After what can only be described as the off-season from hell, in which several players and teams made headlines for all the wrong reasons, finally the focus returns to the footy field where 15 teams will set out to stop the Sydney Roosters from repeating as premiers in 2019.
The men from Bondi Junction will again start as hot favourites to repeat their premiership success as they attempt to become the first team since the Brisbane Broncos in 1992-93 to successfully defend their premiership in a unified competition.
However, there will be some serious competition from others, ranging from the Rabbitohs, who have landed super coach Wayne Bennett twelve months earlier than planned, to as far south as reigning wooden spooners the Parramatta Eels.
Several matches will highlight the round, none more so than that between the reigning premiers, the Roosters, and the new-look Rabbitohs side, as well as the season opener between the Storm and Broncos in Melbourne.
Here is your preview to Round 1.
Storm versus Broncos
For the first time since 2009, the season will open in Melbourne with the NRL hoping to capitalise on a weekend where there are no AFL matches in the city (AFL Women’s matches aside).
The Melbourne Storm have been given the honour of starting the season in what could possibly be Cameron Smith’s final season at the top level, and will be looking to keep intact a record of having not lost a Round 1 match since 2001, and never under coach Craig Bellamy.
After finishing second on the ladder at the end of the minor premiership, the Storm qualified for their third consecutive grand final but found themselves no match for a hardened Sydney Roosters outfit, their 21-6 defeat being their worst in the season decider.
Twelve months after losing Cooper Cronk to the Roosters, the Storm have lost another of their veterans, with Billy Slater retiring from the game but not before having to beat a shoulder charge at the tribunal to take his place in the decider.
Cronk and Smith: once great teammates. Now? Not so much. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)
It will therefore remain to be seen how the Storm will fill the giant void left in their backline with Jahrome Hughes and Scott Drinkwater among those trialled by Craig Bellamy in the number one jumper.
Meantime, the Brisbane Broncos will head into the new season with a new coach, after sensationally parting ways with veteran coach Wayne Bennett last December.
The super coach departed twelve weeks after the Broncos suffered a humiliating 48-18 elimination final loss to the Dragons, who prior to then hadn’t won at Suncorp Stadium since 2009, at home.
The man given the task of attempting to end the club’s longest premiership drought is Anthony Seibold, who arrives at Red Hill after only one season at the Rabbitohs, where he orchestrated the league’s highest-scoring team and led them to the preliminary final.
Already he has laid down his laws at the Broncos, making it clear that players will have to work their way into the team, such is the case with Payne Haas, who will sit out the first four matches of the season after failing to co-operate with the NRL Integrity Unit in regards to an off-field incident.
Their recent record against the Storm is poor, though they did win in Melbourne in back-to-back years in 2015 and 2016.
While it should go down to the wire, the Storm should take the points here.
Prediction: Storm by 12 points.
Knights versus Sharks
The twilight match on Friday night will see the Newcastle Knights look to continue their rapid improvement when they host the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks at Macdonald Jones Stadium.
To say the very least, this decade has not been a successful one for the club, with the ill-fated Wayne Bennett era preceding a tough period for the club which landed them three consecutive wooden spoons between 2015 and 2017.
However, last season saw a resurgence for the two-time premiers, with Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga providing experience and talent to a success-starved side which finished 2018 in 11th place with nine wins and 15 losses.
They could so easily have won more matches, and either player could so easily have won the Dally M Medal, had Pearce not suffered a pectoral injury which would see him sentenced to the sidelines for nearly three months between April and July.
In addition, Ponga also missed the last two matches of the season due to an ankle injury.
Kalyn Ponga of the Knights. (AAP Image/Brendon Thorne)
Thus, there are no more excuses for the Knights as they aim to return to September for the first time since 2013, a year in which they made the preliminary final under Wayne Bennett.
Meantime, the Sharks will enter the new season with a new coach after Shane Flanagan resigned following revelations he broke certain rules regarding his suspension from coaching in 2014.
Highly-regarded assistant coach John Morris has been handed the clipboard and he will have it tough trying to turn his side’s focus to what’s on the field rather than off it.
In a major coup, they have landed halfback Shaun Johnson from the Warriors, which should provide them some direction in attack, and his individual match-up against Knights captain Pearce will be a highlight for the fans.
But while the Sharks did score a recent trial win over the Knights, I think the hosts should take the points when it matters most.
Prediction: Knights by six points.
Roosters versus Rabbitohs
The headline match on Friday night sees the defending premiers, the Sydney Roosters, take on a South Sydney Rabbitohs side which for the next two seasons will be led by none other than the super coach, Wayne Bennett.
Last season saw the Chooks, led by veteran halfback Cooper Cronk, take out top spot on the ladder before going on to win its second premiership in six years, but third since the turn of the century.
En route to the title, they defeated the Rabbitohs by 12-4 in front of 44,380 fans at Allianz Stadium – a record for a sporting event in what was the last such event at the ground before its impending demolition.
Because of this, the Roosters will have to play the majority of their home games at the Sydney Cricket Ground for the next two seasons while they await the construction of the new Sydney Football Stadium.
It means that this will be the first meeting between the Roosters and Rabbitohs at the iconic ground, which the Swans will have to share with rugby’s NSW Waratahs and the AFL’s Sydney Swans for the next two years, since 1993.
After two years out of the finals, the Rabbitohs, under first-year coach Anthony Seibold, rediscovered their attacking flair to rocket back up to the upper part of the ladder, finishing third and ultimately falling to the Roosters in the aforementioned preliminary final.
A dramatic turn of events during the off-season saw them land super coach Wayne Bennett from the Brisbane Broncos, twelve months earlier than planned, with Seibold heading in the reverse direction.
This brings together a match made in heaven – the game’s greatest club and the game’s greatest coach.
With Seibold having moulded the team from a basket case into a serious premiership contender, it will be up to Bennett to apply the finishing touches – and that is to deliver the club its 22nd premiership.
As much as the Bunnies would love to win for their new coach, the Chooks, who since last year’s premiership victory have added Brett Morris and Angus Crichton to their roster, should be victorious here.
Prediction: Roosters by 10 points.
Sydney Roosters hardman Jared Waerea-Hargreaves celebrates victory in the 2018 grand final. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)
Warriors versus Bulldogs
The first match on Saturday sees the Bulldogs make the trip across the ditch to face the New Zealand Warriors, who will be without Shaun Johnson after he was offloaded to Cronulla last year.
It will remain to be seen how the Warriors, who last year made the finals for the first time since 2011, fare not only without Johnson, who constantly struggled to meet individual standards, but also without Simon Mannering, who retired at the end of last season after 301 NRL games.
However, the team still boasts a quality roster led by reigning Dally M Medallist Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, as well as winger David Fusitu’a, who topped the try-scoring charts with 23 tries, including two hat-tricks.
While they did enough to qualify for its first finals series in seven years, their foray in September proved to be short-lived as they went down to the Penrith Panthers without so much firing a shot.
Meantime, in their first season under coach Dean Pay, the Bulldogs finished 12th with eight wins and sixteen losses, with half of those wins coming against finals teams, including defeating the Warriors at ANZ Stadium late last season.
Not much is expected from the men from Belmore this season, which is why they are being touted by many as wooden spoon favourites.
But if they can deliver their best football on a consistent basis, then who knows, they might spring a surprise or two in 2019.
However, despite the loss of key personnel, the Warriors should prove too strong here.
Prediction: Warriors by 14 points.
Wests Tigers versus Sea Eagles
After the doom and gloom of the past few years, Des Hasler has one thing on his mind – to make Manly great again.
The two-time premiership coach returns to the club following a six-year stint as Bulldogs coach, during which they made two grand finals, before spending 2018 out of the game thereafter.
New/old Manly Coach Des Hasler (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)
However, he will have it tough not only trying to turn the Sea Eagles into a competitive force again, as he did in the noughties, but he will also be without star fullback Tom Trbojevic for the first two rounds due to a hamstring injury aggravated in a trial match against the Sharks.
That is the last thing they would want as they head to Leichhardt Oval where the Wests Tigers await, after which is followed by a tough assignment against the reigning premiers, the Sydney Roosters.
The Tigers have also endured their fair share of dramas, reluctantly releasing Ivan Cleary so he could return to Penrith to coach his son, and with salary cap issues relating to their mid-season signing of Robbie Farah resulting in the departure of chairwoman Marina Go.
As a result of Cleary’s abrupt departure, former Rabbitohs coach Michael Maguire has been installed as the new coach and he will no doubt want to oversee the Tigers’ continued improvement, which saw them finish just outside the eight in ninth place last season.
With a quality roster led by Farah, Benji Marshall, Luke Brooks and co., there will be no excuses for the Tigers in 2019, and they should start the season with a win in front of the Leichhardt faithful.
Prediction: Wests Tigers by 16 points.
Wests Tigers’ new coach Michael Maguire (AAP Image/Brendan Esposito)
Cowboys versus Dragons
Saturday night sees the St George Illawarra Dragons make the tough trip to Townsville to face a North Queensland Cowboys side which will be ushering in a new era, beginning life after Johnathan Thurston.
Both clubs were embroiled in controversy during the off-season, with Dragons lock Jack de Belin set to be officially stood down under the NRL’s new “no-fault policy” which is to be ratified this week, and the Cowboys sacking Ben Barba even before he’s played a game for the club.
Last year the Dragons defied the odds to qualify for just their second finals series since 2011, finishing seventh and then hammering the Brisbane Broncos in the elimination final at Suncorp Stadium before falling agonisingly short against the South Sydney Rabbitohs in the semi-final.
It’s a fair bet to say that they could’ve gone at least one step further had key players Gareth Widdop, Paul Vaughan and Tariq Sims not suffered season-ending injuries at the back half of the season.
The club has again been productive in its recruitment of players, landing Korbin Sims and Corey Norman from the Broncos and Parramatta Eels, respectively.
While Sims must wait until Round 3 to make his debut in the Red V owing to a suspension incurred during the Broncos versus Dragons elimination final last year, Norman will slot into the halves, partnering Ben Hunt, while captain Widdop will shift to fullback.
Meantime, Michael Morgan has been handed the keys to the Cowboys, having last week been named the new captain of the side following the retirement of Johnathan Thurston at the end of last season.
Michael Morgan has really stepped up for the Cowboys. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)
Having made the grand final in 2017, the Cowboys crashed back down to earth last year, their 13th place finish being their worst result in a season since 2010, when they finished 15th and only avoided the wooden spoon due to the Melbourne Storm salary cap scandal.
It was a disappointing way for Thurston, who won just about every award possible in rugby league, to bow out of the game.
And as if a disappointing season wasn’t enough, Ben Barba, who was brought to the club to fill the giant void left by the 35-year-old, was sacked by the club following a domestic violence incident involving his partner last month.
The Dragons have dominated recent matches between the two clubs, winning the last three in succession, but their 24-10 win in Round 19 last year was their first in Townsville since 2005.
At home, the Cowboys should take the points and get their season off to a winning start.
Prediction: Cowboys by 10 points.
Panthers versus Eels
The first Sunday of the 2019 season is the exact same as it was twelve months ago – with the Penrith Panthers hosting the Parramatta Eels followed by the Gold Coast Titans entertaining the Canberra Raiders on the holiday strip.
First to the match at the foot of the mountains, where expectations are high for both the Panthers and Eels in 2019.
After weeks of speculation following the sensational sacking of Anthony Griffin just a month out from the finals, the Panthers regained Ivan Cleary – the man who they’d sacked at the end of 2015 in order to land ex-Broncos mentor Griffin – from the Wests Tigers.
Ivan Cleary is getting the band back together. (Photo: Renee McKay/Getty Images)
Griffin’s dismissal came as a major surprise to many outside the Panthers hierarchy, given they enjoyed a consistent period during his time at the club, taking them to the semi-final stage every year.
Another challenge for the Panthers will be the absence of Tyrone May for an indefinite period after he was stood down for his role in the leaking of a lewd tape which circulated on social media.
It will also remain to be seen how halfback Nathan Cleary fares under the coaching of his own father, which will be the first time this has happened anywhere since Martin Lang was coached by his father, John, for the entirety of his NRL career.
Meantime, after crashing from semi-finalists to wooden spooners last year, the Parramatta Eels will be hoping that the only way is up.
Even before he has made his first grade debut, there is excitement building around young halfback Dylan Brown, while Blake Ferguson arrives at the club fresh off winning the premiership with the Sydney Roosters.
Brown is the latest in a very long line of playmakers the Eels are relying on for sustained team success since Peter Sterling led them to their most recent premiership, in 1986, which seems like a lifetime ago even for the die-hard supporters.
Already they’ve had the likes of Tim Smith, Daniel Mortimer, Brett Finch and Chris Sandow, among others, attempt to direct their side for limited success, so the club will be gambling on Dylan Brown to usher in a successful era for the club.
The matches between the Panthers and Eels were split last season, but it was at Penrith last year where the locals took the spoils.
Despite the dramas at the foot of the mountains, the Panthers should emerge victors.
Prediction: Panthers by four points.
Titans versus Raiders
The final match of Round 1 sees the Canberra Raiders make the trip to the Gold Coast to start their season for the second consecutive year.
Ricky Stuart’s side proved to be the hard luck story of season 2018 as they lost numerous match by single-figure margins, including losing the corresponding match last year by 30-28 after leading by 18 points at one stage.
They lost another ten matches by single-figure margins, eventually finishing tenth and five wins outside of the eight; had the Raiders been on the right side of at least half of those results, they could so easily have played finals.
Key players have left the club since the end of last season, with Shannon Boyd moving up to the Gold Coast and Blake Austin signing with the Warrington Wolves in the English Super League.
Bryce Cartwright of the Titans. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)
The Titans didn’t fare well last season either, finishing third-last with eight wins to their name, though of the 16 losses they suffered, seven of them were by single-figure margins, a sign that even in the toughest of times, the side has been competitive to some degree.
Thus, not much is expected of Garth Brennan’s side in 2019, though they did recruit well; in addition to signing Shannon Boyd they have also landed the signatures of Ryley Jacks and Tyrone Peachey from the Storm and Panthers respectively.
Having learnt the lessons of last year, the Raiders will want to get off to a strong start here as they bid to return to the finals for the first time since 2016.
Prediction: Raiders by 10 points.