The opening round of the 2015 premiership gets underway with eight encounters that are mouth-watering and intriguing in their own right. We run the rule over Round 1 and give you some tipping help if you’re sitting on the fence with any of these incredibly even encounters.
THURSDAY, MARCH 5
Brisbane Broncos v South Sydney Rabbitohs @ Suncorp Stadium, 8.05pm (AEDT)
The storyline: The messiah, Wayne Bennett, begins his journey to restoring the Broncos to the premiership penthouse against the defending premiers. A near-sellout at Suncorp sets the scene for one of the great season openers.
The selection table: Lachlan Maranta has snared a wing spot at the expense of Daniel Vidot, who will play prop in Queensland Cup instead this weekend, while Aaron Whitchurch looks to have pipped Kodi Nikorima for a bench spot. Six changes to Souths’ Grand Final side, with Glenn Stewart making his first NRL appearance for the club and boom forward Chris Grevsmuhl named for his first grade debut.
The match-up: Anthony Milford and Ben Hunt v Luke Keary and Adam Reynolds – a preview of future Origin series?
The history: The Broncos hold a 21-8-1 record over the Rabbitohs, who have prevailed in the last three meetings.
The last time they met: Greg Inglis went berserk with an incredible hat-trick as Souths swept to a 42-16 win in Round 23 at ANZ Stadium.
The stat: Defending premiers have won 10 and lost six of their Round 1 matches during the NRL era.
The verdict: The occasion and atmosphere is set to fire up the home side, with Anthony Milford destined for a blinder on club debut. Broncos by 2
FRIDAY, MARCH 6
Parramatta Eels v Manly Sea Eagles @ Pirtek Stadium, 7.45pm
The storyline: Anthony Watmough faces off against his old club and goes on a seek-and-destroy mission for Daly Cherry-Evans as one of the NRL’s traditional rivalries steps up several notches.
The selection table: Will Hopoate has first crack at the Eels’ fullback spot, with Beau Champion and Brad Takairangi in the centres and Reece Robinson on the wing. Brad Arthur’s embarrassment of forward riches are emphasised by the absence of Kenny Edwards and Peni Terepo, while Pauli Pauli is 19th man. Josh Starling is out injured for Manly, but there’s no room for 18th man Justin Horo as Feleti Mateo gets a start in the backrow. Luke Burgess makes his debut for the club, while Clint Gutherson fills in at centre for Steve Matai.
The match-up: The much-improved Corey Norman goes head-to-head with the superstar hotly tipped to join the Eels and take his spot in 2016, Kieran Foran.
The history: Manly holds an imposing 82-46-4 record over Parramatta, including wins in 11 of the last 15 encounters.
The last time they met: Chris Sandow, Jarryd Hayne and Semi Radradra inspired the Eels to a stirring 22-12 upset of ladder leaders Manly in front of 17,706 home fans late last season.
The stat: Parramatta won seven of their nine matches at Pirtek Stadium in 2014.
The tip: Too many disruptions and withdrawals for the Sea Eagles to keep up with a fizzing Eels outfit, who will be spurred on by a bumper crowd. Eels by 7
SATURDAY, MARCH 7
Newcastle Knights v New Zealand Warriors @ Hunter Stadium, 4.30pm
The storyline: The Knights, unbeatable at home at the back-end of 2014, begin a new chapter under Rick Stone against a Warriors side desperate to shed the slow-starters and poor-travellers tags.
The selection table: Sione Mata’utia has ludicrously been overlooked for the Knights, with Kurt Gidley at fullback and Uate and McManus on the flanks. Centre Solomone Kata and forwards Sam Lisone and Albert Vete have been picked for NRL debuts in the Warriors line-up, while Sam Tomkins is in serious doubt; Tuimoala Lolohea, who has been named on the wing, will shift to fullback if the Englishman pulls out. Recruits Ryan Hoffman and Bodene Thompson form a new Warriors second-row pairing.
The match-up: Golden Boot winner Shaun Johnson is setting out to dominate the NRL in 2015, while it’s a make-or-break year for Knights No.7 Tyrone Roberts.
The history: The Knights have won 16 and the Warriors 15 with one drawn in 32 matches between the clubs.
The last time they met: Sione Mata’utia scored a hat-trick in the Knights’ thrilling 28-22 win at home in Round 23.
The stat: The Warriors have lost 14 of their 19 opening-round matches, including 10 of their last 12, and their last five in succession.
The verdict: The Warriors will hit the ground running after a full off-season under the Cleary-like influence of Andrew McFadden, while counterpart Stone will regret omitting an incumbent Australian Test player. Warriors by 6
Gold Coast Titans v Wests Tigers @ Robina Stadium, 7.00pm
The storyline: The embattled Titans, severely depleted by the recent cocaine scandal, attempt to combat the Tigers’ electrifying array of young talent in their first match under new coach Jason Taylor.
The selection table: The erratic Will Zillman continues to hold onto the Titans’ No.1 jumper, with Josh Hoffman lining up in the centres. Ryan James and Matt Robinson start in the second-row for the stood-down Bird and Taylor. The Tigers are almost at full-strength, with Kevin Naiqama on the wing for the injured David Nofoaluma the only exception.
The match-up: Former Panthers hooker Kierran Moseley is a hot prospect and goes head-to-head with Robbie Farah in his first match for the Titans.
The history: The Titans lead the head-to-head count 7-6, including a 4-2 record at Robina.
The last time they met: After being trounced 42-12 in Round 2 at Robina, the Titans pulled off a 22-6 win at Leichhardt six weeks later.
The stat: Luke Douglas returns to the Titans’ line-up after a late-2014 ASADA suspension ended the front-row ironman’s premiership record streak of 215 consecutive games.
The verdict: A Cronulla-like triumph under adversity is unlikely, with the Tigers’ attacking guns compounding the Titans’ woes. Tigers by 22
North Queensland Cowboys v Sydney Roosters @ 1300SMILES Stadium, 9.00pm (AEDT)
The storyline: The Cowboys, who every man and his dog are tipping for a maiden premiership triumph, are out for semi-final retribution after their dramatic loss to the Roosters during the 2014 post-season.
The selection table: Lachlan Coote misses the cut in an unchanged Cowboys backline, while Ben Hannant and Ethan Lowe grab starts in the place of the departed Sims brothers. Blake Ferguson lines up for the Roosters at centre, bumping Kiwi Test man Shaun Kenny-Dowall to the wing. Matt McIllwrick fills in at hooker for injured co-captain Jake Friend.
The match-up: In his first match as skipper, Mitchell Pearce – who was in career-best form in late-2014 – squares off against the game’s No.1 player, the mercurial Johnathan Thurston.
The history: The Roosters have won 22 of 31 matches against the Cowboys, including 11 of 15 away.
The last time they met: One of the most incredible finals match ever played. The Cowboys fought back from a 30-0 scoreline to draw level, only to go down 31-30 after a try on the bell was disallowed.
The stat: Ferguson will be ending a 574-day NRL exile on Saturday.
The verdict: A strong match of the round contender, the Cowboys have to be favoured on their home track as the Roosters adjust to life without Mini and SBW. Cowboys by 8
SUNDAY, MARCH 8
Penrith Panthers v Canterbury Bulldogs @ Pepper Stadium, 4.00pm
The storyline: Two bona fide top-four hopefuls face off in a Round 1 blockbuster and preliminary final rematch. It’s also a historic one as Nine broadcasts the Sunday footy live after years of taking Rugby League fans for chumps.
The selection table: George Jennings replaced the injured Josh Mansour, while the Panthers are also missing Adam Docker and Nigel Plum. Brett Morris and Curtis Rona join Sam Perrett in the back-three of a full-strength Bulldogs side.
The match-up: The new superstar, Matt Moylan, up against the new fullback, Brett Morris.
The history: Canterbury has won 46, Penrith has won 34 and four have been drawn in 86 clashes.
The last time they met: The Bulldogs juggernaut outlasted the Panthers 18-12 in an absorbing preliminary final.
The stat: The Panthers have won nine of the last 14 against the Bulldogs, including five of the last seven at the delightfully renamed Pepper Stadium.
The verdict: An absolute belter that will go down to the wire. The Bulldogs’ pack may just get the visitors over the line, but the clutch form of Moylan and Soward could also prove crucial. Panthers by 1
Cronulla Sharks v Canberra Radiers @ Remondis Stadium, 6.30pm
The storyline: Emerging from two years of ASADA-related torment, the new-look Sharks are endeavouring to assert themselves as finals contenders against a Raiders side rated by virtually no one.
The selection table: David Fifita, Jack Bird and Valentine Holmes have been named on an extended bench, while returning duo Mitch Brown and Jayson Bukuya have nabbed starts for the Sharks. As expected Jack Wighton lines up at fullback and Blake Austin five-eighth for the Raiders. Edrick Lee is a surprise pick at centre, with Jordan Rapana and Sisa Waqa on the wings. Sia Soliola starts in the Green Machine’s second-row.
The match-up: Cronulla has pinned its hopes on Ben Barba at five-eighth and his battle with new Canberra No.6 Blake Austin is an intriguing one.
The history: Cronulla leads the all-time win tally 33 to 29.
The last time they met: Canberra won a battle of the cellar-dwellers 22-12 in Round 24 at Remondis last year, with Anthony Milford scoring two tries.
The stat: The Sharks have lost four of their last five in Round 1, the Raiders seven of their last eight.
The verdict: It won’t be quite the landslide the odds are indicating, but the Sharks should have too much class in a battle between two sides trying to cement new combinations. Sharks by 8
MONDAY, MARCH 9
St George Illawarra Dragons v Melbourne Storm @ WIN Jubilee Oval, 7.00pm
The storyline: A modern-day grudge match between two sides tipped to slide by the pundits in the wake of key off-season departures.
The selection table: Dane Nielsen and Eto Nabuli join a new-look Dragons three-quarter line, while George Rose and interchange Rory O’Brien are the new faces up front. Kurt Mann slots into centre for Melbourne, and five-eighth Blake Green and lock Dale Finucane make their first appearances for the club, but the big story is Cameron Smith’s shock early return from ankle surgery.
The match-up: Slater v Dugan – a likely 2015 Origin preview and a cracking one-on-one showdown every day of the week.
The history: The Storm have won 20 and the Dragons eight with one match drawn.
The last time they met: The Dragons prevailed 24-12 in Wollongong in Round 16 last year, gaining revenge for the contentious after-the-bell loss in Melbourne 10 weeks earlier (see video below).
The stat: Melbourne has not defeated the Saints away from home since 2007.
The verdict: Another incredibly even match-up with the Dragons’ Dugan, Widdop and Marshall going up against the traditional ‘Big Three’, the edge goes to the home side in this one. Dragons by 2