A heroic underdog story in the World Club Challenge and the scintillating return of a great of the modern era provided the highlights of rugby league’s pre-season fare.

But overall the past two weekends created more questions than they answered as the 2024 NRL premiership looms…and delivered some devastating injury news for a couple of clubs looking to improve on last year’s mid-table result.

Little change to status quo

Pre-season results are essentially meaningless, but one of the most striking aspects of the February footy was the absence of teams making a genuine statement or hinting at a charge up the ladder in the months ahead.

Only two teams – Pre-season Challenge winners Brisbane and fellow heavyweight Sydney Roosters – won both games, while only Gold Coast and Manly failed to register a win.

Certainly no clubs will be getting carried away with their trial form and none will be unduly concerned with their efforts…except perhaps Wests Tigers.

Strangely ebullient after edging out a 12-man, second-string Warriors side 18-16 in Christchurch, the dual wooden spooners were dreadful in a 34-18 loss to the only team shorter than them in the 2024 Most Losses market, St George Illawarra.

The Tigers endured a horrific start to 2023 after talking a big game during the lead-in – and Benji Marshall and co. would be best advised to do some introspection prior to Round 1 to avoid a repeat.

The Dragons, meanwhile, badly needed that result after a meek Charity Shied fadeout against an understrength Souths. Hints of Shane Flanagan’s influence started to shine through in a strong defensive display against the Tigers.

Elsewhere, the Broncos and Warriors suggested 2023 was not a flash in the pan, while defence is shaping as an Achilles heel again for the Titans and Dolphins, and the new-look Bulldogs are going to take some time to click.

Brit grit

The effect of unrelenting desire can’t be underestimated in rugby league. It’s underpinned Queensland’s disproportionate success in State of Origin and helped the Kiwis win five of their last eight tournament finals against the all-conquering Kangaroos.

The passion that drives the underdog has also contributed to British clubs regaining a historical lead over the Australian counterparts in the World Club Challenge.

Wigan Warriors, inspired by a clutch of NRL discards, repeated St Helens’ memorable boilover at Penrith in early-2023 with a gutsy – albeit controversial – 16-12 victory over the Panthers at a heaving DW Stadium.

Reputations mattered little to the 6.5-point underdogs, grafting their way to glory despite racking up 700 less running metres and missing twice the amount of tackles the Panthers did.

Yes, the only try of the second half to Jake Wardle was more than a little contentious, but the Warriors’ scrambling and last-ditch defence was phenomenal.

Lightweight ex-St George Illawarra fullback Jai Field produced two sensational match-saving tackles in the last 10 minutes, while former Parramatta livewire Bevan French surely piqued some NRL clubs’ interest with a man-of-the-match performance at five-eighth.

What a journey, too, for cult-hero winger Abbas Miski, who played six NRL games for Manly before stints with English Second Division outfits London and Newcastle. Now he’s a Super League grand final winner at Wigan and scored a try in a World Club Challenge triumph.

The Panthers are on their way to creating a legacy as the greatest team of rugby league’s limited-tackle era – but the dynasty now includes the unwanted caveat of becoming just the second team (after Leeds Rhinos in 2009-10) to lose WCC deciders in consecutive years.

The result will have little impact on the $3.75 NRL title favourites’ quest for four in a row, however.

The Panthers were probably always behind the eight-ball travelling to the UK with no footy under their belts, taking on the English champs who had played their Super League opener a week earlier.

Gilbert headlines pre-season heartbreak brigade

Like a pointlessly temporary rule crackdown or a Ricky Stuart press conference meltdown, devastating trial injuries are an unfortunate inevitability of every season.

Dolphins forward Tom Gilbert appears destined to be the 2024 pre-season hard-luck story.

After missing the second half of 2023 due to dislocating his shoulder in the Origin series opener, Gilbert was set for a big campaign as a vital cog in a high-quality Dolphins pack – but it all came crashing down in Auckland as he limped off with a suspected ACL tear.

The Cowboys also look to have suffered a significant engine-room setback they can ill afford with mainstay Coen Hess suffering what is thought to be a serious knee injury in the win over the Raiders in Queanbeyan.

In the silver linings department, ex-Tiger Thomas Mikaele shapes as a readymade replacement, starring with two tries, six tackle-breaks and nine runs for 75 metres during the second half of the same game.

The Roosters’ prized wing recruit, Dom Young, has no confirmed timeframe for a return after a scary neck injury playing against Manly in the first week of the trials, while Souths are still reeling from news strike centre Campbell Graham will be out until August after failing to overcome a sternum complaint.

Like he never left

League-first dual internationals Mat Rogers, Wendell Sailor, Lote Tuqiri, Timana Tahu and Sonny Bill Williams all made memorable returns to the NRL after hitting rugby union’s heights – but Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has the potential to trump them all and become king of the code-hoppers.

The 30-year-old, whose two-year 15-a-side switch was generally regarded as a disappointment despite earning three Tests for the All Blacks, was arguably the standout player of the NRL trials.

Lining up at centre for the first time in a senior rugby league match in the Warriors’ clash with the Tigers in Christchurch, RTS was electric with ball in hand – running for over 100 metres – and producing some outstanding defensive plays before being given an early mark at halftime.

Tuivasa-Sheck was strong again at centre in the first half of Saturday’s win over the Dolphins…but the familiar game-breaking brilliance really came flooding back when he slotted into his customary fullback role after the break with Taine Tuaupiki picking up a corked thigh.

The 2018 Dally M Medal winner finished with a game-high 196 metres and eight tackle-breaks as he tore through the Dolphins’ defence in the middle of the park, and produced a trip-down-memory-lane offload to put Shaun Johnson in the clear and a late try assist for Ali Leiataua.

Despite the RTS masterclass, Warriors coach Andrew Webster clarified that the impressive Tuaupiki will be injured Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad’s replacement in the No.1 during the early rounds.

As Tuivasa-Sheck settles into a new role at centre, it’s probably an astute call.

But if Nicoll-Klokstad was to be out long-term, what would the selection call be then?

With plenty of three-quarter line talent waiting in the wings, surely the Warriors’ best chance to challenge for a premiership (currently presenting mouth-watering value at $21) would be reinstating Tuivasa-Sheck to the position where he’s played 143 NRL games and 13 Tests.

Many argue that it’s the prime option at Webster’s disposal regardless of who’s available, given Nicoll-Klokstad – invaluable at the back in 2023 – has played six Tests for the Kiwis as a centre, the first three due to Tuivasa-Sheck’s presence.

Spine puzzles remain muddled

Taking a cue from Webster, incoming Gold Coast coach Des Hasler seems set to keep AJ Brimson at centre – and he scored a sizzling long-range try in Sunday’s loss to Parramatta – with Keano Kini to fill in at fullback for Jayden Campbell, who is due back from injury in Round 3.

But there’s a nagging notion that for the Titans to be Top 8 contenders (they’re $2.60 outsiders to make the finals), Hasler has to somehow find space for Brimson and Campbell in the spine…with limited halfback Tanah Boyd the likely fall guy.

The Titans’ key-position conundrums pale in comparison to those at Canberra and Canterbury, however.

The Raiders’ bevy of hopefuls to fill the fullback and five-eighth voids all showed glimpses in the win over the Eels and the loss to Cowboys, but none quite demanded Round 1 selection.

Complicating matters, Ethan Strange – who was firming as Jamal Fogarty’s halves partner in a strong showing on Sunday – looks certain to be miss some matches for a dangerous tackle that earned 10 minutes in the bin.

The Bulldogs are in all sorts with synergy in the spine proving elusive in a dour loss to a Nicho Hynes-less Cronulla on the weekend.

Ex-Roosters utility Drew Hutchison got the nod ahead of Toby Sexton at halfback for both trials but failed to fire.

Versatile former Souths playmaker Blake Taafe made four errors at fullback as another custodian option – blue-chip recruit and new captain Stephen Crichton – made a brief club debut at centre.

The Raiders and Bulldogs are $4.50 and $3.20, respectively, to make the Top 8.