Sydney Roosters v South Sydney Rabbitohs (Thursday 8:05pm: AEDT)
Roosters: Trent Robinson will be looking for more of the same from his line-up, of which 16 are backing up from last year’s Grand Final. Maintaining their trademark aggression and commitment to keeping their line intact will be a top priority as the Roosters start their arduous premiership defence, while Robinson will be eager to stamp out any semblance of complacency from the champs.
Rabbitohs: After their big-match failings at the end of 2013, Souths need to impose themselves on this high-powered contest – or risk being blown away by the well-oiled Roosters, consequently suffering another confidence-shattering blow. Michael Maguire has been forced to re-jig his backline in wake of off-season departures and injuries, with his determination to move captain John Sutton to lock and Luke Keary’s sidelining resulting in teenage centre Dylan Walker moving to five-eighth. Walker and halfback linchpin Adam Reynolds are under an injury cloud heading into this one; Maguire will be desperate for the young pair to get through the match with their fitness and confidence intact.
Canterbury Bulldogs v Brisbane Broncos (Friday 8:05pm: AEDT)
Bulldogs: Urgency and enthusiasm will be at the top of Des Hasler’s wish-list after his team’s lacklustre finish to 2013. A slew of injury problems have bobbed up to decimate the Bulldogs’ Round 1 line-up – particularly their backline – but a strong showing by Sam Perrett in the troublesome fullback spot and similar from debutant winger Corey Thompson and centre recruit Chase Stanley would be a positive start to the club’s resurgence. Overreliance on gritty five-eighth Josh Reynolds will bring Canterbury undone.
Broncos: Atrocious in virtually every department in their big trial loss to the Warriors, the areas of most glaring deficiency were lack of direction and impetus in the halves, and the complete absence of desperation in defence. Under pressure coach Anthony Griffin has pitched Josh Hoffman into the five-eighth spot after rookie Kodi Nikorima’s mixed bag pre-season, but Ben Hunt is the player who needs to step up now he has a free run at making the No.7 jumper his own. An authoritative performance from their front-rowers is vital after being exposed up the middle by the Warriors, with Corey Parker named at prop in an NRL match for the first time since 2005. Marquee recruit Ben Barba needs to inject some life into the Broncos’ listless backline.
Penrith Panthers v Newcastle Knights (Saturday 4:30pm: AEDT)
Panthers: The days of flying under the radar are over for Ivan Cleary’s men in the wake of an aggressive recruitment campaign, and his side needs to make a statement at home against the Knights on Saturday. The knives will be out immediately if incoming high-profile halves Jamie Soward and Peter Wallace struggle; ditto for giant centre enigma Jamal Idris. A loss would be a real blow to the Panthers’ confidence, and Cleary will be seeking attacking cohesion from his new-look line-up.
Knights: Wayne Bennett will have placed paramount importance on his side putting a nightmare off-season behind them with a positive performance first up on the road. A strong showing at five-eighth by Michael Dobson would solve the Knights’ foremost line-up concern, allowing Kurt Gidley and Darius Boyd to remain in the No.9 and No.1 respectively until Jarrod Mullen returns.
Manly Sea Eagles v Melbourne Storm (Saturday 7:00pm: AEDT)
Sea Eagles: Manly boasts the best halves pairing in the game and a peerless backline (although wingers David Williams and Jorge Taufua will be missing through injury this week); coach Geoff Toovey’s main concern will be the performance of a young and inexperienced prop rotation. With Brent Kite, Richie Fa’aoso, David Gower and Joe Galuvao gone, and Jason King still injured, the onus falls on tyros Josh Starling, Dunamis Lui and James Hasson to fill the front-row breach in Round 1 alongside 2013 breakout performer Brenton Lawrence, who is all of a sudden Manly’s top prop.
Storm: The importance of Melbourne’s opening-round trip to Brookvale is two-pronged: the Storm need to put last season’s big-match fadeouts behind them as soon as possible, and they have to prove they can be competitive without constant reliance on the ‘Big Three’. Cooper Cronk’s injury withdrawal has pitched the notoriously erratic Ben Roberts into the No.7 jumper; if Craig Bellamy can turn Roberts into a fully functional NRL footballer, it will rank at the top of his myriad transformation achievements.
North Queensland Cowboys v Canberra Raiders (Saturday 9:00pm: AEDT)
Cowboys: After such an impressive pre-season campaign, anything less than a commanding win over Canberra at home will be a disappointment, while a loss would be disastrous for the most resounding favourites of Round 1. The performances of makeshift fullback Michael Morgan, and inconsistent backrowers Jason Taumololo and Tariq Sims will be keenly watched by new coach Paul Green.
Raiders: They face arguably the tallest task of any side in Round 1, but it is vital Canberra starts in positive fashion in their first match under Ricky Stuart. Fielding a far from settled line-up, Stuart will be looking for the new halves combination of Terry Campese and Jack Wighton to fire, along with centre debutant Matt Allwood. Veteran props Dane Tilse and Brett White can make a statement up against the current Australian front-row duo with David Shillington and Tom Learoyd-Lahrs on the injured list.
St George Illawarra Dragons v Wests Tigers (Sunday 3:00pm: AEDT)
Dragons: Following an insipid Charity Shield performance, under-fire coach Steve Price needs his Dragons to tighten up defensively and play more direct with the ball in hand. There’s not too many teams the Saints would be tipped to beat at present, but if they can’t get over the injury-hit Tigers, Price should start updating his résumé for an inevitable job hunt. Josh Dugan’s injury absence is a blow, but stand-in Adam Quinlan is a real talent. Price has sprung a major surprise by starting Michael Witt at halfback ahead of Sam Williams.
Tigers: A spate of pre-season injuries gives Michael Potter’s Round 1 line-up a patched together look, but there is a fair smattering of experience across the board. Stiff defence in the middle of the park and a confident display from highly touted halfback Luke Brooks will be Potter’s priorities, while Braith Anasta putting his stamp on the No.6 would be a huge bonus. The Tigers have plenty of firepower out wide if their inside men can get it together.
Parramatta Eels v New Zealand Warriors (Sunday 6:30pm: AEDT)
Eels: Easily the worst defensive side in the NRL for the last two seasons, Parramatta’s steel and commitment without the ball will be incoming coach Brad Arthur’s foremost concern – particularly with debutant Manu Ma’u and one-gamer Kenny Edwards starting in the pack, backed up by a young bench. The success of spine signings Corey Norman and Nathan Peats will have a major bearing on the Eels’ season and Arthur will be looking for the recruits to make an immediate impact.
Warriors: Matt Elliott’s charges were given a 40-10 bath by the Eels in Round 1 last season and took half a season to recover – a win this Sunday is imperative in the wake of their resounding pre-season form. Elliott sprung the selection bombshell of Round 1 by opting for Carlos Tuimavave at right centre ahead of popular wrecking ball Konrad Hurrell, with bumbling defensive specialist Dane Nielsen stationed on the left. Tuimavave and Nielsen line-up against Will Hopoate and Willie Tonga, and the eccentric mentor will be praying his gamble doesn’t blow up in his face.
Cronulla Sharks v Gold Coast Titans (Monday 7:00pm: AEDT)
Sharks: A sense of déjà vu surrounds the beginning of Cronulla’s 2014 campaign, with the club again eager to prove the ASADA saga will not disrupt their on-field performances under caretaker coach Peter Sharp. Maintaining the structures that have been successful under Shane Flanagan is important, while improving their tryscoring output – a perennial bugbear – will be a priority, which could prove difficult on Monday if Todd Carney is ruled out. Backline recruits Daniel Holdsworth, who is in for injured halfback Jeff Robson, and centre Blake Ayshford will be keen to impress on club debut.
Titans: The ninth-placed Titans’ defensive stats were well below that of the top eight sides in 2013, and coaching duo John Cartwright and Neil Henry will have pinpointed that as an essential area of improvement for this year’s campaign. The six-man bench named for Round 1 highlights the Titans’ forward depth – they need to dominate up front to give backline weapons Albert Kelly, Kevin Gordon and David Mead space to work their magic. The new centre pairing of Maurice Blair and Brad Tighe has to aim up straight away to keep the likes of Brad Takairangi and Kalifa Fai fai Loa at bay.
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Will has published two books on Rugby League: