NRL season opens with controversy, and loss, for Brisbane

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SYDNEY (AP) — The National Rugby League's opening round got off to a controversial start when a player sidelined for two years after pleading guilty to a vicious assault in New York City returned to play for the Brisbane Broncos.

Matt Lodge endured an up-and-down first night of the season in the Broncos' 34-12 loss to St. George Illawarra Thursday. The 22-year-old prop, subject of intense scrutiny for the past month, was jeered and verbally abused by the Jubilee Oval crowd in Sydney every time he touched the ball.

Lodge still owes more than 1 million dollars in damages to the victims of the 2015 incident, for which he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor reckless assault charge. He avoided a 12-month jail term in the U.S. with the plea deal but the victims say they have not received any payments.

The Broncos player broke his silence in a television interview aired the day before the match, apologizing to the victims and saying he has since been reformed. But that did little to silence the critics who feel he should not be playing in the NRL.

"I wasn't disappointed with Matt," Brisbane coach Wayne Bennett said. "He had to start somewhere. We got him on the footy field tonight and got him playing football."

The Melbourne Storm, which beat North Queensland 34-6 in last year's grand final, begins the defense of its title on Saturday against the Canterbury Bulldogs in Perth, one of eight weekend matches.

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