NRL AUCKLAND NINES
What: Last year’s inaugural nine-a-side competition heralded a pre-season rugby league revolution. The Eden Park-hosted event was wildly popular, attracting sell-out crowds and sensational footy to douse the doubters.
When: January 31-February 1
Defending champs: The North Queensland Cowboys – minus rested superstar Johnathan Thurston – were the surprise victors in 2014, with the likes of captain Gavin Cooper and relative unknown Kyle Feldt starring. The Cowboys defeated archrivals the Brisbane Broncos in the all-Queensland final after bouncing the red-hot New Zealand Warriors out at the semi-final stage.
Bookies’ favourite: The Warriors, boasting hometown support and a stack of electrifying players, will head in as pronounced favourites for the second year running. The Cowboys, who will have Thurston on deck this time around, are clear second favourites.
Comm Box smoky: Cronulla surprised a few last year to reach the semis, and with new recruit Ben Barba combining with the likes of Valentine Holmes, Andrew Fifita, Wade Graham and Sosaia Feki, the Sharks should exceed their mid-range billing once again.
What: The 2015 NRL season promises to just as wide open as last year’s competition, with the heavyweight clubs all losing key personnel and most mid-table contenders bolstering their rosters significantly.
When: March 5-October 4
Defending champs: The South Sydney Rabbitohs broke a 43-year drought to claim an emotional premiership, defeating the gallant Canterbury Bulldogs – who charged from seventh spot to a place in the decider – 32-8 in the grand final.
Bookies’ favourite: The Rabbitohs, who have lost stars Sam Burgess and Ben Te’o to rugby union, are narrow favourites ahead of archrivals the Sydney Roosters, who will be without Anthony Minichiello and Sonny Bill Williams but have picked up controversial, ultra-talented back Blake Ferguson.
Comm Box smoky: The Warriors shape as a dark horse every year, but Shaun Johnson’s blistering Four Nations form could be the catalyst for the No.7 becoming the NRL’s dominant player. Also look for the exuberant Wests Tigers to contend under new coach Jason Taylor – if the club can shed its horror run with injuries.
STATE OF ORIGIN SERIES
What: The three-match interstate series remains as popular and high-quality as ever. The 2015 edition promises to be the most anticipated in years – arguably more than any series since the early-1990s – after the record-breaking Queenslanders were knocked from their perch last season. NSW have lost talismanic fullback Jarryd Hayne, but a stack of new young internationals have bolstered the Blues’ pool of talent. The Maroons’ brilliant, but ageing, line-up has plenty to prove. The Melbourne Cricket Ground will host the second match of the series.
When: May 27-July 8
Defending champs: New South Wales broke Queensland’s eight-year stranglehold on the Origin shield with pulsating 12-8 and 6-4 wins in the opening two games, before the Maroons struck back with a convincing dead-rubber victory.
Bookies’ favourite: Queensland has been installed as narrow favourites despite last year’s watershed defeat.
Potential bolters: Ben Hunt, Dale Copley, Anthony Milford (Queensland); David Klemmer, Alex Johnston, Matt Moylan, Aiden Tolman, Dylan Walker, Sione Mata’utia (New South Wales).
What: The 2015 premiership starts late to accommodate the Cricket World Cup, which will only ensure anticipation for another bumper season ramps up to fever pitch before the first bounce in April.
When: April 2-Oct 3
Defending champs: Underdogs the Hawthorn Hawks swamped the Sydney Swans – and former Hawks superstar Buddy Franklin – by 63 points in the grand final.
Bookies’ favourite: The Hawks have been installed as favourites by the barest of margins ahead of the Swans, with 2014 movers Port Adelaide not far behind.
Comm Box smoky: A shock premier is far less likely in the AFL than the NRL, but with Gary Ablett back on deck after an injury-halted 2014 and the arrival of veteran coach Rodney Eade, a maiden finals berth and a September charge could be on the cards for the Gold Coast Suns.
SUPER XV COMPETITION
What: The tri-nation rugby union competition has come of age in recent seasons after being extended, while the conference format – which ensures more local derbies – has also improved the Super XV markedly. Five teams from each of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa will battle it out for supremacy over 18 rounds, which, significantly, will not be interrupted by a midyear break for internationals.
When: February 13-July 4
Defending champs: The NSW Waratahs finished top of the table and claimed their maiden title with an epic 33-32 defeat of the Canterbury Crusaders in the final.
Bookies’ favourite: The Waratahs and Crusaders are co-favourites, a smidgen ahead of the Chiefs and the Sharks.
Comm Box smoky: Don’t count the Queensland Reds out despite their 13th-placed finish in 2014. An injury-free Quade Cooper and Will Genia, combined with new arrivals James O’Connor, Karmichael Hunt and former All Black Adam Thomson, should see the 2011 champs contend for the crown again this season.
RUGBY UNION WORLD CUP
What: The seventh edition of the Rugby World Cup will be hosted by England and Wales, bringing the traditionally underperforming Northern Hemisphere nations into the equation. Perennial powerhouses New Zealand and South Africa are the teams to beat in the 20-nation tournament, while the other two-time champions, Australia, are behind the eight ball after a miserable 2014.
When: September 18-October 31
Defending champs: The All Blacks, inaugural winners in 1987, shook off their ‘chokers’ tag to win the William Webb Ellis Trophy for the second time on home soil in 2011 – but only just, pipping France 8-7 in a nerve-jangling final.
Bookies’ favourite: The All Blacks are emphatic favourites ahead of England and South Africa, while Australia is well back on the fourth line of betting.
Comm Box smoky: Defending Six Nations champs Ireland defeated the Springboks and Wallabies in recent months, while they went within seconds of a maiden win over the All Blacks at the end of 2013 – the men in green are genuine threats.
CRICKET WORLD CUP
What: The 11th ICC World Cup, featuring the top 14 one-day cricket nations, will be played in New Zealand and Australia during February and March. The perennial powerhouses – Australia, South Africa and India – have not been as dominant of late, and the 2015 tournament shapes as being one of the most open on record. The teams have been split into two pools, and after 42 pool matches, the top four teams from each pool will contest the quarter-finals. The MCG will host the final, as it did in the 1992 edition.
When: February 14-March 29
Defending champs: Co-hosts India won the 2011 tournament by downing Sri Lanka by six wickets with 10 balls to spare in the final. It was India’s first success since 1983.
Bookies’ favourite: Despite the likely absence of Michael Clarke and a few key underperforming players, Australia are clear favourites ahead of South Africa and India.
Comm Box smoky: New Zealand made a memorable charge to the semis on home soil in 1992, and with the likes of Brendon McCullum, Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor in sizzling form, and wily veteran Daniel Vettori complementing a burgeoning pace attack, the Black Caps are capable of going all the way.
What: The most hallowed series in Test cricket – Australia v England – gets underway in England in July. England won their last home Ashes series, in 2013, fairly convincingly, before being trounced Down Under. Australia has continued its steady rise back towards the top of the Test pecking order, while England has slipped down to third and faces some tough selection decisions ahead of the Ashes.
When: July 8-August 24
Defending champs: Australia won the 2013-14 series on home soil 5-0 despite going in as underdogs, obliterating England with bat and ball as Mitchell Johnson, David Warner and Brad Haddin went on a six-week rampage.
Bookies’ favourite: Australia are favourites, although England’s home advantage has narrowed the gap considerably to what it would be on current form.
AUSTRALIAN OPEN TENNIS
What: The grand slam season kicks off with the 103rd edition of the Australian Open in Melbourne.
When: January 14-February 1
Defending champs: Switzerland’s Stanis Wawrinka became the first man outside the ‘Big 3’ (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic) to win the Australian Open since 2005, defeating Nadal in four sets in the final. China’s Li Na, who has since retired, won her second grand slam tournament by downing Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova in straight sets in the final.
Bookies’ favourite: Djokovic is miles ahead in men’s betting, while Federer, Nadal and Andy Murray are clustered close together for second billing. Sarena Williams is similarly favoured to take out the women’s.
Comm Box smoky: Could we see an Australian reach the final for the first time since Lleyton Hewitt in 2005? Nick Kyrgios’ Wimbeldon charge suggests he has the talent and temperament to navigate his way through the men’s draw. Canadian Eugenie Bouchard made the semis of the Australian and French Opens, and was runner-up at Wimbeldon – a breakthrough grand slam triumph could be just around the corner.
What: The 2013-2014 season was simply breathtaking – some are calling in the most entertaining Premier League season since the First Division was rebranded in 1992.
When: August 16, 2014 – May 25, 2015 (AEST)
Defending champs: Manchester City – Chelsea jumped out of the blocks and many thought that was that, but as round 20 came to a close Chelsea found themselves level with Manchester City on 46 points (both have 14 wins, 4 draws, 2 losses, 44 goals for and 19 against).
Bookies’ favourite: Chelsea – it was argued that all was missing from the Chelsea campaign in 2013-14 was a dominate creative midfielder and a classy finisher. In Cesc Fabregas and Diago Costa, Chelsea has their wish and deserves to be favourites. The two editions have instantly struck an understanding and are deserved favourites for the 14-15 title.
Comm Box smoky: Manchester United. Keep an eye out for the Red Devils, with no European football in their schedule this season they have the chance to make-up ground during the busy period – based on a potential burnout of the top two. United can count their lucky stars to be in the position they are in, considering their woeful start and 45+ injuries (yes, 45!). Now, with a majority of United’s big names raring to go, City and Chelsea will need to keep one eye on their experience opponents. Watch for United to make their move at the back end of January (through to the end of Febuary) when European football, the FA Cup and the Champions league is in full swing.
What: The topsy-turvy 2014-15 premiership has seen powerhouses Brisbane Roar, Western Sydney Wanderers and Central Coast Mariners fall from grace dramatically, allowing a new crop of contenders to occupy the upper reaches of the A-League ladder as the season passes the halfway point and the finals series approaches.
When: April 31-May 17
Defending champs: The Roar eclipsed the Wanderers 2-1 in extra-time in another classic grand final at Suncorp Stadium.
Bookies’ favourite: Melbourne Victory, sitting in second spot, are narrow favourites ahead of Perth Glory, who are seven points clear in the minor premiership race.
Comm Box smoky: Wellington Phoenix have been the season’s surprise packet, climbing to equal-second after an unbeaten run of six matches – they are capable of doing some damage in the playoffs.
NFL SUPER BOWL
What: The single biggest sporting match in the world. Super Bowl XLIX will take place at the University of Phoenix Stadium.
When: February 2 (AEST)
Defending champs: The Seattle Seahawks delivered a 43-8 drubbing of the Denver Broncos to take Super Bowl XLVIII – the franchise’s first triumph.
Bookies’ favourite: The Seahawks have edged back into favouritism ahead of the New England Patriots as the playoffs loom.
Comm Box smoky: Ten Wild Card teams have reached the Super Bowl, while six have gone on to win it; look to the Baltimore Ravens – champs in 2000 and 2012 – as an outside chance after subduing the Pittsburgh Steelers 30-17 on Wild Card Weekend.
NBA PLAYOFFS & FINALS
What: The 2014-15 NBA season is just shy of the halfway mark, but the playoffs are shaping as one of the most intriguing and exciting of recent years.
When: April 18-May/June
Defending champs: The clinical San Antonio Spurs took out their fifth championship – all in the space of 16 seasons – by defeating the Miami Heat 4-1 in the Finals, reversing the previous season’s Finals result.
Bookies’ favourite: LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers are currently being touted as the team to beat, just ahead of the Spurs and the Golden State Warriors, who boast a league-best 26-5 record.
Comm Box smoky: The Dallas Mavericks are paying $14.00 to win the title. They currently lead the league in scoring at 109.5 points per game while shooting 47.7 per cent from the floor. Dallas recently added some experience in Rajon Rondo, and the results have been intriguing. The Mavs, who are in stride for the greatest offensive season in NBA history, are remarkably better on the defensive end after trading away one of their rim protectors, Brandan Wright – many predicted the opposite to occur due to Rondo’s 10 assists per game (third in the association behind John Wall 10.4 and Ty Lawson 10.2). If their defensive woes continue to improve, and they re-discover that favourable floor spacing they had before acquiring Rajon, things could get very interesting when June rolls around. Oh, and they also have Dirk ‘The German Assassin” Nowitzki.
What: It may be hard to fathom for Australian sports fans, but the college knockout competition is more popular with many hardcore basketball supporters than the NBA. The 68-team competition has introduced the terms ‘March Madness’ and ‘The Big Dance’ to the US sports lexicon. Given that the vast majority of NBA superstars come through the college system, there is avid focus on, and media coverage of, the NCAA championships. The championship game will be hosted by Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium.
When: March 17-April 6
Defending champs: Connecticut Huskies, who boast Ray Allen and Emeka Okafor among their alumni, bested Kentucky Wildcats 60-54 in last year’s championship game.
Bookies’ favourite: Kentucky – eight-time champions, most recently in 2012 – are raging-hot favourites to go one better in 2015, with Arizona State and Duke rated strong chances.
Comm Box smoky: Five-time champs University of North Carolina, most famous for being the school that produced Michael Jordan, can never be counted out. The Tar Heels won championships as recently as 2005 and 2009 – both under coach Roy Williams, who is in his 12th season in charge. UNC have had a rough start to their season, dropping games to unranked teams, but they are deep and led by an established core – although they will likely live or die on whether Marcus Paige can show up during March.