Three grand final rematches from yesteryear, a local Sydney derby and a major milestone for one of the NRL’s greatest players will highlight Round 2 of the NRL.
Southern Sydney bragging rights are up for grabs when the Sharks host the Dragons at Southern Cross Group Stadium, while Friday night sees two Grand Final rematches from 2004 (Roosters vs Bulldogs) and 2015 (Broncos vs Cowboys) take place.
One of the Melbourne Storm’s most-loved sons, Billy Slater, will finally bring up his 300th game when the Storm tackle the Wests Tigers at home, while grand final rivals from the 70s and 80s, the Sea Eagles and Eels, lock horns on the northern beaches on Sunday.
Those are just some of the highlights in what is expected to be a massive round.
Sharks vs Dragons
Round 2 kicks off with the southern Sydney derby between the Sharks and Dragons, with the fuse set to be lit by the presence of Dragon-turned-Shark Josh Dugan.
The NSW Origin fullback had a modest club debut, scoring a try as the Sharks went down to the Cowboys in Townsville for the second time in three years, but there is no doubt he will be driven to perform against the club he represented 85 times between 2013 and 2017.
While they trailed 14-8 at half-time and drew level with their opponents in the second half, poor decision making under pressure saw them drop their season-opening match for the ninth time in the past decade.
Now they will look to avoid going 0-2 for the first time since 2015 when they host a red-hot Dragons side which for the second year in a row was the biggest winner from Round 1.
It has taken just 80 minutes for Ben Hunt to prove his worth for his new club as he masterminded their 34-12 thrashing of his old club, the Brisbane Broncos, setting up a try for Tyson Frizell and scoring himself in the second half when he took an intercept pass from Broncos prop Matthew Lodge.
With the other big name recruit, James Graham, also having an impact in his debut game for the Dragons, the Sharks will have their work cut out trying to bring their bitter rivals down, even in their own backyard.
Prediction: Dragons by 14 points.
Roosters vs Bulldogs
The twilight match on Friday night will see the Roosters attempt to bounce back from their upset loss to Wests Tigers when they host the Bulldogs at the soon-to-be-demolished Allianz Stadium.
Star recruits James Tedesco and Cooper Cronk both endured quiet club debuts as the Roosters were held to the lowest score of any side in round one, only managing eight points against the Tigers (who themselves scored only 10 – the second-lowest of any side).
But the good news is that the Chooks should get Luke Keary back from a jaw injury, and his partnership with Cooper Cronk will be an interesting talking point going forward as far as the club’s premiership chances are concerned.
The Bulldogs, on the other hand, are coming off a heavy loss to the Storm but their big name recruit, Kieran Foran, performed solidly on debut, while Moses Mbye made the transition from halfback to fullback quite well.
Their performances will have no doubt satisfied new coach Dean Pay, but there is no doubt he will be asking for more from his troops as they attempt to register their first win for the season against the Roosters.
But in the end, the home ground advantage should get the Chooks home.
Prediction: Roosters by 10 points.
Broncos vs Cowboys
The second match on Friday night sees the resumption of the NRL’s best rivalry – that between the Brisbane Broncos and North Queensland Cowboys.
Broncos management will forever be regretting letting Ben Hunt leave for the Dragons, after the 27-year-old led his new side to a 34-12 thrashing of his old team, leaving them last on the ladder in the process.
The decision by coach Wayne Bennett to start regular forward Sam Thaiday at hooker ahead of Andrew McCullough backfired spectacularly, and it’s a mistake the super coach surely won’t make again.
Halves Anthony Milford and Kodi Nikorima also copped some heat from Bennett after the team’s poor performance against the Dragons, which has got to rate as one of their worst matches under him for quite some time.
However, one highlight for the club was the performance of controversial prop forward Matthew Lodge, who was the only man in the side to run for more than 100 metres.
The onus is now on the Broncos to hit back this Friday night against a Cowboys side which many rate as a genuine premiership chance in 2018.
With co-captains Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott both back on deck after missing the majority of last season with shoulder and knee injuries respectively, the 2015 premiers took care of the 2016 premiers, the Sharks, winning 20-14 at home in Round 1 for the second time in three years.
It was the perfect way to honour Thurston, who in addition to playing his 300th game also became the most capped player in the club’s history, overtaking Matt Bowen who played all 270 of his NRL games for the Cowboys between 2001 and 2013.
On the back of such an impressive win, the Cowboys will now look to heap more misery on their Queensland cousins with a win at Suncorp Stadium, and make it two from two to start their season.
Prediction: Cowboys by 14 points.
Warriors vs Titans
From the outside looking in, you’d think that two of the wooden spoon favourites would be going head to head at Mount Smart Stadium this Saturday afternoon.
From the inside looking out, it’s a clash of two teams which recorded contrasting impressive victories in their opening round matches.
The Warriors, for whom expectations are quite low despite their acquisitions of Adam Blair, Tohu Harris and Blake Green, surprised many by defeating the Rabbitohs by 32-20 in the first match of the Perth Stadium double header.
It was as committed as a performance we have seen from the perennial underachievers of the NRL in a long time, and it was spearheaded by Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who played easily his best game for the club, and Shaun Johnson, for whom a knee injury saw him miss last year’s World Cup.
They will be hoping to make it two from two when they face the Gold Coast Titans, who twice came from 18 points down to score a stunning 30-28 victory over the Canberra Raiders, with Konrad Hurrell scoring a try beneath the posts in the final 90 seconds of the match.
Life under new coach Garth Brennan appeared to have gotten off to a disastrous start when they conceded three tries in the first twelve minutes, but to their credit the Titans hung tough and somehow found a way to win.
But the short turnaround, and having to travel three hours ahead in time, might finally catch up to them, and the Warriors should comfortably take the points in this one.
Prediction: Warriors by eight points.
Panthers vs Rabbitohs
Rift? What rift?
That’s the question being asked at the foot of the mountains after the Penrith Panthers came from 14-0 down to defeat bitter western Sydney rivals, the Parramatta Eels, by 24-14 in their opening round match last weekend.
The club had endured a rocky off-season, losing Matt Moylan and Bryce Cartwright to the Sharks and Titans respectively, while there were reports coach Anthony Griffin had only half the season to prove his worth.
But what a difference a week can make at the newly-named Panthers Stadium.
This Saturday night, the mountain men will start favourites to defeat the Rabbitohs, who were poor in their 32-20 loss to the New Zealand Warriors, which does little to suggest that they will contend for a berth in September this year, after two straight finals absences.
On a positive for the club, fullback and captain Greg Inglis performed solidly in his first game back from a knee injury which sidelined him for all but one match last season, and severely dented the club’s backline stocks.
Another match away from home will definitely test the Rabbitohs’ mental strength; that being said, the Panthers should take the points in this one.
Prediction: Panthers by 10 points.
Storm vs Wests Tigers
Saturday night will see Billy Slater bring up his 300th NRL game when the Storm tackle the Wests Tigers at AAMI Park.
The defending premiers got their season off to a good start, thrashing the Bulldogs 36-18 in the second match of the Perth Stadium double header, with Cameron Munster impressing in the absence of the veteran fullback.
Having been rested last week due to a sore shoulder, the 34-year-old’s return will allow him to bring up the milestone in front of his home fans, who have grown to love him over the past fifteen years he has been at the club.
A long-term shoulder injury first suffered in 2015 had threatened to bring his retirement forward, but to his credit the Queensland Origin fullback refused to throw the towel in. His milestone match will come as the ultimate reward for all the hard times he has had to endure in recent years.
But while the Storm will start favourites, it will not come easy against a Wests Tigers side which is coming off a low-scoring upset of the Roosters at home last week.
The Tigers scored their only try, through Corey Thompson, with less than five minutes to go to edge out the Roosters by 10-8 and prove that they are a side not to be taken lightly in 2018.
Making it all the more impressive was the fact that they were without new recruit Josh Reynolds, who suffered a hamstring injury during the club’s final training session, and is set to rule him out of action for a month.
This, however, paved the way for Benji Marshall to make a triumphant return to the club with whom he won the 2005 premiership with; he remains the only remnant from that triumph which to many fans seems like an eternity ago.
It will now remain to be seen whether the Tigers can build on what can only be described as a character-building win ahead of the daunting assignment against the Storm in Melbourne this Saturday night.
Prediction: Storm by 18 points.
Sea Eagles vs Eels
Another classic rivalry highlights the match to be seen on Channel Nine this Sunday when the Sea Eagles and Eels, fierce rivals between the 70s and 80s, lock horns at Lottoland.
Both clubs will be desperate to log their first wins for the season after they lost their season openers to the Knights and Panthers, respectively.
Faced with salary cap dramas which have plagued the club in recent months, the Sea Eagles fought hard against the Knights, being level at both half-time and full time, but were unlucky to lose in extra time after the Knights’ Mitchell Pearce potted the match winning field goal two minutes from time.
Parramatta, on the other hand, switched off after leading 14-0 at half-time, their plight not being helped when Mitch Moses, who had played every minute for the club after crossing from Wests Tigers last May, was sin binned halfway through the second half.
The Eels, who were leading at the time, went on to lose the lead, and the match, to the Panthers after conceding the final 24 points of the match.
Jarryd Hayne was kept quiet in his comeback match for the Eels, which also doubled as his 200th NRL game, and there is no doubt he will want to perform better against the Sea Eagles this Sunday.
Expect both the Sea Eagles and Eels to come out firing this Sunday, and while they are on the road again, I think the blue and gold will take the points in this one.
Prediction: Eels by six points.
Raiders vs Knights
The final match in round two sees the Canberra Raiders host a new-look Newcastle Knights side which will be brimming with confidence after such a gutsy win last weekend.
Wooden spooners for the past three years, the Knights’ Round 1 win over the Sea Eagles might be a sign of things to come, if the impact Mitchell Pearce made in the match is anything to go by.
So long criticised and ridiculed for his inability to perform in big matches, the ex-Rooster kicked the match winning field goal against the Sea Eagles to spark celebrations not seen since the club’s 2001 premiership triumph.
The celebrations will have died down by the time the Knights make the long trip to Canberra for a clash against a Raiders side which will be hurting after twice giving up an 18-point lead to suffer a heartbreaking 30-28 loss to the Titans on the Gold Coast in their season opener.
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Last year, the Green Machine lost eight matches by six points or less, and it was these results which ultimately prevented them from reaching the finals, having finished second behind the Melbourne Storm in 2016.
They were heading for a big win when they scored the first three tries of the match within the first twelve minutes, and later went ahead 24-6, before inexplicably collapsing to suffer yet another loss by less than a converted try.
Coach Ricky Stuart will have no doubt reviewed the game in full detail, and if there’s one lesson to be taken out of it, it’s that the players need to be in it until the full time whistle is blown.
In their first home game of the season, despite having to face a star-studded Knights side, the Raiders should prevail.
Prediction: Raiders by 12 points.