Mark Cannizzaro

Mark Cannizzaro

Sports

NRL shows rugby’s potential in America with mesmerizing, bone-rattling thrill in Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS — OK Aussies, I’m hooked.

They had me at the first bone-rattling hit between two players wearing no helmets or pads that could be heard and felt from the press box in the sky at Allegiant Stadium, which feels like its miles from the pitch below.

Then they really reeled me in at the sight of another player with blood streaming down the side of his head from an incidental hit — a minor scratch depending on whom you ask — that was quickly treated with a bandage wrapped tightly around his forehead that acted as a tourniquet.

Play on.

Unlike in the NFL, where those blue tents on the sidelines are occupied with players having injuries tended to as often as people check in and out of those hourly motels on the outskirts of the Vegas strip, the National Rugby League plays on despite the constant raw brutality to its rhythm.

Watching the historic NRL doubleheader Saturday night at Allegiant Stadium, where the Manly Sea Eagles defeated the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the Sydney Roosters defeated the Brisbane Broncos, the one thought that sat constantly in my head was that these Rugby players must think the NFL players are soft by comparison.

That, of course, isn’t the least bit true.

Ben Trbojevic of the Sea Eagles is tackled during the round one NRL match between Manly Sea Eagles and South Sydney Rabbitohs at Allegiant Stadium, on March 02, 2024. Getty Images

But what is true is this: The Rugby League I watched Saturday night was evidence that these players are tougher and require far more endurance than any of our mainstream sports do from their respective athletes.

Because it’s brutal and fast and it feels like there are as many stoppages in play as Jets quarterbacks throw touchdown passes in their games. Which is to say: there aren’t many.

Three weeks ago, I sat inside Allegiant Stadium for Super Bowl 2024 and soaked in the largest, most spectacular event in American sports for the 32nd time as a sportswriter.

Unlike some of my colleagues who’ve grown tired of the Super Bowl because the larger it becomes the less the access to the players and officials we’re granted, I still get up for covering the game the way the players get up for playing in it.

Jaxson Paulo of the Sea Eagles is tackled by Isaiah Tass and Jai Arrow of the Rabbitohs during the round one NRL match between Manly Sea Eagles and South Sydney Rabbitohs at Allegiant Stadium, on March 02, 2024. Getty Images

On Saturday night, on the same sheet of natural-grass turf the Chiefs and 49ers played on 21 nights earlier for the Lombardi Trophy (faint images of both teams’ logos were still visible in the grass at midfield), I witnessed another memorable sports spectacle in the form of that NRL doubleheader involving four of Australia’s most popular clubs.

Even though these were real, regular-season contests of consequence with points at stake and not fluffy exhibitions, the point of this doubleheader had less to do with points in the NRL standings than it did a bigger picture for the sport.

And the bigger picture in play here wasn’t lost on me as I witnessed and covered my first rugby match in more than 40 years as a sportswriter and I did so thoroughly stimulated by a curiosity to learn the game and get a feel for how it’ll translate in America.

For the NRL, this was a dip of the toes into American waters and it presented a strong case for the uninitiated like myself and the many Americans inside Allegiant Stadium and watching it on TV to take further interest.

Sea Eagles Reuben Garrick, center, celebrates after scoring a try during the opening match of the NRL between the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Saturday, March 2, 2024. AP

“I think we’ve made a huge impact,’’ Manly halfback Luke Brooks said after scoring a “try’’ (rugby’s version of a touchdown) in his debut match with the club after 11 seasons with the Wests Tigers.

Scott Penn, the Manly owner and chairman who lives in New York City, called the night and the week “a huge success’’ and added, “this is building for the future. We put on a show. We’re showing America what the NRL can do. It’s spectacular entertainment. It’s been amazing experience.’’

No argument there.

Play on.

“The occasion itself was a big occasion,’’ Manly coach Anthony Seibold said. “It was a great opportunity for us. We wanted our most important 80 minutes of the week-and-a-half we’ve been here to be tonight, and we feel like we played some really good footy. We’re proud to come out here and represent the NRL and proud to get a win.”

Alex Johnston of the Rabbitohs celebrates with Keaon Koloamatangi, Cody Walker and Richard Kennar of the Rabbitohs after scoring a try during the round one NRL match between Manly Sea Eagles and South Sydney Rabbitohs at Allegiant Stadium, on March 02, 2024, Getty Images

The show was indeed terrific. And it was played in front of an announced crowd of just more than 40,000, which is pretty impressive for a sport few in this country know much about. In fairness, some 14,000 Aussies made the trip from Down Under just for the game, so the crowd was heavy on Aussies.

Everyone in attendance was treated to some memorable NFL-like moments.

In the first match, when Manly’s Reuben Garrick took a pass and crossed the goal line for a “try,’’ he celebrated by smashing the ball onto the turf with a violent spike.

“He talked about doing it during the week; that was a Gronk spike,’’ Manly captain Daly Cherry-Evans said with a smile, referring to former Patriots star tight end Rob Gronkowski and his patented spikes.

Reece Walsh of the Broncos passes as he is tackled during the round one NRL match between Sydney Roosters and Brisbane Broncos at Allegiant Stadium, on March 02, 2024, Getty Images

In the second match, we got a true Patrick Mahomes moment when Joseph Manu from the Sydney made a magical no-look behind-the-back pass to teammate Junior Pauga as he crossed the goal line for a “try’’ to extend the Roosters’ lead at the time.

To borrow a slogan from a PGA Tour marketing campaign a few years ago: “These guys are good.’’

“We were not just representing Manly, we were not just fighting for two points, we wanted to get the game exposure over here,’’ Cherry-Evans said. “As a player, you try not to think of the bigger-picture things. You try and go out there and perform at your best.’’

They did.

Broncos Reece Walsh is airborne as he scores a try during the NRL match between the Sydney Roosters and the Brisbane Broncos at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Saturday, March 2, 2024. AP

And it was a marvelous climax to what was a cool week of build-up surrounding the NRL playing foreign soil other than Australia and New Zealand for the first time in the 108-year history of the league.

The pre-game buzz was highlighted by a fan fest on Friday night in the old-town Freemont Street section of Vegas with some 5,000 fans packing the streets and sidewalks to have a look at the players from the four clubs on stage and then walking a red carpet.

Unlike with the Super Bowl, where the players are essentially kept under wraps all week aren’t seen by the fans until they’re on the field on game day, this was a unique intimate experience for the rugby league fans.

There were a number of moments that struck chords for me during the week, beginning with the fan fest and including the genuine appreciation the players from the teams had for being fortunate enough to be a part of this historic opportunity. Many of those I spoke to felt the responsibility of this week to help grow their sport in America.

Spectators watch the NRL match between the Sydney Roosters and the Brisbane Broncos at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Saturday, March 2, 2024. AP

While there’s a finality to the Super Bowl every year because it’s the ultimate, final game of the season, Saturday night’s NRL doubleheader felt like a new beginning.

The two matches marked the opening of the NRL’s 2024 season and, more importantly, they marked the beginning of a five-year commitment the league has made to open it season in Las Vegas.

Hopefully, the NRL will learn from this week and find even better ways to present and promote its product even better, and that should include better player access to the media during the build-up.

Nothing will sell the product better than the players, and the NRL is not short on remarkable athletes, outgoing personalities and characters. The league needs to showcase that better going forward by making them more available to the media so people can get to know them.

“If we can make an impact and it’s a bigger-picture thing, it’s great for our game,’’ Cherry-Evans said. “I hope the Americans have taken notice. I hope they enjoyed tonight.’’

I took notice.

I enjoyed the night.

And I’ll look forward to watching more rugby league in the future, because I’m hooked.

news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news