Matches to watch for in the 2013 NRL season
It’s now just five weeks until the start of the 2013 NRL season. A lot of questions will be asked throughout the season, such as: can the Melbourne Storm defend their title?
Will Parramatta be a force under Ricky Stuart? Can the Dragons return to the finals? Can the Bulldogs go one better? Can the Sharks continue to improve? Can the South Sydney Rabbitohs go further and make the grand final? Will Todd Carney rediscover his best form?
All these questions make for what should be an interesting NRL season. Here are some of the matches to watch out for this season:
Roosters vs. Rabbitohs, Round 1
This match alone should set the tone for the entire season. The Sydney Roosters have been the most active of all the NRL clubs as they try to put two seasons of disappointment behind them.
Their recruitment drive was spear-headed by the return to the game of Sonny Bill Williams, as well as the recruitment of a new coach in Trent Robinson. They have released Braith Anasta, but Anthony Minichiello should make for a worthy leader at Bondi Junction.
This could be the most exciting pre-season Roosters fans will have enjoyed in a very long time.
Meanwhile, the South Sydney Rabbitohs will hope to build on a very strong 2012 season, which saw them fall just one match short of the grand final.
They have brought Ben Te’o to the club, and he will be a worthy addition to what is already one of the competition’s most feared forward packs.
Greg Inglis’ move to fullback early in the 2012 season paid dividends and he can finally play his own game, something he was unable to do in Melbourne under the shadow of Billy Slater.
This could also be one of the most anticipated seasons in the club’s history since coming back from exile in 2002.
Grand final rematch, Round 3
The third in a string of four straight Thursday night matches features the two teams that contested last year’s grand final, the Storm and the Bulldogs.
The Melbourne Storm were deserving premiers last year given the horror two years the club endured after being caught out for cheating the salary cap in 2010.
Many thought it was the end of the club, and also many thought they would never rediscover their former glory. This cost them Greg Inglis, who has since defected to the South Sydney Rabbitohs. But it took them just one year to return to the summit of the competition, crowned minor premiers in 2011 but falling short of the decider.
2012 was a phenomenal year for the club, as they look to win back the premierships they claim they were wrongly stripped of. Last year was one premiership back. If they can beat the Bulldogs in this early round, they can set the tone for what should be another strong and successful season.
Sharks vs. Dragons, Round 4
Sharks and Dragons fans, put March 30 into your diaries right now. This match will not only be about bragging rights but also how far the two teams have come over the last few years.
Whilst the Dragons were experiencing their best period of success in 2009-11, the Sharks struggled. But last year was the exact opposite.
The Sharks enjoyed a very consistent season all year round whilst the Dragons struggled to put anything together under new coach Steve Price. That’s understandable, because some former top clubs have to go through a rebuilding period. And that’s what the Sharks did.
The results were there for all to see last year as they returned to the finals for the first time since 2008. Now the Dragons can emulate their Shire neighbours and make a strong run again this season.
I have a feeling that whoever wins this fourth round match can set the tone for what should be a great season.
Des Hasler vs. Manly, Round 5
This will be the fourth meeting between the Bulldogs and Sea Eagles since Des Hasler was sensationally sacked as the Sea Eagles coach in the events following their 2011 premiership triumph.
But this seemed to have no effect on the Sea Eagles, where the transition between Hasler and Geoff Toovey was smooth and the club once again featured at the business end of the season.
Their two regular season matches were split last year, as Manly defeated Hasler in Round 8 before he got one back on his old team at his old stomping ground, Brookvale Oval, later in the season. Will be another interesting match to look out for early in the season.
Roosters vs. SBW, Round 6
Bulldogs fans, mark this date into your diary right now: Friday, April 12, 2013. This is your best chance to go out and jeer Sonny Bill Williams all you like, because this will be the ultimate crunch match of the season.
It’ll be the first time SBW runs out against the club he deserted in circumstances that were less than satisfactory in 2008. How the Bulldogs fans will react to him running out in the tri-colours will be interesting, but one thing is for sure, added security will be hired in case anything goes wrong – we just hope not.
Roosters vs. Dragons, Round 7
The NRL’s annual ANZAC Day match does not gain a lot of recognition in Australia, as opposed to the AFL’s version which features Victorian heavyweights Essendon and Collingwood. But this year’s NRL ANZAC Day match will be televised on Channel Nine, going head-to-head against Channel Seven’s coverage of the AFL ANZAC Day match.
Finally, league fans will be able to watch the ANZAC Day match on free-to-air television, as most of the previous matches have only been shown on Fox Sports.
Only twice before (in 2004 and 2010) has the ANZAC Day match been televised on Channel Nine, but with the new television rights, this should be a ratings winner especially in Sydney and Brisbane.
Wests Tigers vs. Sharks, Round 9
Wests Tigers fans will still not be happy after the Sharks recruited some more of their players during the recent off-season.
Chris Heighington and Beau Ryan recently joined Bryce Gibbs, Andrew Fifita, John Morris and Isaac de Gois as imports from Concord currently residing in the Shire during the most recent off-season, and this is sure to earn the ire of the Tigers fans when the two clubs meet in Round 9.
Also, add to that the fact that the Tigers won a controversial first round match last year at Leichhardt Oval, and this will set the tone for a spiteful encounter.
Storm vs. Sea Eagles, Round 10
This is a rematch of last year’s one-sided preliminary final which saw the Sea Eagles’ premiership defence reduced to rabble by a clinical Melbourne Storm side, which was desperate to win back all the honours that they were stripped of in the last two years.
The Sea Eagles have not forgotten about this match and they will want to get one back on the team that ended their premiership defence in such a whimper. The teams have a bitter rivalry which date back to 2007, when Michael Crocker smashed Brett Stewart in the grand final, which was later rendered invalid due to the salary cap breaches.
In 2008 the Sea Eagles inflicted upon the Storm the worst ever grand final defeat any team has ever suffered in NRL history. In 2009 Billy Slater scored four tries as the Storm ended Manly’s premiership defence on the first day of the finals series.
But, most famously, in 2011, the fight between Glenn Stewart and Adam Blair made headlines, right in front of David Gallop, who was attending his first match involving both sides since Manly’s Brett Stewart was wiped out for four weeks by a crime he did not commit, and since Melbourne were stripped of the two premierships for salary cap breaches.
How will the next chapter in this rivalry be written? Find out when they meet in Round 10.
Bulldogs vs. Dragons, Round 12
Whenever these two teams meet, I always go for the Dragons.
I have been a lifelong Dragons supporter and it was a pain seeing them lose to the Bulldogs, a team which I have had a lifelong hatred towards, twice last year. To the point, after last year’s second round match, a Hitler Downfall parody (which has since been removed) was uploaded showing Adolf Hitler gettng very angry and upset about the Dragons’ loss.
I could not believe it either, given the Dragons had just come off a golden point win over Newcastle in Newcastle and the future was looking bright under Steve Price. But it was this defeat that diminished the Dragons’ dominance from the previous three years. Hopefully, there will be no repeat result this year.
Wayne Bennett, Darius Boyd and co. vs. the Dragons, Round 13
In 2010, the super-coach guided the Dragons to the 2010 premiership. Now, in the middle of the season, he will look to plot their downfall.
Last year the Knights struggled to adapt to Wayne Bennett’s no-nonsense game plan as he looked at trying to fit Darius Boyd into an already strong backline spear-headed by Akuila Uate.
Also, Danny Buderus and Kade Snowden returned to the team after stints elsewhere and struggled to rediscover their mojo. As a result, Wayne Bennett did not coach in September for the first time in 21 years.
Now he has the chance to help the Knights capitalise on what should be a strong start to the season for them.
SBW returns to ANZ Stadium, Round 15
The Bulldogs and Roosters will have already met earlier in the season, but this is the ultimate chance for Bulldogs fans to boo and jeer Sonny Bill Williams as he returns to Bulldogs territory for the first time since deserting the club in 2008.
A large crowd and extra security will be guaranteed for what should be one of the most explosive matches of the season. In 2008, Bulldogs fans turned their back on Willie Mason when he ran out in Roosters colours, but it was Mason who had the last laugh as the Roosters recorded a victory on that April night five years ago.
Whatever the case, Sonny Bill can be expected to be given an unwelcome reception by the fans he betrayed in July 2008.
Cowboys vs. Sea Eagles, Round 18
North Queensland fans will still be feeling a little bit of anger towards the Sea Eagles after the Kieran Foran “hand of god” try in last year’s semi finals. It was that refereeing blunder, which ultimately cost the Cowboys a berth in the preliminary finals and referees bosses Bill Harrigan and Stuart Raper their jobs.
The refereeing standard in 2012 was atrocious, from the Foran try to the Greg Inglis State of Origin try that should have never been.
The Cowboys vs. Sea Eagles semi was the lowest point in the season-long refereeing debacle and subsequently Harrigan and Raper were given their marching orders.
Cowboys fans have long accused Kieran Foran of “lying” and this is their chance to unleash on him when the Sea Eagles run out onto Dairy Farmers Stadium on July 15.
Sharks vs. Luke Lewis, Round 20
Another crunch match to look forward to late in the season. In mid-2012, Luke Lewis announced that he was leaving the Panthers and subsequently joined the Cronulla Sharks. He betrayed the club that he served for so long.
Though the match will be played in Cronulla, Penrith fans will already be planning the long trip so they can show the Sharks fans where Lewis really belongs.
Meanwhile, the Sharks will be out to prove that the decision to recruit Lewis, among others, pays off with a masterful display.
Panthers vs. Michael Jennings, Round 21
Just a week after facing up to Luke Lewis, the Panthers will face another player who betrayed his junior club in favour of more money at the Roosters.
Michael Jennings will return to the place which set him up for the success that he has enjoyed in his career, though this time it will be in the colours of the Sydney Roosters.
Panthers fans will still be feeling angry over Jennings’ decision to leave the club he has called home for so many years and already have early August put down in their diaries, so that they can show Jennings how angry and betrayed they feel towards him.
Again, expect a very explosive match.
Rabbitohs vs. Bulldogs, Round 24
This should be the perfect time for both clubs to gear up before the finals series. I am expecting both clubs to still be in contention for the finals series by the time they meet in Round 24.
The Rabbitohs claimed a win over the boys from Belmore early last year but couldn’t fall back on that experience in the preliminary final last year.
Hopefully they will be a better team this time around, and although the finals will be two to three weeks away, it’s the perfect time for the Rabbitohs to flex their muscles against a team that is virtually bulletproof. Because it takes skill and patience to beat a team like the Bulldogs.
Sea Eagles vs. Storm, Round 25
This match will feature two more teams that I expect to feature at the business end of the season. The Sea Eagles have enjoyed a period of sustained success and are the only club not to have missed the finals since 2004.
The Storm have also produced a period of (tainted) success in the same era, but the honours they won between 2006 and 2010 mean nothing. The corresponding match in 2011 produced fireworks with the Stewart/Blair brawl, but what will happen next in the bitter rivalry between the two clubs?
Rabbitohs vs. Roosters, Round 26
I expect both clubs to have enjoyed a successful season by the time the finals roll around. If these two clubs are still in finals contention by the time the final round of the regular season rolls around, this match will determine which of the Rabbitohs or Roosters will be well placed to make an assault at the premiership.
One team out of these two could be out of finals contention but one thing is for sure: that team will have entered the season high on expectations but under perform during the season. I’m expecting both teams to make the finals this year.
After what we saw last year, 2013 should be a very interesting and exciting season for rugby league fans. The new television rights deal, the independent commission and a new CEO should change the direction of the game for the better.
The results will be there for all to see by the end of the season, that’s for sure.