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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Nick Tedeschi

‘Fast, brutal, brilliant’: NRL’s Las Vegas gamble comes up trumps

Broncos star Reece Walsh scores a spectacular try during the match against the Sydney Roosters as NRL invades the USA at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.
Broncos star Reece Walsh scores a spectacular try during the match against the Sydney Roosters as NRL invades the USA at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. Photograph: David Becker/AP

Rugby League has a long and sordid history of promising the world and delivering an atlas, the big dreams only matched by the bigger failures to execute. Not any longer. Over 40,000 fans attended the first premiership matches in the United States in what was a dazzling result for the NRL.

The dream of Peter V’Landys to take rugby league to America launched a new reality for the NRL with two outstanding games living up to the unprecedented hype that surrounded the event. The steak matched the sizzle.

And boy was there some sizzle. This was no normal NRL match. Two members of Human Nature performed the Australian anthem. The American anthem was performed for the first time at an NRL game. The specially-made goalposts were yellow. In-goals were fully coloured, always a sign that a rugby league match is important. The coin tosses took place on the field.

Long regarded as the gold standard of promoting their own importance, the AFL will be looking on in envy. North of the Murray, few could tell you that the AFL season will be starting this week, such has been the blanket coverage of the NRL’s Las Vegas jaunt. Rarely has rugby league dominated the headlines or the public sporting consciousness for all the right reasons.

The American audience quickly got a look at the brutality of rugby league. Former Sea Eagle Sean Keppie was brutalised by his former teammates in the opening set. Souths returned fire when Tevita Tatola folded Tolutau Koula just two minutes later. Lachlan Croker was steamrolled by Latrell Mitchell. Players from both teams had facial cuts treated in the opening 15 minutes. Welcome to rugby league.

Brutality is one thing. Loping beauty is another. We got that 18 minutes in when long-legged Sea Eagles winger Jason Saab glided down the sideline following a Tom Trbojevic offload and looked destined to score only for an heroic covering ankletap from Souths No 7 Lachlan Ilias.

He got his Vegas try though just before the break when Saab intercepted an errant Latrell Mitchell cutout and ran 50 metres unchallenged, capping an opening half on US soil that was full of the drama, the fierceness, the speed and the heart that makes rugby league great. If V’Landys was Vince McMahon and rugby league was wrestling, it is doubtful he could have scripted it any better.

If one moment signified the importance of Las Vegas to the players it was the roar of passion from Mitchell when he crashed over for a power try early in the second half. Moments later he showed the lightest of touches to put Alex Johnston across.

If physicality marked the opening half on American soil, it was scoring that marked the second with four tries in the opening 15 minutes. By the time Manly won 36-24, every box had been ticked in showcasing the code in a physical 11-try belter.

The second clash started with the same ferocity with Brendan Piakura sent for a HIA in the opening five minutes, Reece Walsh showcasing his dazzling brilliance and Joey Manu running clear with an intercept for the opening four-pointer. It was a sublime start for a Roosters team that has underwhelmed in recent seasons, playing with a speed and crispness that was not seen last year.

A failure to take scoreboard advantage of their dominance meant the Roosters led by just four at the break but were desperately unlucky not to be up five after Sam Walker slotted a field goal before it was controversially wiped off due to the NRL’s new crackdown on blockers. It mattered little in the end with the Roosters grinding to a 20-10 victory.

While the second game lacked the scoring of the first, it was not a match short of skill or courage. Sam Walker played over half the game with damaged ribs. Reece Walsh pulled off a miraculous trysaver on Daniel Tupou. Walsh’s swandive, tongue out, was a moment of pure ecstasy.

There was no more stunning moment in either game though than Joey Manu’s miraculous flick pass in the 52nd minute. It was a moment that will be shown forever and a day, a Vegas magic trick to rival David Copperfield in his pomp.

When Victor Radley sealed the game, crashing over untouched from another sublime James Tedesco run, the inaugural Las Vegas adventure was over and already declared an unqualified success.

The momentum won’t end after a stunning weekend that will long be remembered as one of the most important in the history of the code. For once, the NRL has proven itself capable of delivering. For once, the clubs are united. Rugby league may not be the world game - yet - but it has proven itself capable of thriving on a global stage.

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