This was only ever going to be about two people.
The prodigal son, Jarryd Hayne, returning to his beloved Parramatta Eels after a 1268-day absence. And the second coming of the ever-eventful career of Mitchell Pearce at the Newcastle Knights.
One, knocking down the door to come home. The other, reluctantly pushed out the door to find a new home.
On Saturday night in the country town of Maitland, the pair crossed paths in their first public appearances for their new clubs in Parramatta’s 28-6 victory.
All the talk about Hayne in the offseason, at least regarding his football, has been in relation to his fitness. And in 33 degree heat less than two weeks out from the start of the season, Hayne was provided with ultimate litmus test.
He was scarcely involved in the opening 40 minutes at right centre, but moved to his preferred position of fullback in the second half and injected himself into the contest.
It’s there he shrugged off a defender and put Bevan French over in the corner, adding the first of what is expected to be many highlight plays in 2018.
While Hayne was the man of the hour, the star of the show was French, justifying the faith of coach Brad Arthur to hand him the No.1 jersey to start the year.
French scored a try and set up another in an impressive trial for the Eels, who made a near full-strength Newcastle side look second-rate for most of the night.
This was a battle between two proud clubs, who for the best part of the past five years have had very little to celebrate.
Ordinarily a trial that would have struggled to attract attention a couple of years ago was now the centre of the rugby league universe.
Parramatta – premiership contenders in 2018. Newcastle – no longer the wooden spoon certainties they have been the past three years.
The arrival of Pearce, Kalyn Ponga, Connor Watson, Aidan Guerra and company has left the town of Newcastle buzzing with excitement over the prospect of a long-awaited return to finals football.
And it didn’t take them long to show why, crossing early through Shaun Kenny Dowall for a 6-0 lead.
However that was the only highlight for the Knights in a disappointing final run ahead of their opening round clash against the Manly Sea Eagles.
The Eels hit straight back through a short side play, with Mitchell Moses and Bevan French combining to put Josh Hoffman over in the corner. The Eels moved out to a 12-6 at the break with
French, who had been looking dangerous with the ball in hand for most of the night, weaving his way through the Knights defence to provide the final four-pointer of the opening stanza.
Hayne moved to fullback in the second half and was greeted by a Tautau Moga swinging arm, with French almost scoring with his first touch on the wing only to be called back for an obstruction in the lead-up work.
Hayne then combined with French to help Parramatta to their fourth try of the night, however goal-kicking was proving to be a problem for the Eels.
Moses and Norman missed the first four conversions combined, only for Moses to convert his own try mid-way through the second half to give Parramatta a 22-6 buffer.
Michael Jennings streaked away for the Eels’ sixth – and final – try of the night soon after.