Over five months have passed since the Sydney Roosters successfully defended their premiership, and starting this weekend, fifteen other clubs will be out to stop them from completing a premiership hat-trick in 2020.
The SCG’s unavailability due to two cricket One Day Internationals will force the Roosters on the road for the first two weeks of the new NRL season, with their premiership defence to start with the long trip west on the M4 to face the Penrith Panthers.
Before then, the Parramatta Eels will have the honour of kicking off the new season when they face long-time rivals the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs at Bankwest Stadium, while the North Queensland Cowboys will christen their new stadium with a clash against Queensland rivals the Brisbane Broncos.
Latrell Mitchell’s Rabbitohs career will start with a clash against the Sharks, while the fierce rivalry between the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles and Melbourne Storm will be a match you will not want to miss on Sunday.
To round out the opening weekend, the under-siege St George Illawarra Dragons will host the Wests Tigers at WIN Stadium in Wollongong for the first time since 2008.
Here is your preview to Round 1.
Eels versus Bulldogs
The race to the 2020 NRL premiership begins this Thursday night, when the Parramatta Eels, a team many have touted as a potential top-four side this season, open proceedings against the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs in front of what is expected to be a sold-out Bankwest Stadium.
After a disappointing 2018 season that saw the club crash from a fourth-place finish to a third wooden spoon in seven years, the Eels rocketed back up the ladder last year, finishing fifth at the end of the minor rounds.
Their resurgence was in part due to the impressive form of key players – namely Maika Sivo, who finished the season as the league’s top tryscorer, captain Clint Gutherson and five-eighth Mitchell Moses.
Last September we saw the best and worst that this side can produce – in the elimination final they took the Brisbane Broncos to the cleaners – thrashing them by a finals-record 58-0 – before being wiped out themselves by the Melbourne Storm 32-0 in the semi-final.
Dylan Brown celebrates scoring a try during the NRL Elimination Final match between the Parramatta Eels and the Brisbane Broncos (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)
There is no doubt the Eels would have learnt a lot from their September campaign and hopefully it will hold them in good stead as they prepare to open the season against the Bulldogs.
Again, not a lot is expected from the boys from Belmore, which struggled throughout the first half of last season before a late-season surge saw them finish 12th on the ladder.
However, they will be without Kieran Foran for the majority, if not all, of the season after he underwent surgery on his reconstructed shoulder before Christmas last year.
It will be left to Lachlan Lewis – the nephew of the great Wally Lewis – to again steer the Bulldogs on the field this season, and I think they will have it tough coming up against the Eels this Thursday night.
Prediction: Eels by 10 points.
Raiders versus Titans
The first match in the unfriendly Friday 6:00pm timeslot sees last year’s beaten grand finalists, the Canberra Raiders, face reigning wooden spooners the Gold Coast Titans in the opening round for the third consecutive season.
But unlike the past two seasons, where the Raiders had to travel to the Gold Coast, Ricky Stuart’s men will have the luxury of playing at home in Round 1 for the first time since 2016.
The Green Machine defied the odds to reach its first grand final since 1994, but were beaten in controversial circumstances by the Roosters 14-8 after scores had been tied at 8-all going into the final ten minutes.
It is the hurt felt by the players that the players hope will spur them on as they attempt to end a 26-year premiership drought – and they couldn’t have landed the Titans as their first opponents in their mission to bring the trophy back to the nation’s capital.
Jack Wighton of the Raiders (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)
The Titans will enter the new season with a new coach in Justin Holbrook, who returns to Australia after three years coaching St Helens, during which he led them to the 2019 Super League premiership.
The ex-Knight, Panther and Rooster is the Titans’ last saviour as they look to avoid a fourth consecutive bottom-three finish, which came after a shock finals appearance in 2016 where they lost to M1 rivals the Brisbane Broncos.
Kevin Proctor has regained the club captaincy and will lead them on his own after the other co-captain, Ryan James, suffered an ACL injury which is set to see him miss the entire season.
Despite a new coach and his impressive record, it looms as another long year for the boys from the holiday strip. That said, the Raiders should start the season off with a bang.
Prediction: Raiders by 24 points.
Cowboys versus Broncos
Four-and-a-half years after Johnathan Thurston declared that north Queensland deserved a new stadium in the wake of his club’s dramatic and historic grand final victory, that dream will become a reality when the Cowboys officially move into their new ground this Friday night.
Quite appropriately, their first match at the brand new North Queensland Stadium, to be known commercially as Queensland Country Bank Stadium, will come against the very team they defeated in the 2015 grand final – the Brisbane Broncos – in what promises to be a sell-out.
The play of Thurston taking the field goal shot that landed the Cowboys their maiden premiership in 2015 has also been immortalised in the shape of a statue that will greet the fans as they enter the venue for the stadium’s first sporting event.
It will be the first time since 2011 that the two teams have met in the opening round of a premiership season – and the first time since 2002 that they will meet in Townsville in Round 1.
After defying all the odds to reach the 2017 grand final, the Cowboys have missed the finals in the past two seasons, and last year endured their worst season since 2010, finishing third-last after struggling to adapt to life after Thurston.
They will be boosted this season by the arrival of Valentine Holmes, who returns to the NRL after his failed stint in the NFL in the United States, but have also lost Matt Scott to retirement, leaving Michael Morgan and Gavin Cooper as the club’s most experienced players.
On the flipside, the Brisbane Broncos will be without powerhouse prop Matthew Lodge for the majority of the season, after he suffered a serious knee injury during pre-season training.
This year will also be the final year in the top grade for club stalwart Darius Boyd, who has announced that he will retire at the end of the season, meaning he will be the final member from the club’s most recent premiership, in 2006, to bow out of the game.
Darius Boyd of the Broncos in action. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)
New recruit Brodie Croft arrives at the club from the Melbourne Storm, looking to become the Broncos’ first premiership No.7 since the unheralded Shane Perry fourteen years ago.
It will remain to be seen how the glamour club enters the new season after being humiliated by the Parramatta Eels by a finals-record 58-0 in the elimination final last year, ending a rather inconsistent first season in the hot seat for Anthony Seibold.
The Cowboys and Broncos also recently contested a trial match against each other, with the northerners prevailing 18-16.
After a disappointing final two seasons at the Willows Sports Complex, I think the Cowboys will usher in a new era at the North Queensland Stadium, the idea of their club legend Johnathan Thurston, with a win.
Prediction: Cowboys by six points.
Knights versus Warriors
The first Saturday afternoon match of the new season sees a new-look Newcastle Knights take on the New Zealand Warriors in Newcastle, with both sides keen to put poor 2019 seasons behind them.
For most of last season, the Knights were on the brink of ending a five-year finals drought, before all hell broke loose and Nathan Brown was released as Knights coach with a handful of games remaining.
He has been replaced by Adam O’Brien, who arrives in the Steel City having been a part of the Storm and Roosters coaching staff that won premierships in 2012, 2017 (Storm) and 2019 (Roosters).
He has promised to bring a hard edge to the success-starved Knights, which has not won a premiership in nearly two decades nor reached a finals series since 2013.
The Newcastle Knights (Tony Feder/Getty Images)
O’Brien’s first task as Knights coach is a winnable home game against the Warriors, which crashed from surprise finalists in 2018 to fourth-last on the ladder with only nine wins and one draw from 24 matches played.
Despite boasting one of the game’s best players in Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, not a lot is expected from the Kiwi side in 2020, and flying under the radar might be just what they need as they attempt to prove the doubters wrong once again.
There are no notable new additions to the club’s playing roster, while they also lost the experience of Issac Luke who has crossed the ditch to join the St George Illawarra Dragons.
At home, there should be no excuses for the Knights not to take the points at home.
Prediction: Knights by 12 points.
Rabbitohs versus Sharks
Season two under Wayne Bennett will get underway for the Rabbitohs this Saturday night when they face the Cronulla Sharks at ANZ Stadium.
Not only that, the Bunnies will also be expected to unveil their biggest signing – Latrell Mitchell – after he sensationally walked out on the Sydney Roosters at the end of last season.
He arrives at the club as an indirect replacement for Greg Inglis, who retired nearly twelve months ago due to injury, and with him will come the pressure and expectation as the Bunnies look to extend their record premiership haul to 22.
It’s also been announced recently that Bennett will hand the reins of the Pride of the League to Jason Demetriou – who was Paul Green’s right-hand man when the Cowboys won the 2015 premiership – at the end of the 2021 season.
Thus, the Bunnies will want to salute at least once while 70-year-old Bennett is still at the club – and this year might be the perfect year to do it in.
Another new era will dawn at Cronulla, which will enter a season without Paul Gallen on its playing list for the first time in two decades, following his retirement at the end of last year.
After Shane Flanagan resigned from the club prior to the start of last season, John Morris did a brilliant job in keeping the club afloat during tough times, eventually taking the club to its seventh finals series in eight years and bowing out to Manly in the first week.
This year and next, however, they will be forced to take their home games up the road to Kogarah Oval – right in the middle of Dragons territory – while Shark Park and the nearby leagues club undergoes redevelopment.
Before that, though, they will start the 2020 season at the very venue where they won their first premiership – in 2016 – but I think they will have a tough time of it coming up against what is expected to be a very strong Rabbitohs side.
Prediction: Rabbitohs by 14 points.
Latrell Mitchell (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)
Panthers versus Roosters
The final match on Saturday night will take us to the foot of the mountains where the Sydney Roosters will begin their bid for a third consecutive premiership against the Penrith Panthers.
Trent Robinson’s men produced a heroic, defensive display to beat the Canberra Raiders in a rather controversial grand final last October, and brought their winning form with them to England last month when they defeated St Helens to also successfully defend their World Club Challenge trophy.
However, their most recent outing ended in a 58-0 loss to the Newcastle Knights, though you should not read a lot into that result because the Chooks fielded a virtual second-grade side that day, with the majority of their top-grade side rested.
They will go into the new season sans Latrell Mitchell, who has joined arch-rivals the Rabbitohs, and Cooper Cronk, who retired at the end of last season, thus leaving Luke Keary and new halfback Kyle Flanagan to orchestrate the club’s magic on the field.
While the Roosters should start favourites on Saturday night, they’ll be wary of a Penrith Panthers side which will have a point to prove after a disappointing 2019 season which saw them finish tenth – a win outside the eight.
Nine players, including veterans Tim Grant and James Maloney, left the club during the summer, while Apisai Koroisau returns to the club after three years at the Sea Eagles.
This will see the Panthers start at long odds to upset the premiers this Saturday night, though they can take heart that they did inflict a 19-10 defeat on the Chooks in their most recent meeting at the foot of the mountains in June last year.
Prediction: Roosters by eight points.
Sea Eagles versus Storm
The first of two matches on Sunday sees the resumption of the most spiteful rivalry in the game’s recent history, when the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles and Melbourne Storm go toe-to-toe in the Battle of Brookvale.
With Des Hasler back at the helm after seven years away from Brookvale Oval, the Sea Eagles defied a horror injury toll, and low expectations, to reach the semi-finals for the first time since 2014.
Unwanted by the Dragons at the end of 2018, Reuben Garrick became one of the premier pointscorers of the competition last year, scoring 16 tries and kicking 65 goals to finish with a personal haul of 194 points.
He and the Trbojevic brothers will again be the key players as the Sea Eagles look to build on their efforts from last year, but it will not come easy against a Storm side many expect to be featuring at the pointy end of the season.
After finishing as minor premiers last year, the Storm dropped its home qualifying final against the Raiders, which subsequently sent them to the same half of the finals draw against the Roosters, who would eventually end their season with a 14-6 win at the SCG.
Brad Parker of the Sea Eagles runs the ball. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)
Ageless captain Cameron Smith will play on for another season, with this to possibly be his last before he rides into the retirement sunset at the age of 37, which he will turn in June this year.
Smith aside, the other Cameron, Munster, will be another key player as the Storm look to retain their place in the upper echelon of the ladder, while this could also be Josh Addo-Carr’s final season in the AFL capital before he returns home to Sydney for personal reasons.
Recent matches between the Sea Eagles and Storm have been either close or spiteful, and I expect this to be no different come Sunday.
Prediction: Storm by 12 points.
Dragons versus Wests Tigers
The final match of Round 1 sees the two merger clubs, St George Illawarra and the Wests Tigers, go head-to-head in the unfriendly Sunday twilight slot at WIN Stadium in Wollongong.
It shapes as a huge 2020 for both clubs, for contrasting reasons – with the Dragons desperate to put a horror 2019, in which they finished second from the bottom of the ladder, behind them, and the Wests Tigers just as desperate to end an eight-year finals drought.
Off-field politics played a partial role in the Dragons’ on-field implosion last year, winning only eight matches to crash to 15th place – the club’s worst finish since the merger came into effect in 1999.
Accordingly, coach Paul McGregor – whom many fans believe was one of the architects of the club’s demise – will enter the new season skating on thin ice as he battles to save his coaching career.
He will be supported by former Sharks premiership winning coach Shane Flanagan on his right-hand side, though he will not be allowed to coach in any capacity until at least 2022 owing to his role in his former club’s supplements scandal last decade.
This means that should McGregor be dismissed, someone else on the Dragons’ coaching staff will have to deputise in the interim.
Meantime, the Wests Tigers will enter the new season with high expectations, with the likelihood that season 2020 will be co-captain Benji Marshall’s final season in the top league before his expected retirement at the end of the year.
The 2005 premiership hero will have to lead the side on his own for at least the first three or four rounds after the other co-captain, Moses Mbye, suffered a knee injury during the pre-season trials.
Marshall and Chris Lawrence are the only players left remaining from the Tigers’ most recent trip to Wollongong, which came all the way back on August 8, 2008 – when they took the points from the Dragons by way of an 18-10 victory.
Despite being without Mbye, the magic of Marshall and his partner-in-crime, Luke Brooks, should steer the Tigers to a Round 1 win.
Prediction: Wests Tigers by eight points.