The matches to watch in the 2018 NRL season

mastermind5991 Roar Guru

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    The fixture for the 2018 NRL season has been released and as always, it is loaded with blockbusters that you cannot afford to miss.

    Next year’s draw has also been given somewhat of an overhaul, with the second State of Origin match in Sydney to be played as a standalone match on Sunday, June 24, marking this the first time since 2001 that any Origin match has been played away from its traditional Wednesday night timeslot.

    This will replace the representative bye round which was held about a third of the way into previous seasons; as a result, teams will now only get one mid-season bye rather than the traditional two.

    Additionally, the regular season has also been reduced from 26 rounds down to 25, with proceedings kicking off on Thursday March 8.

    The grand final will also be played on the final day of September for the first time since 2012, before it reverts back to its traditional timeslot, the first Sunday of October, in 2019.

    The NRL now also has complete control over the fixture, meaning fans will see less of Friday night regulars the Brisbane Broncos in this timeslot, and as one Tweeter noted, three-time wooden spooners the Newcastle Knights will play more matches than the Queensland powerhouses on Friday nights.

    Let’s now have a look at some of the highlights than fans can expect in 2018.

    Round 1 – March 8-11
    The new season kicks off with a huge clash between the Dragons and Broncos at Kogarah Oval, with Ben Hunt to make his debut in the Red V against the club be represented 187 times between 2009 and 2017.

    His move to the Dragons, as well as that of former Bulldogs captain James Graham, will result in elevated expectations for the club after they narrowly missed the finals last season, having spent the first 21 rounds of last season inside the top eight.

    For the Broncos, this will be the third consecutive year that they will play in the season’s opening match away from home, and their only showdown against the Dragons in 2018 will give them a chance to break a two-decade hoodoo at Kogarah, the Brisbanites having not won at the venue since 1998.

    Other matches to look forward to include a rematch between the Cowboys and Sharks, after the northerners knocked the reigning premiers out of last season’s finals series in thrilling and controversial fashion.

    Wests Tigers fans will have an early chance to make their feelings towards new Roosters fullback James Tedesco felt, with the two clubs to face off in the first match at ANZ Stadium for the season on the Saturday afternoon.

    Former favourite son Benji Marshall will also gear up for the club for the first time since the end of 2013, as he prepares for what will almost certainly be his NRL swansong after stints at the Dragons (2014-16) and Broncos (2017).

    Benji Marshall passing for St George Illawarra

    (AAP Image/Action Photographics, Robb Cox)

    This is followed by the Perth Stadium double-header, which will see the Rabbitohs face the Warriors, followed by the Bulldogs up against the reigning premiers, the Storm.

    That second match will see the Dogs unveil new recruits Aaron Woods and Kieran Foran in what will also double as the first match in charge for new coach Dean Pay, who replaced Des Hasler earlier this month.

    Sunday will see the Panthers welcome the Eels to their backyard at the foot of the mountains, while the Raiders will face a potentially tricky trip to the Gold Coast to face the Titans in the final match of Round 1.

    Round 2 – March 15-18
    You thought Round 1 was huge? Well, guess what – Round 2 will be even bigger.

    It starts on the Thursday night with a local derby between the Sharks and Dragons, in which new Sharks fullback Josh Dugan will be unleashed in front of his home crowd for the first time against the club he represented 84 times between 2013 and 2017.

    The return bout will come just a month later, down the highway at Wollongong where the Dragons faithful are not expected to show any mercy towards their departed fullback.

    Friday night is highlighted by two traditional rivalries, with the Roosters and Bulldogs to renew hostilities in the twilight match, while up in Brisbane the Broncos and Cowboys will face off in what promises to be another thriller between two of Queensland’s premier sides.

    Saturday night will see the Storm face the Wests Tigers in their first home game for the season, while the Sea Eagles and Eels will also renew their long-standing rivalry in the Channel Nine match on the Sunday afternoon.

    The grand final rematch, Round 3
    Fans of both the Storm and Cowboys will not have to wait long for the grand final rematch, which is scheduled for the Thursday night in Round 3.

    The Storm proved to be the form team of the 2017 season by a country mile last season, and after years of inconsistency and heartbreak they made it count in the biggest match of the season, thrashing the Cowboys by 34-6 to claim their third legitimate premiership.

    But to say that the result could’ve been different had Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott not suffered long-term injuries last season would be a massive understatement.

    The Cowboys only finished eighth after the Dragons were upset by the Bulldogs in the final round of the season, and made the most of their lifeline to win three consecutive finals on the road, before finding the Storm too big a mountain to overcome in the decider.

    Both Thurston and Scott are expected back for the northerners in what will be the final season for the former before his imminent retirement from the game.

    Easter round
    Three grand final rematches from yesteryear will highlight this year’s Easter round, with a massive Good Friday double header to feature the combatants from the 2014 and 2016 grand finals.

    In the afternoon, the Rabbitohs and Bulldogs, both armed with new coaches in Anthony Seibold and Dean Pay respectively, go head-to-head in a reprisal of the 2014 grand final, while in the evening the two most recent premiers go head-to-head down the road at Southern Cross Group Stadium in Cronulla.

    The return bout between the Storm and Sharks in Melbourne in Round 22 could also mark the final time Paul Gallen and Cameron Smith go head-to-head, with the former likely to retire at the end of the 2018 season.

    Other highlights to watch out for include a rematch of the 2002 grand final between the Roosters and Warriors, as well as the clash for the Alex McKinnon Cup between the Dragons and Knights at WIN Stadium.

    It will be the first time the two clubs have met at the beachside ground since 2011.

    To finish off the round, the Wests Tigers and Eels will lock horns at ANZ Stadium, and with the Sydney Royal Easter Show occurring at Sydney’s Olympic Park precinct, a large crowd will once again be expected.

    The Anzac Round
    Next year’s Anzac Round will see eight games played across five days, the highlights of which are the annual matches between the Dragons and Roosters, as well as that between the Storm and Warriors.

    The Dragons will be out for revenge after they were sunk by a field goal by Mitchell Pearce in golden point extra time, the result marking the start of their slow descent down the ladder after they had started the 2017 season with six wins from their first seven games.

    Of particular interest will be the potential match-up between Pearce and new Dragons halfback Ben Hunt, in what could be billed as a potential State of Origin preview if both men can hold their form through to Origin I in Melbourne on June 6.

    Mitchell Pearce Sydney Roosters NRL Rugby League Finals 2017

    (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

    Later that evening, the Storm and Warriors will face off in their annual Anzac Night clash, with the starting time of 7:00pm allowing fans who would’ve just enjoyed the Collingwood versus Essendon AFL blockbuster over the bridge to make it inside AAMI Park in time for kick-off.

    Thursday night will see the Rabbitohs host the Brisbane Broncos at ANZ Stadium, while the Tigers and Eels will face off for the second time in five rounds at the same venue on the Sunday to finish the round.

    The Woods-Reynolds Cup, Round 12
    Fans of both the Wests Tigers and Bulldogs will have to wait until Round 12 to see their respective outcasts, Aaron Woods and Josh Reynolds, face off against each other in opposing colours.

    Former Tigers captain Woods made the decision to leave Concord Oval shortly after Ivan Cleary was announced as coach last April, linking up with the Dogs on a four-year deal after seven years at the Tigers.

    Around the same time, Reynolds went the reverse direction, also signing a four-year contract with the Wests Tigers where he is expected to form a lethal halves combination with halfback Luke Brooks.

    Like Woods, Reynolds also spent seven years at his original club, the Bulldogs, during which they reached two grand finals, finishing runners-up to the Storm and Rabbitohs in 2012 and 2014 respectively.

    This match has the potential to break the decibel meter, with both players set to be jeered by their opposition fans every time they touch the ball.

    Next season looms as a crucial one for both clubs, with the Bulldogs, as already noted above, having a new coach in Dean Pay, while for Ivan Cleary it will be his first full season as Wests Tigers coach after having taken over after Round 5 last season.

    It will remain to be seen how both clubs have fared by the time these two sides meet close to the halfway point of the season; the return bout is also at ANZ Stadium in Round 20, with that one being a Bulldogs home game.

    James Graham versus the Bulldogs, Round 14
    Hostilities between the Bulldogs and Dragons will continue in Round 14 when James Graham, now in the famous Red V, comes up against his former side at ANZ Stadium on Queen’s Birthday.

    Days after he led the Bulldogs to an upset 26-20 victory over the Dragons to knock their rivals out of the finals race, he signed a three-year deal with the vanquished opponents to ensure he will finish his career at Kogarah Oval.

    He, along with Ben Hunt, will provide the Dragons some good leadership and experience respectively as they look to return to the finals for just the second time since Wayne Bennett left the club at the end of the 2011 season.

    They will also want to help the Dragons overcome a recent poor record against the Bulldogs, having lost eleven of their past twelve clashes against the boys from Belmore dating back to Round 2, 2012.

    Bulldogs James Graham is tackled by the Rabbitohs Thomas Burgess

    (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

    The good news for Dragons fans is that their side will get two shots at the Dogs, with the return bout coming in Round 24 at Kogarah Oval where the two sides have not met since 2013.

    Those are just some of the highlights to watch out for in what promises to be another blockbuster of a season, where the Melbourne Storm will once again be the team to catch as they seek back-to-back premierships.

    There is also the State of Origin to look forward to, as the Blues, likely to be coached by Brad Fittler next year, attempt to poke another hole into the Maroons’ ongoing dominance.

    Game I will be at the MCG on June 6, while as mentioned above Game II will be played on an NRL-free weekend at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium on June 24. Game III, at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium, will be played on July 11.

    But before the year is out, there is the Rugby League World Cup to look forward to, with the first match taking place between Australia and England next Friday night at AAMI Park.

    Now that the 2018 NRL fixture has been released, fans are now circling some all-important dates on their calendars to ensure that they don’t miss the best matches next season.