An 'origin-esque' chorus of boos greets the Canterbury Bulldogs as they stride out for the magic round opener against the Raiders. The ground isn't yet full, so it's quickly drowned out by the accompanying soundtrack. 'Who let the dogs out' may seem like low hanging fruit.. but what else are they going to use? 'How much is that doggy in the window' gets more than enough airplay.
In the context of premiership ladders and form guides it's a reasonably low-fi opening to the highly vaunted and widely spruiked NRL Magic Round, as many of the sell out crowd wait (patiently) outside to take advantage of the various fan activations. Not to downplay the start by any stretch; the ground is comfortably half full as the Raiders and Bulldogs pour on 40 first half points. Many part time fans are likely seeing some of their lesser known starters for the first time. Jacob Preston gets a rousing ovation when blasted onto the big screen after his second half double. A hint of magic, exactly what people are expecting.
And why wouldn't they be?
Magic Round lives and dies on the quality of the football on display. People have come in droves for the 2023 installment - up to 40% of them from outside Brisbane - and with a glut of footy jammed into a three day period, they'll want to see some premium product. Canberra and Canterbury deliver an end-to-end display, albeit one lacking the overall ferocity and suspense of a genuine showstopper. The are 41,642 fans in the ground as the opener ticks past the 70-point mark midway through the second half. The ground announcer reminds everyone that the night's main event - for local fans anyway - is just under half an hour away. The very mention of the Broncos ahead of their away game against Manly earns the biggest cheer of the night.
Matt Burton attempts a short drop out with just under 10 minutes left. It spirals into touch not far from the lime green clad Raiders fan zone. They offer him almost as much enthusiasm as they gave Jarrod Croker's 57th minute try. Otherwise the energy of the first half has dissipated, prompting the ground announcer to go back to the well and enquire whether there are 'any Broncos fans in the house tonight?' The obvious answer brings the crowd back and enthusiasm sustains when Hayze Perhanm is awarded a penalty try. A tight-ish finish to a 64-point game gets a pass mark, while 21 errors and almost 60 missed tackles deprive it of being a smash hit. Canberra 34 - 30 Canterbury. And we're away.
The Broncos exchange errors and territory with Manly before Selwyn Cobbo opens the scoring in the day one headliner. The ground now has a constant hum. The famous turf seems to be holding up ok after 100 minutes of footy, although there are some definite divot zones. Billy Walters extends Brisbane's lead from dummy-half and the crowd's appreciation extends when the big screen shows Anthony Siebold in the Manly box. Cut out balls, decoy runners, offloads - the Broncos are laying on a free clinic for Manly, who are failing to bring any magic. Walsh lays another pet shift out to Cobbo's wing, Reynolds hits it from the corner. 16 - nil after 25 minutes. A dazzling encounter, if you're a Broncos fan.
Manly destroy a string of half breaks and chances - forward passes, errors - and gift Brisbane possession with ruck infringements. A hampered Tom Trbojevic is more manhandled by Jordan Riki than magic. Jesse Arthurs makes it 20 - nil, and there it remains until the 70th minute.
The Broncos are unable to apply a ruthless edge to their sharp first half. The spectacle descends accordingly. Tom Flegler crunches Cooper Johns, and Daly Cherry-Evans is unable to keep pace with Cobbo as he juggles an intercept to streak away for his third try. It's a play that sums up Manly's night, and loses large sections of the people present. The biggest conclusions to be drawn for fans of any club; Brisbane need Payne Haas, Manly need a fit Tommy Turbo.
Magic round gets underway with a 102-point opening night, and only patches of sustained enchantment.
Brisbane's Saturday weather forecast is excitedly labeled as 'attacking weather' by various media outlets. It's clear there's a strong appetite for some high quality footy. The Warriors and Panthers are willing enough; the opening half is the lowest scoring so far; Penrith holding a 6-point lead on the back of near perfect completions. There are a collection of hits worthy of slow motion replays. Stephen Crichton coming off best in a chin rattler from Edward Kosi probably gets the biggest response. In general the Panthers are served with hearty boo's; perhaps its the pro-Warriors crowd, perhaps the pro-Queensland one, but the charges of Isaah Yeoh and the grinding guile of Nathan Cleary aren't enough to win over the steadily building masses.
Wayne Bennett and the Dolphins are frequently flashed up on the screen in the second half, but the crowd is now thoroughly invested in disliking the Panthers. A massive chorus of disapproval meets the decision to bin Warriors back rower Jackson Ford in the 50th minute; it's bested when Panthers prop Moses Leota remains on the field after a high shot shortly after. Errors creep in, yet it remains the most willing contest of the round so far and thus earns the most sustained level of crowd engagement. The crowd passes the 38 thousand mark as the Warriors push to reign in the Premiers; Addin Fonua-Blake charging like a commercial airliner on take off, Shaun Johnson scheming to prise apart the bright pink wall. They can't do it, and even the pro-Warriors crowd has to acknowledge the grit when Spencer Leniu crashes over to seal it with 5 minutes remaining. 18-6 Panthers, a slightly flattering final margin in the tightest tussle so far.
Wayne Bennett's men must be getting used to playing in front of packed houses by now, and start calmly enough (errant kicking notwithstanding) against the Sharks. Jeremy Marshall-King's rise continues with a scything run out of dummy-half to lay on Isaiya Katoa's first career try, Felise Kaufusi's legend grows with an expertly timed pulverization of Matt Moylan's ribs. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow goes over for his 10th of the year, Vallance Te Whare scores the fairytale debut try, and the Sharks are well and truly bitten. The crowd's into it, carried perhaps by the nostalgia of The Dolphins again defying expectations, and the introduction to Te Whare - a cult hero in the making.
Then you blink, and it's 30 - nil.
Parallels to the Broncos obliteration of Manly are evident when the score balloons and the Sharks predicament escalates. While each Dolphins try is met with appreciation, the one-sidedness threatens to suck the overall life out of the occasion. A Cronulla double strike for 30-10 at halftime keeps the interest of the varied allegiances in the house. There's a definite edge restored to the atmosphere by the prospect of an unlikely fightback, alongside an inescapable truth; Magic Round remains a festival of point scoring.
The Sharks resume with a clear plan to improve on their 39% possession and 68% completion rate. Execution falters with a bit of slipping and sliding and a healthy exchange of errors in the early stages. Val Te Whare doubles up with a suspiciously rugby union style support play, and ascendancy is restored. The game presses on, the Sharks press, the Dolphins repel. There are more errors and missed opportunities on both sides, as the 48 thousand in the house do their best to stay patient. The ground announcer gives regular reminders that the headline act of Souths and Melbourne isn't too far away. The Dolphins defend admirably and are generously applauded for completing their most convincing win so far, scoring 36 of the 52 points in a contest lacking grit.
Lights flash and music blares as the crowd shakes off a match best described as a 'scrappy blowout.' Dolphins and Sharks players hang around to pose for photos and sign autographs, as many look to the footballing heavens to pray for a headline match befitting its billing. The tale of the tape, as displayed on the big screens, is a compelling one. Graham vs Olam, Munster vs Walker, Cook vs Grant. Magic ingredients?
Latrell Mitchell and Cody Walker combine for an ominously soft opener, before Souths repel a sustained period of attack at the other end. They go over again through Jacob Host, before the game settles into a grind. Melbourne peg one back through Remis Smith, in a half defined by resilient goal line defence from both sides. It's not a points avalanche, nor a total snore-fest. 12-6 is a decent indication of the calibre of contest promised. Then halftime happens, and no less than a dozen red shirted officials set about repairing an increasing number of divots in the Suncorp turf. The grass has held up better than expected, but cracks are appearing. Not unlike in the game itself, where it quickly becomes apparent Melbourne has stayed in the sheds.
Alex Johnston crosses for his 170th and 171st try to climb further up the all time try scorers list in his 200th game, putting a stop to the grind. The Storm's completion rate deteriorates at a rapid rate, as Souths gain traction from their arguably stronger bench.
"Tough's fine, but keep it cool," referee Adam Gee warns Cam Munster and Cam Murray as a bit of chat and niggle sneaks into proceedings. Munster is frustrated, unable to dummy, spin or pirouette his way out of the hole his side finds itself in. The Rabbitohs short kicking game is death by a thousand cuts; they haven't wilted in the face of renewed premiership favouritism and are 22 points clear through 70 minutes. Thousands of fans have seen enough; turning their attention to defeating the many road closures and gridlock traffic around the ground. It's 28-12 at fulltime as Souths chalk up five in a row; Mitchell, Walker, Murray and Cook all imperious in a match that otherwise followed the script of the weekend so far.
One day to go, and Magic Round is still crying out for its headline encounter.
Day three brings a faithful army of Tigers and Dragons faithful, there to see arguably the least enticing fixture of the weekend. In a classic dose of rugby league unpredictability it turns into the tightest; offering a stirring afternoon for Tigers fans alongside car crash viewing for Dragon lovers, with the exception of the classy Jayden Sullivan. His energetic two try effort impresses, as Tigers rookie Jahream Bula earns the awe of the partially filled stands with a certified blinder, offering repeated glimpses of magic across six tackle busts, a try assist and team-high 171 metres. 23 overall errors robs the match of quality, and Magic Round winds closer to its curtains.
A hugely Queensland partisan crowd drinks it up as the Roosters and Cowboys hurl themselves into one another with reckless abandon in the weekend's penultimate show. The theatre is aided by a classic Queensland weather shift, as driving rain creates a quagmire in the already oppressed turf. The bruising contest has blockbuster hopes soaring amid the growing patronage, only to be undermined by 17 errors from the Roosters; a handling display that can only be described as 'ugly to watch.' The Cowboys regain some much needed swagger with a comfortable beat down. Murray Taulagi produces some magic with his toe-ahead sideline assist for Chad Townsend, Reuben Cotter makes a lively return to form in a game that screams 'thwarted potential classic.' Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Jamayne Taunow-Brown have the 'bring back the biff' crowd licking their lips with some feisty run-ins, but the game can't escape from the scourge of the Roosters 17 errors.
The Eels and Titans go toe-to-toe in the slugfest Magic Round needs. A final game epic, adding 50 points to the weekend tally and going the full distance. Brian Kelly's matchwinner brings one final roar from a ground that's onlyone third full, as the Gold Coast resist succumbing to the old habit of surrendering leads and deliver a season best performance in the weekend's eighth fixture. Maika Sivo is a freight train, Kieran Foran and Dylan Brown produce a duel worthy of the greats, Jayden Campbell takes every spectator with him in a highly courageous display. The fact it provides a perfect 4/4 for home state fans brings one final hum to the home of Queensland rugby league.
Magic Round didn't necessarily teach us anything unexpected about the state of the 2023 competition, nor did it provide wall-to-wall blockbusters. In pure footballing quality terms, a 210-116 overall aggregate offers wider margins than befitting a genuine showpiece event. There were moments of brilliance and enterprise amid some coach-killing efforts, streams of errors, one sided dominance and more than one stretch of tedium. That was again countered by stars being born, and established stars flexing on the big stage. The fact only three games were decided by less than 10 points detracts from the overall polish but it's difficult not to give it a strong pass mark. Footy sells, and the NRL has done an excellent job in ensuring Magic Round has enough going on to distract from on field lulls.
Not quite 'origin-esque,' but it works.