Former Bradford Bulls star delighted to be back in action Down Under

Got him: Elliott Whitehead, right, moves in as Melbourne Storm's Tino Fa'asuamaleaui  is tackled by the Canberra Raiders defence. Picture: Quinn Rooney/Getty ImagesGot him: Elliott Whitehead, right, moves in as Melbourne Storm's Tino Fa'asuamaleaui  is tackled by the Canberra Raiders defence. Picture: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images
Got him: Elliott Whitehead, right, moves in as Melbourne Storm's Tino Fa'asuamaleaui is tackled by the Canberra Raiders defence. Picture: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images | 2020 Getty Images
ALTHOUGH frustrated rugby league players here still have some time to wait, England international Elliott Whitehead knows just what it is like to play again post-coronavirus lockdown.

The Bradford-born second-row featured as the NRL made its return at the weekend, helping Canberra Raiders to an impressive 22-6 win behind closed doors at Melbourne Storm.

With Covid-19 deaths and infection rates far lower in Australia compared to England, that competition was always likely to get started again much quicker with Super League unlikely to resume until mid-August.

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It is the first collision sport in the world to restart following the pandemic and, in an exclusive interview with The Yorkshire Post, Whitehead admitted: “It was good to be back.

“It was a little bit different with no crowd there but the NRL have done a good job to get us back playing so early so credit to them.

“It’s a tough place to go down to Melbourne but we played really well and did what we spoke about all week; completing sets and finishing where we wanted to finish.

“I’ve just watched it back and listened to the crowd noises they’ve added for the audio as well and it is really good.”

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The NRL – which shut down on March 23 after playing Round Two in empty stadiums – has won plenty of plaudits for the way it has applied realistic fan audio to its games.

It ebbs and flows with the action on the pitch for a realistic effect for the broadcasting viewer to enjoy, something Super League will surely look to replicate.

There were other alterations on the pitch as well, of course, when the sport kicked off again, including the introduction of the ‘six again’ rule and a return to just one referee.

Whitehead, 30, added: “It’s not as quiet as the second round when the games were so silent.

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Elliott Whitehead: 
Great Britain star. Picture: SWpix.comElliott Whitehead: 
Great Britain star. Picture: SWpix.com
Elliott Whitehead: Great Britain star. Picture: SWpix.com | © Copyright Andrew Cornaga / www.photosport.nz Photosport Ltd 2019 /SWpix.com

“Watching this now, at times you forget there is no crowd there and that’s a real positive.

“With the other changes, we’ve got one referee again and they are trying to speed the game up. I thought it was very positive this weekend. Everyone I spoke to enjoyed watching all the games and it did make it a lot quicker.

“There wasn’t as many stoppages through penalties with the six again rule and I did definitely feel it in the first 20 minutes.

“But we’ve been training hard and they’ve been putting a lot of Ks (kilometres) in our legs over the last couple of weeks before we started. We looked well out there and had a lot of the ball as well which helped but I think we are all right with our fitness.

MAKING HIS MARK: Canberra Raiders' Elliott Whitehead battles against South Sydney Rabbitohs' Sam Burgess at GIO Stadium in September last year. Picture: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)MAKING HIS MARK: Canberra Raiders' Elliott Whitehead battles against South Sydney Rabbitohs' Sam Burgess at GIO Stadium in September last year. Picture: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)
MAKING HIS MARK: Canberra Raiders' Elliott Whitehead battles against South Sydney Rabbitohs' Sam Burgess at GIO Stadium in September last year. Picture: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images) | 2019 Getty Images

“We’ll build up the match fitness these next few weeks.”

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The ‘six again’ rule is designed to speed up the game and reduce the amount of wrestle tactics in the tackle, the referee simply restarting the tackle count instead of awarding a penalty for an offence in the ruck.

The alteration had instant results with the weekend’s games played at breakneck speed and bringing plenty of excitement.

The NRL said the average ball-in-play times for matches across the round increased by two minutes 49 seconds to 57.31 while the number of tackles needed to be made by each team rose on average by 12 per cent.

The fear is larger forwards would struggle in such conditions but Whitehead – the former Bradford Bulls player now in his fifth season with Canberra – believes it actually suits his side who reached the Grand Final last year.

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“To be fair, at Canberra we have a pretty agile pack,” he said, with the likes of England team-mates Josh Hodgson and John Bateman as well as former Wigan Warriors prop Ryan Sutton in their ranks.

“We don’t have too many big boys in our pack and we’re not the biggest pack in the NRL so it probably benefits us in a way.

“Josh (Papalii) is probably our biggest but he moves around like he’s a lot lighter than what he is so the new rule probably is a positive for us. Hopefully, we’ll take the benefits from that and it’ll help us win some more games.”

Canberra, who lost to Sydney Roosters in last year’s showpiece, have won all three of their games so far ahead of Sunday’s game with Newcastle Knights.

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George Williams, the England half-back who joined from Wigan Warriors in the autumn, ran the show against Melbourne.

Whitehead, who played more than 100 Bulls games before joining Catalans Dragons and has earned 20 England caps, toured with Great Britain and become one of the world’s best forwards, added: “The little break and having a few more weeks to work with Jack (Wighton) and Hodgy, to get that combination there has probably really helped George.

“He played really well in round one and two and he’s now backed it up again. He had a great game. All credit to him, he’s been working really hard trying to get those combinations right. It’s showing on the field. Hopefully, they keep doing that as a spine and we can get back to another final.”

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