Double trouble: NRL big guns’ Challenge on the Coast

South Sydney Rabbitohs, Manly Sea Eagles, Newcastle Knights and Cronulla Sharks will give footy fans their first taste of big-time rugby league in 2023 when they feature in an NRL Pre-Season Challenge double-header at the Central Coast’s Industree Group Stadium on Friday night. MATT CLEARY reports.


Until authorities deem that it’s time for the NSW Central Coast to have its own NRL club and play out of Gosford’s Industree Group Stadium, the home team for locals at the cracking 20,000-seater with the palm trees and water views a stone’s throw from the local Leagues Club is, nominally, the Newcastle Knights.

And the Knights of the nearby Hunter Valley, who finished equal-second-last on the ladder in 2022 and ran seventh for two seasons before that following a finals drought that lasted six years, will take ‘em where they can get ‘em.

On Friday night at Industree Group Stadium they’ll take on Cronulla Sharks in the first game of the NRL Pre-Season Challenge double-header that also features the Manly Sea Eagles and South Sydney Rabbitohs. Both of these latter clubs are regular visitors to the Coast and have a large local fan base of their own as a result.

Cronulla were strong last year and will be keen to keep their dorsal fin on the Knights’ steel helmet. While resting many of their stars, Sharks captain Wade Graham will run out at five-eighth and cult front-rower Toby Rudolph will start up front against the formidable Saifiti brothers, Daniel and Jacob.

Elsewhere a son of a gun in Jack Johns will start in the second row for the team his father Matthew Johns played 176 games for. At fullback, the 20-year-old Englishman Bailey Hodgson will audition for the No.1 jumper it’s believed Kalyn Ponga will swap for the No.6 this season.

But many eyes, as they often are, will be on Knights’ mercurial halfback Jackson Hastings. Now with his sixth club in a tumultuous career that began in 2014 with Sydney Roosters, the 27-year-old has been saying all the right things since arriving in the Hunter Valley.

But Hasting knows as well as anyone that you can’t con the Newcastle faithful. There is no more passionate and knowledgeable league fan-base. And Hastings, as a senior player and general, will “own” results, good and ill. And if he’s to endear himself to league-loving Knights folk, he’ll need to be winning. They say it starts on Monday. For Hastings it starts Friday night at 5:55pm.

Two hours and five minutes later the Sea Eagles and Rabbitohs will contest Game 2 of the evening’s double-header. Big names will be scant but there’ll be interest in seeing Matthew Johns’ other son Cooper Johns running out in Manly’s No.6 jumper after two years in the Melbourne Storm man-factory.

Elsewhere, Toafofoa Sipley will captain the side from the front-row with Ben Trbojevic and Ethan Bullmore to get plenty of minutes to impress new coach Anthony Siebold and stake claims for starting roles in 2023.

In the Cardinal and Myrtle, keep an eye on rampaging lock forward Tallis Duncan, 21, who was named after the firebrand Broncos champion Gorden Tallis. Duncan’s battle with Sipley, Bullemor and Trbojevic should define dominance in the opening, “softening-up” stanza.

What does it matter? Plenty. It’s worth $100,000 to the winning club and is something of a points-based petri dish for the NRL.

Consider: Each game is worth 12 points for a win, six points for a draw and zero for a loss. Winning teams can collect up to 15 points a game via bonus points. Drawn games can earn a team up to nine points. Even a loss, your team can earn three points.

How is it so? As Renee Gartner explains, the Pre-Season Challenge is like a pseudo Fantasy Football tournament. One bonus point will be gained for scoring five tries or more. Teams can earn a bonus point for making five or more line breaks. Your team can earn a bonus point for 10 or more offloads.

After each team plays two games, this weekend and next, they’ll add up all the points and award the team with the most $100,000 as champions of the Pre-Season Challenge.

You can secure Premium Seating and VIP Access for ALL events at Industree Group Stadium by becoming a Stadium Member. Details of the Stadium Membership offer are here.


Tickets include both games.

Important information:

  • Arrive Early to minimise wait times for entry to the stadium, gates open from 5:15pm
  • Have your tickets ready and downloaded before you arrive at the turnstiles to minimise entry delays.
  • Tickets allow access to BOTH games.
  • Food and Bars will be open all around the venue- please remember we are a CASHLESS Venue.
  • Merchandise from Rabbitohs, Manly Sea Eagles and Sharks will be available at the stadium- all 3 clubs will have vans located on Dane Drive near the Eastern entry gates and Rabbitohs will have additional merchandise outlets inside the stadium.

Key Timings

2:15 pm Ticket office 3 (West) open
4:30 pm Ticket office 1 opens (East) open
5:15 pm Gates open
5:55 pm Game 1- Knights v Sharks kick off
8:00 pm Game 2- Rabbitohs v Sea Eagles kick off
9:45 pm Full Time (approx)