The season proper is finally here and NRL 2016 gets underway with a series of absorbing encounters featuring subplots aplenty – although there are distinct favourites in just about every game. But there’s no form-guide to go on and a bevy of rookies getting their first taste, so expect the unexpected.
Thursday, 8.05pm: Parramatta Eels v Brisbane Broncos @ Pirtek Stadium
The start of Parramatta’s new blue-and-golden era has hit an early speed-bump with a hamstring injury likely to rule captain and star recruit Kieran Foran out. On the plus, the Eels will be on zero competition points at worst by the end of the weekend. A settled Broncos line-up should be too strong, with Ben Hunt and Anthony Milford to run riot. Tip: Broncos by 10
The Eels might have got the good news they wouldn’t be docked points but it’s not all roses for Parramatta with… https://t.co/ruYvbZqE1Y
— NRL Gossip (@NRLGossip) March 2, 2016
Friday, 8.05pm: Manly Sea Eagles v Canterbury Bulldogs @ Brookvale Oval
After a summer of uncertainty, footy returns to Brookvale – but the Prince of Brookvale, Brett Stewart, is unlikely to be there. Another fullback Brett, the Bulldogs’ Morris, definitely won’t be, which leaves teenage sensation Tom Trbojevic to square off against an under-pressure ex-Eagle, Will Hopoate. Plenty of recruits on show for the home side as well, and Trent Barrett’s NRL coaching career is set to get off to a winning start in a tight one. Tip: Sea Eagles by 4
Saturday, 3.00pm: Canberra Raiders v Penrith Panthers @ GIO Stadium
Canberra has a woeful 2015 home record to atone for, along with some big defensive holes to plug. Penrith will just be grateful to be fielding a starting side with everyone in their regular position, although new skipper Matt Moylan has been ruled out. It will be interesting to see how the Raiders’ halves puzzle plays out with Blake Austin named on the bench, while there’s an equal amount of intrigue on the other side as Soward and Wallace try to save their skin. A flip of the coin in the capital – expect some Round 1 golden point. Tip: Raiders by 1
Saturday, 5.30pm: Wests Tigers v New Zealand Warriors @ Campbelltown Stadium
The Warriors will field their new superstars, while there’s a distinct lack of star power in the Tigers’ 17 – particularly with the injury bug hitting the club early in the season. But the Warriors are Round 1 bunnies, which means nothing can be taken for granted from a team that consistently defies positive expectations. That being said, the Tigers look like wooden spooners and are bound to wilt at the back end of a free-flowing game.The Footy Show‘experts’ tipped 4-1 in favour of the Tigers. Tip: Warriors by 14
— Vodafone Warriors (@NZWarriors) March 2, 2016
Saturday, 7.30pm: North Queensland Cowboys v Cronulla Sharks @ 1300SMILES Stadium
Cronulla is starting to get a bit of support as a premiership smoky, while North Queensland confronts its first exam as defending champion. Arguably the most intriguing clash of the round, with the Sharks fielding some new players and combinations, and the Cowboys lining up 1-17 as they did in the grand final. I think the Sharks are going places, but the Cowboys at home will be too tough…just. Tip: Cowboys 4
Sunday, 4.00pm: Sydney Roosters v South Sydney Rabbitohs @ Allianz Stadium
The traditional season-opening blockbuster has a different flavour this year as player departures, injuries, suspensions and scandals rule a whopping 16 players from the Round 2 clash last season out of this one. Many are tipping both heavyweight to struggle to maintain their status in 2016, so this represents the perfect opportunity to make a statement. Sam Burgess can’t save this side on his own, particularly with his younger brothers sideline, while this is the chance Jackson Hastings has been waiting for to truly show his wears. Tip: Roosters by 12
Sunday, 6.30pm: Gold Coast Titans v Newcastle Knights @ Cbus Super Stadium
The only thing this match is likely to have a bearing on is the wooden-spoon race as two of the weakest rosters in the NRL go hammer-and-tongs on the holiday strip. It’s Round 1, so it still holds some interest – and at least it will be close. Tip: Titans by 4
Monday, 7.00pm: Melbourne Storm v St George Illawarra @ AAMI Park
Ever since being obliterated 70-10 at the MCG in 2000, the Saints have hated travelling to Melbourne. In fact, they’re searching for their first win down south since the joint venture’s ’99 debut season. Both teams have a point to prove after being written off in some quarters, while the likes of Billy Slater and Benji Marshall have their only personal agendas to push with the context of this fascinating Monday-night showdown. Expect this to be the lowest-scoring match of the round. Tip: Storm by 6
ROUND 1 MOST AT STAKE
Andrew McFadden and the Warriors. The big-spending Auckland club are the biggest favourites of the opening round, and a loss to an undermanned Tigers outfit most are tipping for the bottom three would immediately pile pressure on the coach and his star-studded side.
BIG, BAD PREDICTIONS
-Not one golden point game, but two.
-A fired-up Manu Vatuvei to grab a hat-trick at the Tigers’ expense.
-At least one pundit tipping Jackson Hastings as a NSW Origin bolter by the end of the weekend (even if it’s only me).
-Latrell Mitchell, Jayden Nikorima and Cody Walker to all get on the score-sheet on debut.
-Thurston to expose new Sharks centre Jack Bird in defence and shatter Ben Barba’s renewed confidence with a aerial bombardment.
THE SELECTION TABLE
-Kieran Foran is almost certain to be ruled out for Parramatta, with Luke Kelly in the frame to step into the No.7.
-Englishman Greg Eden makes his debut for Brisbane with Lachlan Maranta, Jack Reed and Carlin Anderson all sidelined.
-Apisai Koroisau has won the Manly No.9 jumper; Matt Parcell will rotate at dummy-half off the bench.
-Will Hopoate replaces injured Bulldogs fullback Brett Morris; Chase Stanley takes Hopoate’s place in the centres.
-Blake Austin has been named on the bench as Sam Williams and big-name recruit Aidan Sezer claim the Raiders’ halves spots.
-Will Smith has been chosen at Matt Moylan’s fullback substitute, with Dallin Watene-Zeleniak staying on the wing and Peta Hiku making his Penrith debut at centre.
-Jack Littlejohn stands in at halfback for the suspended Luke Brooks, while Manaia Cherrington will wear the Tigers’ No.9 in the absence of Robbie Farah and Matt Ballin.
-Blake Ayshford has been picked in the centres for the Warriors ahead of Konrad Hurrell; hooker Nathaniel Roache will debut off the bench.
-Ben Barba and Jack Bird will line up at fullback and centre respectively for Cronulla.
-Latrell Mitchell, Jayden Nikorima and Vincent Leuluai will all debut for the Roosters.
-Hymel Hunt has ousted Kirisome Auva’a for a Rabbitohs centre spot.
-Jaelen Feeney is Newcastle’s new fullback; Jake Mamo and Nathan Ross miss out on the Knights’ starting side.
-Josh Dugan switches to the centres for the Dragons, with Kurt Mann taking over the fullback duties.
McFadden has punted Glen Fisiahii, Ngani Laumape and Konrad Hurrell but kept Jono Wright and Blake Ayshford.
This man must be stopped
— Random Footy Facts (@footyfacts37) March 2, 2016
-The Warriors have not won a Round 1 match since 2009.
-Manly has lost four in a row against Canterbury – and seven of the last nine.
-The Sharks have lost five of their last six Round 1 games.
-The Roosters have not beaten the Rabbitohs twice in a row since 2010-11.
-The Titans have not beaten the Knights at home since 2009.
-The Dragons have not won in Melbourne since 1999, and have won just six of 29 matches against the Storm since then.
-Nines Player of the Tournament Corey Norman squares off against should-have-been Churchill medallist Anthony Milford.
-Queensland halfbacks Daly Cherry-Evans and Moses Mbye are set for an intriguing duel.
-Roger Tuivasa-Sheck makes his club debut for the Warriors opposite James Tedesco, who is getting a big push for NSW Origin selection in 2016.
-Taumololo v Gallen – KABOOM!
-What a test for Blake Ferguson as he takes over the Roosters’ No.1 jumper, lining up against Greg Inglis.
-Billy Slater is scheduled to make a long-awaited comeback and former teammate Kurt Mann will be the opposing fullback.
-Josh Morris needs just one try to bring up 100 in his NRL career; he and twin Brett would become the first brothers in premiership history to cross for a century of tries each.
-Brett Stewart (162 tries) is only two tries short of breaking into the top five of all time, while Manu Vatuvei requires four tries to become just the 11th player in history to break the 150-try barrier.
-Cameron Smith needs just a solitary point on Monday to become only the eighth player ever to reach 1800 first-grade points – but Johnathan Thurston will beat him to it if he scores six points on Saturday.
THIS WEEK IN HISTORY
2000: Melbourne destroyed St George Illawarra 70-10 in a grand final rematch at the MCG – after injured Dragons star Anthony Mundine had labelled the Storm “pretenders”.
1997: The Super League premiership kicked off in front of 42,361 fans at Brisbane’s ANZ Stadium, with the Broncos subduing the Warriors 14-2 in a scrappy affair.
1994:Rugby League Weekreports rumours of a breakaway competition as relations between the Broncos and the NSWRL contain to strain. Little over a year later, the Super League war erupted.
1988: Eastern Suburbs and St George played the first premiership match at the brand new Sydney Football Stadium, with home side the Roosters prevailing 24-14.
1988: Brisbane Broncos entered the NSWRL premiership with a bang, disposing of premiers Manly 44-10 on an unforgettable afternoon at Lang Park.