Central started their NRL title defence in style. Image via Photography by Amanda.

Central Newcastle coach Joel Sklenar has warned his championship team “everyone wants to take a bite out of you,” after the defending Newcastle Rugby League champs got back to winning ways early with a 56-point victory over Kurri in the Blues Tag opening round.

Last year, Central marched to the 2019 title with 33 points under their belts. The Butcher Birds would then battle their way through perennial finals contenders Wests and Souths in the postseason to clinch their NRL title.

This time around, coach Sklenar is looking for that same “near-perfection” in his girls; he knows everyone is going to want to knock the Birds off their newfound pedestal. The trick, he told the Chronicle, is just “turning up each and every week.”

“Obviously we just want to get out there and compete every week, make sure we do all the right things to get the win every time,” he said.

“Since 2017, when the Blues Tag comp first started, we’ve always been a frontrunner so it’s nothing too new for us. Other teams are going to look to step up that little bit more against us though, so we have to step up with them and shape up every week.

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“We’re not in a different boat to the other big teams like Wests and Souths either though, everyone shapes up against us. It doesn’t matter who we play, we have to be at our very best to make sure we’re getting every single win.”

Joel Sklenar has warned the high-flying Butcher Birds about the NRL title target on their backs in 2020. Image via Photography by Amanda.

That was exactly what Sklenar’s Central outfit did on the weekend; they rolled over a fresh-faced Kurri side at St John Oval. In the end, the Butcher Birds put up 62 points in a clinical victory. Central’s boss said it was “exactly what he wants to see.”

“It was a different kind of match than what I was expecting given how hard they pushed us last year, but I know they’ve had a bit of a shakeup in recent times. I wanted the girls to play their game though, and they did just that,” he said.

“We followed all the protocols for the COVID shutdown so we didn’t really get that many sessions under our belts before we actually got to go out and play again, so to be able to turn up and get that kind of score was certainly satisfying for us.”

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There is another challenge already shaping on the horizon for Central; western powerhouse Maitland are lurking in the wings next weekend. The Pickers also managed a big win in the opening round, downing Cessnock by 30 on the road.

“I’ve heard that Maitland have been training the house down. They’ve shown that they have that spark this season too,” Sklenar said. “That’s going to be a really exciting game, I have to admit I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes.”

Elsewhere, 2019 league runners-up Souths also got off to a winning start with a 32–6 win over Nelson Bay. The Lionesses ended their last Blues Tag campaign at the wrong end of a 10–nil grand final result against the Butcher Birds.

The Lionesses’ inner-city rivals Wests won by the same margin. They managed one better, however, by keeping Lakes scoreless in a 26–0 victory at Harker Oval.

Next round, only one of the Pickers and Central can emerge victorious, as the two table-toppers clash in Maitland. Kurri Kurri also hosts Lakes on Saturday morning and Souths plays Cessnock. Wests and Nelson Bay clash on Sunday.


STANDINGS: Central, Maitland, Souths, Wests (2), Lakes, Nelson Bay, Cessnock, Kurri (0) | All Newcastle Rugby League fixtures here.