Rugby league wingers have come a long way in the last thirty years. Gone are the days of diminutive speedsters who did little more than take the odd pressure-relieving run.
I’ve looked at the draw for the upcoming NRL season so many times now I’ve almost memorised it.
Coming off a season full of drama and intrigue – actually this could be said about every yearly chapter in the game’s history – fans and players alike gear up for the last season of what has been a truly historic decade for the 13-man code.
A decade ago, the first ten years of the new millennium came to a thrilling climax with a tremendous 2009 season, one of the best in recent memory. Can the game live up to the glorious highs of ’09? We can only hope so.
Before we look forward to how 2019 will be reflected upon with the benefit of hindsight, we must first look at what awaits us through the all-important first ten weeks of competition.
It is during that pre-Origin period that teams begin to establish themselves either as genuine threats to the Premiership, or also-rans who don’t look a chance of making a dent come September.
Of course, some of my ‘match of the round’ choices could look ridiculous if results don’t go as predicted early on, but such is the risk that goes with making predictions in any sport, let alone rugby league.
So, without further ado, let’s take a brief glimpse through the ten most important, and must-see, matches from the opening ten rounds.
Round 1 (Friday, 7:55pm) – Sydney Roosters versus South Sydney Rabbitohs; Sydney Cricket Ground
If their preliminary final epic last year was any indication, we’re in for a thrilling game between the Roosters and Rabbitohs in the first blockbuster clash of 2019.
Adding to the spectacle will be the game’s host venue, as the match will take place at the historic Sydney Cricket Ground, a venue which has hosted plenty of memorable encounters between these two sides throughout the last 110 years.
In what shapes as one of the most anticipated clashes of the entire season, the tricolours will be looking to get their title defence off to the best possible start against a South Sydney team who improved in leaps and bounds last year.
Whoever emerges victorious, one thing can be said for sure – it will be another memorable chapter in one of the game’s most heated, and celebrated rivalries.
Round 2 (Sunday, 6:10pm) – Wests Tigers versus Warriors; Campbelltown Stadium
While it doesn’t stand out as a ‘blockbuster’ clash, the Tigers versus Warriors fixture is perhaps the most intriguing of Round 2, and has the potential to be the most exciting as well.
The Tigers made definite strides in their improvement last year, while the Warriors returned to the Finals for the first time since 2011, when they qualified for the grand final. Both teams possess genuine match-winners, while it will also be interesting to see if Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is able to continue playing with the same form that saw him win the Dally M Medal last season.
Round 3 (Thursday, 7:50pm) Brisbane Broncos versus St George Illawarra Dragons; Suncorp Stadium
Since their first grand final meeting in 1992, the rivalry between the Broncos and Dragons has not shown any signs of dissipating, as was evident during the first week of last year’s Finals series when a fired up Red V put Brisbane to the sword in emphatic fashion before a stunned home crowd at Suncorp Stadium.
The Broncos won’t have to wait too long for their chance to exact revenge, as the two clubs meet in the opening fixture of Round 3 at Suncorp Stadium. The Dragons remain something of an anomaly in regards to pre-season predictions, with some people seeing potential for the side to make some noise come September, while others have written them off completely.
The Brisbane Broncos, meanwhile, are still adapting to life under new coach Anthony Seibold. It will be an enthralling game, that’s for sure.
Round 4 (Thursday, 7:50pm) Sydney Roosters versus Brisbane Broncos; Sydney Cricket Ground
It should come as no surprise that the tricolours are featured in another ‘match of the round’ fixture, as they will undoubtedly be the team to beat going into the 2019 season, and thus each of their opponents – particularly in the opening rounds – will be giving their all to usurp the reigning champions from the throne.
The result? An entertaining game of rugby league. The Roosters and Broncos always seem to bring out the best in each other, no surprise given their reputation as traditional powerhouses of the game.
Round 5 (Friday, 7:55pm) North Queensland Cowboys versus Melbourne Storm; 1300SMILES Stadium
It is no easy feat going into a new season having lost your most valuable player to retirement. That is the predicament faced by both the Cowboys and Storm going into 2019, with North Queensland having lost Johnathan Thurston, while Melbourne legend Billy Slater hung the boots up after last year’s grand final loss.
Fortunately for the Storm, Cameron Smith has stuck around another year, and is their most valuable asset given his extensive experience, not to mention the fact that he is still among the best players in the game.
Ironically, the Cowboys seem to have struggled more last year with Thurston on the field than they did in 2017 when he was injured. Regardless of which tactics both sides employ to make up for their respective personnel losses, this game promises to be one of the must-see matches of the round.
Round 6 (Friday, 7:55pm) Melbourne Storm versus Sydney Roosters; AAMI Park
Grand final rematch. Enough said.
Round 7 (Sunday, 4:05pm) Newcastle Knights versus Parramatta Eels; McDonald Jones Stadium
While there are other games in the round worthy of attention, and will probably be of more interest of most pundits, I decided to go with a dark horse in Round 7 – a Sunday afternoon game between Newcastle and Parramatta.
One of the predictions about which I remain the most unyielding for 2019 is my belief that the Knights will make the finals this year.
Not minor premiers, or in the top 4, but even a place at the bottom of the top eight will be enough to make people sit up and take notice. On the other side of the coin is Parramatta, who despite a genuinely talented line-up last year emerged with their third wooden spoon of the decade.
Despite this, it can be argued that the Eels are in line for a major improvement this season. This Round 7 game could prove to be a defining moment in the season for either club.
Round 8 (Saturday, 5:30pm) Manly Sea Eagles versus Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs; Lottoland
Alright, alright, I get it – shouldn’t your list include games that at least have the promise of being entertaining? Well, yes, but they also should hold a degree of interest, which is something I believe this game has.
For both of last season’s cellar-dwellers, it will be a chance to test how much they’ve improved over the off-season and during the early rounds of 2019. Sometimes these types of games turn out to be the most entertaining of the round.
Or, it will produce attack of such mediocrity in both attack and defence that I’ll wonder why I ever wrote this list in the first place.
I looked through the matches for this particular weekend, and while a number caught my eye, none of them were as enticing as the concept, or theme, or the round; that is, Magic Weekend – during which every game will be played at Suncorp Stadium.
So, instead I offer some advice – if you’re not attending this festival of rugby league, make an effort to sit down and watch as many of the games as possible, for it is not just another round of NRL football, but also a celebration of the game we love.
Round 10 (Friday, 6:00pm) Penrith Panthers versus Warriors; Panthers Stadium
Given how entertaining their matches against each other were last year – particularly the game in Week 1 of the Finals – I’m prepared to go out on a limb and say that this will be the most exciting match of the round, regardless of both team’s respective positions on the table.
So, those are my 10 ‘Must-Watch’ games from the opening 10 rounds. Upon reflection, I use the term must-watch loosely, for the reality may in fact be far different from what I imagine each game to be like. Nonetheless, there’s certainly a lot of great rugby league to look forward to, both in the opening ten rounds, and beyond!