Brian Carney: Signposts for new Super League season from weekend friendlies and the NRL’s kick-off

With just under two weeks to go until the 2021 Super League season kicks off, Sky Sports rugby league expert Brian Carney assesses what we can learn from the weekend’s pre-season games and reviews the first round of NRL action…

Where else to start this week but with Tommy Makinson, whose spectacular finishes have become his trademark, and should have more made of them.

Alongside the likes of Tom Johnstone, he’s led the way in the Northern Hemisphere. With England rugby union looking to league finishers right now for hints and tips on the most effective way to finish in the corner, Tommy makes life for defenders nigh on impossible.

A star performance from our star man last night! 🤩

📸 @TommyMak21 #COYS

And that’s not even half of it. Without doubt the best set starter in Super League, opponents know stopping Makinson is a huge step towards nullifying a potent Saints attack.

Congratulations to Tommy on the testimonial and here’s hoping for many more years to come.

On speaking to Tommy’s England team-mate George Williams recently for our NRL preview podcast, the first thing that struck me was how lean he looked. In his own words, he can’t remember feeling in better condition, with an incredibly confident air which is a joy to behold.

Unsurprisingly, Williams was hugely influential in Canberra Raiders’ opening-round win over Wests Tigers as the NRL season kicked off over the weekend.

For any England supporters hoping for World Cup glory later this year, Williams maintaining his blistering NRL form will be key.

We’re only one round in Down Under and immediately the NRL spotlight is on coaches, with some already under immense pressure. Des Hasler’s Manly Sea Eagles could take very little from their mauling by the Roosters and while Trent Barrett is rebuilding Canterbury Bulldogs, many aspects of Friday’s loss in Newcastle Knights will concern the one-time Wigan Warriors maestro.

Pre-season, it was all about Justin Holbrook and his Gold Coast Titans, but the 2019 Super League champion coach might see Saturday’s loss to Nathan Brown’s New Zealand Warriors as something of a blessing in disguise in that it bursts any predictions of Gold Coast being a shoo-in for the eight.

Their opening-round defeat bears out what Holbrook has been trying to say: “While improving, we’re a long way from where we want to be” – his words so far falling on enthusiastic but deaf ears.

Speaking of coaches, we saw Richard Marshall, Ian Watson, Brett Hodgson and John Duffy turn out their sides ahead of a Super League campaign for the first time over the weekend, in pre-season games.

These matches have given players some welcome physical exertion along with, for me, a few clues to their prospects when we get going for real on Friday, March 26.

You’re not quite “damned if you don’t, damned if you do” in friendlies, with coaches looking to come through a test of sorts – ideally with no injuries. But while the result for supporters are never unimportant, they take a back seat for coaching staff in particular.

Some quick observations: Is Brett Hodgson the man to unlock Jake Connor’s undoubted potential? Signs from the win over York City Knights last Thursday suggest the 2009 Man of Steel can help take Jake’s game to the next level.

Elsewhere, Watson’s squad at Huddersfield Giants will offer a depth he rarely enjoyed at Salford Red Devils – arguably the greatest reason why some believe he could take the Giants all the way to this year’s Grand Final at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’.

Marshall inherits the challenge Watson was all too familiar with at the AJ Bell Stadium, but with close to his first 17 available – as they were on Sunday against a youthful Wigan outfit – Salford will be no pushovers in 2021.

Also worth a mention is Jake Trueman and his display in Castleford Tigers’ win away to Hull Kingston Rovers. In a World Cup year, Jake looks to have the ability and temperament to handle the glare which will undoubtedly be trained on him this season.

At Leigh Centurions, Derek John Beaumont has bankrolled the promoted club to a significant tune, making light of their reduced central funding and assembling for John Duffy a side which can, and will need to, scrap with every sinew, draining every inch out of performers being given a second, third, or sometimes fourth Super League chance.

Notwithstanding what I said earlier about friendlies and the result being of tertiary importance at best to coaches, that Makinson Testimonial victory for Leigh will, I think, be an exception.

I can’t wait for the 2021 Super League season to get going.

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