that has helped the Bondi boys become the second most successful opening-week team, with a 75 per cent success ratio.
Like Melbourne, the Roosters have lost to the Warriors. But these the Aucklanders’ overall record is a paltry 26.7 per cent! Who says there is no such thing as bogie teams?
Let’s look at some of this weekend’s other clashes.
Canberra and North Queensland have met once, with the Raiders taking the spoils; Cronulla and Gold Coast have met once, with the Sharkies winning; Manly and Melbourne met once as you already know who won that; Newcastle and Penrith have played twice with the Knights successful on both occasions.
The Warriors and Parramatta have done battle four times, with honours split, while St George Illawarra and Wests Tigers have been drawn against each other three times, and the Dragons are yet to have any luck.
After Melbourne and Sydney Roosters, Newcastle (68.8 per cent) and Brisbane (62.5) have also fared well in round one.
While the Roosters owe much of their success rate to their dominance of the Bunnies, it’s no longer a fixture the ‘Pride of the League’ are hung up on.
“In the old says, we needed a good performance in the Charity Shield and again in round one to pump up our memberships, or season ticket sales, and sponsorships,” said Souths CEO Shane Richardson.
“Things are different now. We take more of a whole-of-season approach. That’s not to say we don’t want to win, though. I’m not saying we don’t care about the result.”
Rabbitohs winger Nathan Merritt clearly likes round one; he has scored 13 tries in eight games, while Melbourne fullback Billy Slater – in doubt for the clash with Manly but always fast out of the blocks – has posted 11 in 10 appearances.
North Queensland captain Johnathan Thurston needs 18 more points to bring up a round-one century, with Canterbury icon Hazem El Masri having bagged 104 during his career.
If we imagine round one of the premiership is a competition unto itself then our roll of honour includes Luke Burt with most points in a match (28), Parramatta with the biggest winning margin (58), Jordan Atkins with the most tries in a match (four), Luke Bailey (14) with the most appearances, Nathan Hindmarsh with the most tackles (396 and ready to be overtaken by Cameron Smith), Matt Ballin with the most sin bin stints (two), Luke Burt and Corey Parker booted the most goals (20).
Seven players have been sent players sent off: Geoff Toovey, John Hopoate, Brad Fittler, Ben Walker, Paul Aiton, Sonny Bill Williams and Ali Lauitiiti.
Johnathan Thurston needs only one try assist to lead that category. The man who holds Wests Tigers’ record for most first round points, with 20, will be watching this weekend’s events from the sideline. He is 2GB commentator Joel Caine.
Of the existing teams, Penrith have the worst round one record with a win ratio of just 25 per cent. Darren Lockyer is responsible for the most line breaks.
The draw for round one, of course, is not fair. South Sydney and Sydney Roosters have played each other so often simply because the game is a big draw and can generate a lot of income. Ditto Wests Tigers and St George Illawarra, while the Broncos and Cowboys have met eight times, the Sharks and Dragons three times, Newcastle and the Northern Eagles three times, Parramatta and Penrith thrice as well.
Since 1998, most of these rivalries have had a dominant team and one trying to catch up – and the results at the start of the season have merely reflected that.
So if there’s anything lasting about round one, anything you take away from reading this, perhaps it is not about records or training regimes or scoring trends. Maybe what we we should remember most at this time each year is Michael Moore, a popular footy man who lost his life on this weekend 14 years ago.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK