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

Rugby league has a long and sordid history of promising the world and delivering an atlas, with the big dreams matched only by the bigger failures to deliver. No longer. More than 40,000 fans attended the first premiership matches in the United States, which was a dazzling result for the NRL.

Peter V’Landys’ dream to bring rugby league to America spelled a new reality for the NRL with two excellent matches that lived up to the unprecedented hype surrounding the event. The steak matched the sizzle.

And boy, there was some hiss. This was no normal NRL match. Two members of Human Nature sang the Australian national anthem. The US national anthem was performed for the first time at an NRL match. The specially made goalposts were yellow. The goals were fully colored, always a sign that a rugby league match is important. The toss took place on the field.

Long considered the gold standard for promoting their own interests, the AFL will look on with envy. North of the Murray, few could tell you the AFL season gets underway this week, such was the general coverage of the NRL’s trip to Las Vegas. Rarely has rugby league dominated headlines or public sporting consciousness for the right reasons.

The American public soon got a glimpse into the brutality of rugby league. Former Sea Eagle Sean Keppie was manhandled by his former teammates in the opening set. Souths fired back 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 first 15 minutes. Welcome to rugby league.

Male players run through before the opening match of the NRL showcase at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. Photo: David Becker/AP

Brutality is one thing. Walking beauty is another. We got those 18 minutes when leggy Sea Eagles winger Jason Saab slid down the touchline after an offload from Tom Trbojevic and looked destined to score alone after a heroic, covering ankle tap from South’s number 7 Lachlan Ilias.

However, he got his Vegas try just before the break when Saab intercepted an errant Latrell Mitchell cut-back and ran unchallenged for 50 yards, capping an opening half on American soil that was full of the drama, ferocity, pace and heart that makes rugby league that way. Awesome. If V’Landys were Vince McMahon and rugby league was struggling, it’s doubtful he could have written it better.

If one moment showed the importance of Las Vegas to the players, it was Mitchell’s roar of passion as he crashed for a power try early in the second half. Moments later he showed the lightest of touches to convey Alex Johnston.

While physicality marked the first half on American soil, the scoring was the second half with four tries in the opening fifteen minutes. By the time Manly won 36-24, every box had been ticked to present the code in an 11-try physical belter.

Sea Eagle Reuben Garrick celebrates his try against the Rabbitohs with a touchdown as rugby league launched its bid to win America. Photo: David Becker/AP

The second clash started with the same ferocity, with Brendan Piakura providing a HIA in the opening five minutes, Reece Walsh demonstrating his dazzling brilliance and Joey Manu running clear with an interception for the opening four-pointer. It was a sublime start for a Roosters team that has been disappointing in recent seasons, playing with a pace and sharpness not seen last year.

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Failing to take advantage of their dominance on the scoreboard, the Roosters led by just four at half-time, but were desperately unlucky not to be on five after Sam Walker scored a field goal before it became controversial wiped out due to the NRL’s new crackdown on blockers. In the end it mattered little as the Roosters battled to a 20-10 win.

Although the second game lacked the scoring of the first, it was not a match lacking in skill or courage. Sam Walker played more than half the match with damaged ribs. Reece Walsh has performed a wonderful trysaver on Daniel Tupou. Walsh’s swing, tongue out, was a moment of pure ecstasy.

However, there was no more stunning moment in either match than Joey Manu’s miraculous pass in the 52nd minute. It was a moment that will be shown forever and ever, a Vegas magic trick to rival David Copperfield in his splendor.

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

The momentum will not end after a wonderful weekend that will long be remembered as one of the most important in the history of the code. For once, the NRL has proven its ability to deliver results. For once the clubs are united. Rugby league may not yet be the global game, but it has proven its ability to thrive at a global level.