Here is your weekly preview of all the NRL matches from Round 1.
Friday, March 7
Canterbury Bulldogs v Brisbane Broncos, ANZ Stadium 8.05pm
Head to head: Broncos 23, Bulldogs 19, drawn 1
Last clash: Broncos 16 bt Bulldogs 11 at Suncorp Stadium, round 26 2013
Betting: Bulldogs $1.55 Broncos $2.45
Both clubs are in something of a rebuilding process and will be very keen to impress first up. Broncos coach Anthony Griffin desperately needs early season wins to keep his job, while the Dogs won’t want to start the year in the same terrible fashion they did in 2013. Josh Hoffman has been thrust into the No.6 role for Brisbane in a big gamble by Griffin.
The Dogs are missing Sam Kasiano, Greg Eastwood, Krisnan Inu and Tim Lafai but the Broncos are bereft of genuine playmakers. Dogs five-eighth Josh Reynolds plays his first game this year after battling a shoulder injury.
Key: Ben Barba faces his old side in his first game for Brisbane in a great piece of scheduling by the NRL, can he slay the Dogs and silence their fans in the same way Sonny Bill Williams did last year?
Saturday March 8
Penrith Panthers v Newcastle Knights at Sportingbet Stadium, Penrith, 4.30pm
Head-to-head: Knights 22, Panthers 13, drawn 2
Last clash: Knights 32 bt Panthers 14 at Sportingbet Stadium, round 19 2013
Betting: Penrith 1.77 Knights $2.05
The NRL’s biggest offseason recruiters, Penrith, come up against 2013’s finals surprise packet Newcastle. The Knights will be keen to put a shocking pre-season behind them that included the jailing of Russell Packer for assault, a drink-driving charge for Willie Mason and a long-term hamstring injury to Jarrod Mullen.
Out wide the Knights look strong but a question mark hovers over their halves and they look light up front. Kurt Gidley at hooker is a key player for the visitors but Penrith’s canny recruiting looks to have them covered. Panthers centre Jamal Idris (hamstring) remains in doubt for his club debut.
Key: Jamie Soward and Peter Wallace. The Panthers halves have plenty to prove after being shown the door by their respective clubs last year.
Manly Sea Eagles v Melbourne Storm, Brookvale Oval, 7pm
Head to head: Storm 13, Sea Eagles 11, drawn 1
Last clash: Sea Eagles 28 bt Storm 8 at Brookvale Oval, round 25, 2013
Betting: Sea Eagles $1.53 Storm $2.50
One of rugby league’s greatest modern rivalries continues at one of its oldest venues. Manly always lift at Brookie and the Storm look less than their usual formidable selves with Ben Roberts at halfback although there is talk Cooper Cronk could be a late inclusion.
George Rose returns to his old stomping ground against a Sea Eagles pack that has plenty of doubters. The pressure is on Manly props Brenton Lawrence, Josh Starling, Dunamis Lui and James Hasson to fill the hole left by a number of better credentialled departures.
Key: Brett Stewart. The superstar fullback is fit and firing according to coach Geoff Toovey, which makes him a near certainty to continue his incredible tryscoring record at Brookvale.
North Queensland Cowboys v Canberra Raiders, 1300 Smiles Stadium, 9pm
Head to head: Raiders 19, Cowboys 13
Last clash: Raiders 26 bt Cowboys 18 at Canberra Stadium, round 17, 2013
Betting: Cowboys $1.30 Raiders $2.50
Surely the Cowboys will play to their potential this year? Surely? We have all asked that question for a few seasons and it really is now or never for them. Coach Paul Green could bring a vital edge after an impressive apprenticeship and their Auckland Nines win will give them plenty of confidence heading into the season proper. Canberra were a big disappointment last season too and much has been invested in three-time Raiders premiership winner Ricky Stuart to do that. His coaching legacy could well rest on what he does in Canberra. On paper the Cowboys look far too good. They could open the season with a big win here.
Key: The Auckland Nines. Stuart paid lipservice to the shortform event insisting his preparation was solely focused on round one. The Cowboys took the opposite approach and despite losing Lachlan Coote (ACL-season) they won the inaugural event. Which will prove to be the better preparation?
Sunday, March 8
St George Illawarra Dragons v Wests Tigers at ANZ Stadium 3pm
Head to Head: Dragons 14 Tigers 13
Last clash: Tigers 34 Dragons 18 at SCG, round 24, 2013
Tab Sportsbet: Dragons $1.90 Tigers $1.90
Two sides who desperately need an early win to stave off pressure on their coaches and two teams who have been unlucky with pre-season injuries. The Tigers are missing David Nofoaluma (hamstring), Dene Halatau (ankle) and Tim Moltzen (knee) while the Dragons are without the focus of their attack Josh Dugan.
Young gun halfback Luke Brooks is charged with filling the playmaking void at the Tigers left by Benji Marshall, while Gareth Widdop has been asked to do likewise at the spluttering Dragons. Both teams have been tipped to finish at the bottom of the ladder but this could be one of the most exciting and closest games of the round.
Key: Michael Witt. Chosen at halfback by Dragons coach Steve Price instead of Sam Williams. He will want to repay that faith if Price is to last.
Parramatta Eels v New Zealand Warriors
Head to Head: Eels 18 Warriors 13
Last clash: Eels 40 bt Warriors 10 at Parramatta Stadium, round 1, 2013
Betting: Warriors $1.65 Eels $2.25
Another promised new dawn begins at Parramatta under Brad Arthur after successive wooden spoons. The Eels have recruited well and have Will Hopoate, Corey Norman and Nathan Peats all debuting. The Eels do look to have a sharper edge to them in 2014 but if the performance at the Nines of Shaun Johnson and Sam Tomkins is anything to go by, so too do the Warriors. A 40-10 win by the Eels in this corresponding game to kick off 2013 was the highpoint of Parramatta’s year and sent the Warriors into a downward spiral from which they never recovered. Both sides will want to change that.
Key: Sam Tomkins. The England superstar scored an incredible 144 tries in 151 Super League games, can he keep that record up in the NRL?
Monday March 9
Cronulla Sharks v Gold Coast Titans at Remondis Stadium 7pm
Head to Head: Sharks 6 Titans 4
Last clash: Sharks 12 bt Titans 10 at Remondis Stadium, round 1, 2013
Betting: Raiders Sharks $1.58 Titans $2.37
The Titans have been virtually forgotten in the pre-season while the Sharks are still dealing with the supplements saga a year on. But the time for Cronulla to use that as motivation is gone, now it should be premiership glory. Todd Carney (hamstring) is only a 50-50 proposition for the Sharks. But even if he doesn’t play and with Jeff Robson (facial fractures) also sidelined the Sharks look to have far too much class for the visitors with Wade Graham capable of moving into a playmaking role. The Titans will look to Greg Bird and David Taylor to spark them.
Key: Up front. If the Titans are to have any chance of holding the Sharks, with Carney or without, they need to dominate up front and they do have a pack capable of doing that.