After years of promise, Jack Wighton finally arrived as a top player in 2019.
The highly anticipated draw for the 2020 NRL season has been released, and the Sydney Roosters will have the biggest targets on their heads as 15 other clubs attempt to prevent them from notching a hat trick of NRL titles to kick off the new decade.
Each club has now received their fixture of matches for the 2020 season, with the Canberra Raiders receiving the easiest draw as they attempt to put their controversial grand final loss behind them.
Down at the other end of the ladder, incoming coach Justin Holbrook will have a tough time of it trying to mould the Gold Coast Titans into a competitive side, his side copping the most difficult draw of them all with their first six matches all against finals teams, with only two at home.
The impending renovations to ANZ Stadium will mean that the Bulldogs and Rabbitohs will be forced to relocate temporarily to Bankwest Stadium in Parramatta in the second half of the season, with the Sydney Cricket Ground to host the grand final for the next two years.
PointsBet Stadium in Cronulla will also be out of action, meaning the Sharks will have to play all bar one of their home games right in the middle of Dragons heartland at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, including hosting their rivals in their own backyard in the penultimate round of the season.
Once again, Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium will host Magic Round, which will take place one round earlier next year (Round 8), while it will also host the final Origin match, which Maroons fans hope will be the series-deciding match.
Here are just some of the highlights to look forward to in 2020.
1. The opening round
As always, the opening round of matches cannot be missed.
The season will kick off with a massive western Sydney clash between the Parramatta Eels and Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs at Bankwest Stadium
The following evening, all three Queensland sides will be in action, with the Gold Coast Titans making the tough trip down to the nation’s capital to face the Canberra Raiders before the North Queensland Cowboys christen their new stadium with a clash against the Brisbane Broncos.
This will see the Cowboys move closer to home, with their old ground – the Willows Sports Complex – being a 20-minute drive from the CBD. That said, the new North Queensland Stadium is also expected to be served well by the Townsville railway station.
It will come four-and-a-half years after Johnathan Thurston said in the aftermath of the Cowboys’ historic grand final win over the Broncos in 2015 that the city of Townsville deserved a new stadium to replace the outdated Willows Sports Complex.
The future of the stadium commercially known as 1300SMILES Stadium remains in doubt, though the Cowboys will continue to use the ground as a training and administration base until they move into their new headquarters at the new stadium.
Both clashes between the Queensland heavyweights will take place inside the first five rounds, with the Broncos to host the return leg on Good Friday at Suncorp Stadium.
Saturday will see the Newcastle Knights, armed with a new coach, take on the New Zealand Warriors at home before the South Sydney Rabbitohs, who will be expected to have a new captain following the retirement of Sam Burgess, host the Sharks at ANZ Stadium.
That all leads into a blockbuster clash at the foot of the mountains between the Penrith Panthers and two-time defending premiers the Sydney Roosters, who will be forced on the road for the first three weeks due to the SCG’s unavailability.
The Battle of Brookvale will highlight the opening Sunday of the season, while the Dragons and Wests Tigers will conclude proceedings in the twilight with their first clash in Wollongong since 2008.
2. An historic NRL-Super Rugby double header in Round 2
History will be made in Round 2 of the NRL season (Round 8 of the Super Rugby season) when Eden Park in Auckland hosts an unprecedented cross-code double header, both involving clubs from Auckland and Canberra.
After starting their season with an away game in Newcastle, the New Zealand Warriors will mark their first home game of the season with a blockbuster clash against last year’s beaten grand finalists the Canberra Raiders, but that’s only just the beginning.
Once the Warriors and Raiders leave the field, ground management will then need to re-mark the playing field as the Blues and Brumbies will then contest their Round 8 Super Rugby clash merely half an hour later.
The Warriors may have suffered a disappointing 2019 season on the field but they did cause a boil-over in the final round this year when they came from behind to defeat the Raiders in the nation’s capital, denying them a top-two finish in the process.
Thus, they will want to reward their home fans with another win over the Green Machine in front of what is likely to be a bumper crowd at Eden Park.
3. The Bennett-Seibold feud continues, Rounds 2 and 9
Fans of the Brisbane Broncos and South Sydney Rabbitohs will not have to wait long for their first clash of the season, which will also double as the Broncos’ first home game of the season after starting with an away game for the fifth straight year.
For just the second time, the Rabbitohs completed the season double over the Broncos this year, cleaning up with a 38-6 win at ANZ Stadium in Round 8 before escaping with a 22-20 win at Suncorp Stadium in Round 23.
This saw Wayne Bennett extend his record against Anthony Seibold to four wins without loss, having also overseen two Broncos victories over the Rabbitohs in 2018 before the two coaches swapped homes nearly 12 months ago.
The Broncos will have the home ground advantage for the first of two clashes between the sides this season, and will surely want to reward their fans for sticking by the team after a shocking end to the 2019 season, in which they lost their elimination final against the Eels by 58-0.
Seven weeks later, the teams will be at it again, this time at ANZ Stadium, meaning both their clashes will take place inside the first half of the year.
4. Anzac Round
There will be at least three matches you will not want to miss this Anzac Round.
Up in the Top End, the Parramatta Eels and Brisbane Broncos will face off for the first time since last year’s elimination final, which saw the westerners record the largest win in NRL finals history, and at the same time hand the Broncos their worst ever defeat, with a 58-0 win at Bankwest Stadium.
But at least the Broncos will not have to step foot into the western Sydney venue, the scene of their most embarrassing defeat in club history, with the rematch set down for TIO Stadium in Darwin, which has served as the Eels’ home away from home since 2015.
Saturday will see a blockbuster triple-header, headlined by the annual Anzac Day clash between the Dragons and Roosters at the SCG.
Later in the evening, the Cowboys will lock horns with the Bulldogs at the new North Queensland Stadium before the Storm and Warriors wrap up proceedings with their yearly Anzac night clash at AAMI Park.
Also in this round, the Rabbitohs will head down the highway to Canberra for their first clash against the Raiders since last year’s preliminary final, which saw the locals sneak home 16-10 and book their place in the grand final for the first time in 25 years.
5. Magic Round
After the success of the inaugural Magic Round this year, the concept will return in 2020, in a slightly different format.
As opposed to this year when the eight matches were played across four days, next year all eight matches will be played across three days, with a Queensland side to feature on each day.
The Broncos will again play an ‘away’ game against the Sea Eagles on their home turf on the Friday night, while the Cowboys will face the Roosters on the Saturday night before the Titans wrap up the extravaganza by hosting the Panthers on the Sunday evening.
Other matches to watch include those between the Rabbitohs and Knights, the Bulldogs and Raiders, and the Storm and Dragons in what will be their only meeting this season.
6. Broncos versus Dragons, Round 10
If there’s one match that Brisbane Broncos fans will want highlighted on their calendars, it’s their Round 10 home clash against the St George Illawarra Dragons.
It will have been over 12 months since the two sides last met, when the Dragons stole the points from the locals with a stunning 25-24 win, with ex-Bronco Corey Norman putting the dagger through the hearts of Brisbane fans with a field goal in the final seconds.
This came six-and-a-half months after the Dragons arrived in Brisbane badly out of form after an indifferent end to the season, yet trampled the Broncos by 48-18 in the elimination final in their own backyard.
Also lighting the fuse or this clash will be the presence of Ben Hunt in opposition colours. After a reasonable first season in the Red V, Hunt bore plenty of the blame as the Dragons crashed to a second-last place finish in 2019.
He will be fired up more than most to make a point against his old club, having not lost against them since making the high-profile move from Red Hill to Kogarah at the end of the 2017 season.
Also in Round 10, Adam O’Brien and the Newcastle Knights will make the trip down the F3 to take on the Sydney Roosters at the SCG, where several Roosters-turned-Knights – Mitchell Pearce, Aidan Guerra and Shaun Kenny-Dowall, among others – will look to plot the downfall of their old club.
The Bulldogs will also get a chance to improve their recent dreadful record at their spiritual home when they welcome the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles to Belmore Oval, while the Eels will return to Melbourne for the first time since their 32-0 loss to the Storm in this year’s semi-final.
7. The grand final rematches, Rounds 11 and 15
It’s unusual for a non-rugby league city to host a grand final rematch but that’s exactly what will happen when the Sydney Roosters and Canberra Raiders face off for the first time since their controversial decider earlier this month.
HBF Park in Perth will be the venue as the Roosters begin their three-year foray into WA, while they will continue to share the SCG with the Sydney Swans next season as the rebuild of the Sydney Football Stadium continues.
It will be the second time the Western Australia capital hosts a grand final rematch, after the Sea Eagles and Warriors contested a clash at the since-demolished Domain Stadium in 2012, a year after they had met in the 2011 decider.
Five weeks later, the Chooks and Raiders will be at it again, this time at GIO Stadium in Canberra where the reigning premiers will expect to be booed by an unforgiving Raiders crowd who will probably still be angry from the refereeing decisions that cost their side glory in the grand final.
Also in Round 15, the Bulldogs and Rabbitohs will farewell ANZ Stadium before it’s converted from a circular oval to a truly rectangular field.
Perth will host another match in Round 18, when the Bulldogs face the Melbourne Storm in a Saturday twilight clash.
8. Sharks versus Dragons, Round 24
The southern Sydney rivalry between the Sharks and Dragons will go up a notch when the Cronulla-based side ‘host’ the locals on their own home turf at Kogarah.
Redevelopment works at the Sharks Leagues Club adjacent to PointsBet Stadium, which are expected to take up to two years, mean the Sharks will have to play all their home games up the road, right in the middle of Dragons heartland.
While this will effectively give the Dragons an extra home game, they will be forced to use the visitors’ sheds. Still, Dragons fans will be out in force as they look to show their rivals just who is boss.
It will be the second time the sides meet at the iconic venue during the season, with the Dragons to host the Round 14 encounter, which will be televised on a Sunday by Channel Nine. It will be the last NRL game before the league pauses for the representative weekend the following week.
9. State of Origin
As always, you cannot miss State of Origin in 2020.
For the third straight year, Origin will be hosted outside of Sydney and Brisbane, with the iconic Adelaide Oval to host the first game on Wednesday, June 3.
Sydney’s ANZ Stadium will host the second game on Sunday, June 21, while Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium will host the decider two-and-a-half weeks later.
For New South Wales, there is the incentive to win the first game in the City of Churches, as this would give them the chance to wrap up the series in what will be their final game at the Olympic Stadium before it undergoes significant renovations for the next few years.
On the flip side, Queensland will also want to win Game 1 to ensure that the decider at home is either a live rubber, or a celebration of the Maroons’ series victory should they also win Game Two in Sydney.
The women’s Origin will shift up north to the Sunshine Coast, following two years of being held at the North Sydney Oval.
This will present a new challenge for the New South Wales team, captained by Kezie Apps, to successfully defend their crown, especially with the Ali Brigginshaw-led Maroons keen to make the most of their home ground advantage.
10. The NRL finals
Finally, after 25 rounds of jam-packed action, the eight best-performed teams will go at it over the course of four weeks as they fight it out for the 2020 NRL premiership.
After doing what no team could do in over a quarter of a century and successfully defending their premiership, the Sydney Roosters will be out to achieve what hasn’t been done since 1983 – win three consecutive titles.
The Roosters end this decade as the most successful team in this period, winning three premierships and finishing runners-up on another occasion. If you also include their 2002 title, they are also the most successful team this century, though they did win a wooden spoon in 2009.
For the second consecutive year, the AFL and NRL grand finals will not be on the same weekend. The league decider will take place one week after the AFL’s, meaning the sport will have the lead-up week all to itself.
Those are just some of the highlights of the 2020 NRL fixture, which is always filled with excitement and intrigue. The countdown is now on to Thursday, March 12, with the season kicking off between the Parramatta Eels and Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs at Bankwest Stadium.