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The must-see moments in the rebooted NRL season

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Roar Guru
22nd May, 2020
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After the original 2020 fixture past Round 2 was binned, the revised fixture for the remainder of this year has been released, and again it has thrown up some exciting matches that you will only be able to enjoy from in front of a television screen.

Round 1 proceeded as normal with supporters permitted to attend matches, just as the government announced an indefinite ban on non-essential mass gatherings of over 500 people from March 16.

Subsequently, crowd numbers for the rest of the opening round were lower than usual as the fear of the coronavirus, which had yet to hit its peak in Australia, kept many others at home.

Round 2 matches were subsequently played in front of empty stadiums for the first time in Australian rugby league history, with visiting teams catching chartered flights in and out of their destinations on match day – a practice that is expected to continue for the rest of the season.

As it stands, fans will continue to be banned from attending matches in person until an effective vaccine is developed, which may not happen for at least 12 months. This means that the crowd lockouts could continue well into 2021, and possibly into 2022.

Only six venues will be used for at least the next seven rounds, with the Brisbane Broncos, North Queensland Cowboys, Parramatta Eels, Melbourne Storm and Wests Tigers to continue playing at their usual home grounds.

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The six venues to be used are Suncorp Stadium (to be shared by the Broncos and Titans), QCB Stadium (Cowboys), Central Coast Stadium (Knights, Sea Eagles and Warriors), Bankwest Stadium (Bulldogs, Eels, Rabbitohs, Roosters and Sharks), Campbelltown Stadium (Dragons, Panthers, Raiders and Wests Tigers) and AAMI Park (Storm).

Bankwest Stadium

(Image: Supplied)

Although the ACT (along with New South Wales and Victoria) has kept its borders open, Canberra Stadium has been ruled out as a venue, forcing the Raiders on a chartered flight to Bankstown Airport and then a bus down to Campbelltown Stadium.

But as the coronavirus infection rate continues to remain low, there is the chance that several teams may be allowed to return to their home grounds later in the season, with the NRL to review the stadiums situation after Round 9.

1. Round 3
The rebooted season will kick off next Thursday night with the Brisbane Broncos given first opportunity to avenge their humiliating 58-0 elimination final loss to the Parramatta Eels when they square off at Suncorp Stadium.

Originally, the two teams were to have faced off in Rounds 7 (Darwin) and 20 (Brisbane), but the rebooted fixture instead sees them face off in Rounds 3 and 19, with the latter fixture likely to be played at Bankwest Stadium.

It was at the new Parramatta Stadium last September where the Broncos’ pride copped its biggest battering as they suffered their worst defeat in club history, as the Eels ran riot in front of a sell-out blue-and-gold crowd.

But when the teams face off next week, the only people they will be playing in front of will be their own coaching staff as well as others essential to match operations.

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Both the Eels and Broncos won their opening two matches before the season was halted, and so it will be compelling viewing seeing these two sides test each other’s strengths and weaknesses at Suncorp Stadium on Thursday night.

Other matches in Round 3 will see Latrell Mitchell face off against his old club for the first time when the Rabbitohs face the Roosters at Bankwest Stadium, while matches between the Sharks and Wests Tigers, and Storm and Raiders, will be worth watching.

Latrell Mitchell poses for photographs after a South Sydney Rabbitohs NRL press conference

(Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

The Tigers will be keen for some revenge after the Sharks won their final-round encounter in September last year, a result that ruined Robbie Farah’s retirement party and denied the joint venture what would’ve been their first finals berth since 2011.

Meanwhile, the Storm will face the Raiders for the first time since last year’s qualifying final, in which the Green Machine pulled off an upset win, which ultimately set them up to reach their first grand final since 1994.

The Panthers will be without suspended playmaker Nathan Cleary for their home matches against the Knights and Warriors, which will be played some 50 kilometres (and a 40-minute drive) away from their usual home ground, Panthers Stadium.

2. Round 5
While not officially marketed as rivalry round, you could look at it as that way given the number of marquee match-ups that will occur in Round 5, possibly in response to the AFL’s mooted return to competition on June 11.

There will be two local derbies between the Eels and Panthers and the Dragons and Sharks, while there will also be clashes between the Sea Eagles and Broncos in a reenactment of the latter’s first ever match, and between 1995 entrants the Warriors and Cowboys.

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Season 2004 grand final combatants the Bulldogs and Roosters will also face off at Bankwest Stadium, while the Tigers and Raiders will reenact the classic 1989 grand final when the latter team makes the trip up the Hume Highway to Campbelltown Stadium.

3. Knights vs Broncos, Round 6
Just after the revised fixture for the remainder of the 2020 season was released, another bombshell dropped with Brisbane Broncos hooker Andrew McCullough announcing his move to the Newcastle Knights effective immediately.

Andrew McCullough of the Brisbane Broncos.

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

McCullough joins a Knights team that had started the season with two wins before proceedings were suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and his experience will be what the team needs as they attempt to end a six-year finals drought.

He will not have to wait long to face his former teammates, with the two teams to face off on the Thursday night in Round 6 in what will be the Broncos’ second of three matches on the Central Coast within a four-week period.

The Knights have also won their last two matches against the Broncos, but with this to be the only time they meet this season, this is a chance for the northerners to peg back a win against the Novocastrians.

Also in Round 6, the Roosters will play a home game against the Eels at Bankwest Stadium, while the Tigers will welcome the Cowboys to Campbelltown Stadium in what could be the last time Benji Marshall faces the men from Townsville.

4. The grand final rematches, Rounds 10 and 17
In the normal world, the Roosters and Raiders would’ve been gearing up for the grand final rematch in Perth this weekend.

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Instead, fans will have to wait until July 16 – less than two months from now – for the two teams to renew acquaintances for the first time since last year’s controversial decider.

The Roosters had to work hard from start to finish to earn their second consecutive premiership, but it didn’t come without a spirited fight from a Raiders side, which was hard done by by contentious refereeing decisions.

Jack Wighton

(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

A venue for all matches after Round 9 is still to be decided, though it is unlikely the rematch will be played at the SCG as the Sydney Swans will have priority over the ground when the AFL season resumes also to no crowds next month.

It is likely to be played at Bankwest Stadium, which the Roosters will use as their temporary home ground in the first seven rounds of the rebooted competition.

The Raiders will have to wait until Round 17 to host the return leg, but even then, it may not be played at Canberra Stadium, with the chance the Roosters will only have to make the short trip south to Campbelltown Stadium, which the Raiders will base themselves out of for at least Rounds 3 to 9.

5. Bulldogs vs Eels, Round 12
Given the coronavirus pandemic has largely dominated our thoughts and minds since it was declared as such ten weeks ago, it’s easy to forget that these teams faced off in the first match of the season in front of over 20,000 fans at Bankwest Stadium.

On that occasion, the Eels won a low-scoring match by 8-2, but only after the Bulldogs had played out of their skins following a season build-up from hell in which two players were stood down and subsequently sacked by the club for disciplinary reasons.

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But when the two teams face off in the return leg scheduled for Round 12, it will be a whole different world as the only people they will be playing in front of will be their own coaching staff.

There is every chance that it will be played at Bankwest Stadium, as it is expected that ANZ Stadium will have undergone the early stages of redevelopment, which when complete, will see the stadium transformed into a truly rectangular stadium.

That would give the Eels an advantage, with the club expected to benefit from a stretch of five consecutive matches at their home ground after their hit-and-run trip to Brisbane next weekend.

6. Rabbitohs vs Broncos, Round 13
The latest episode in the feud between Wayne Bennett and Anthony Seibold will play out when the Rabbitohs welcome the Brisbane Broncos to Sydney. I say this because we do not know as of yet where this match will be played.

Anthony Seibold

(Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

When the two teams met back in Round 2, it was just as the coronavirus was starting to peak in Australia, which prompted the NRL to slam shut the entry gates to all the stadiums starting on March 16.

The Broncos won that match by 22-18, with that result seeing Seibold get his first win against Bennett in five attempts after being on the wrong end of four previous occasions: twice each as Souths coach (in 2018) and Broncos coach (last year).

7. The final round
For the first time since 2017, there will be a Queensland derby in the final round, but should the government’s ban on non-essential mass gatherings of over 500 continue into September, the match would very likely instead attract massive ratings for Channel Nine in Brisbane.

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The two teams met back in Round 1, in which the Broncos destroyed the Cowboys’ christening of the new North Queensland Stadium in front of a crowd of 22,459 – the highest crowd for any match so far this year.

The Cowboys will now have to wait until September 24 – by which point it will have been over six months since the non-essential mass gathering ban was put into place – for a second shot at the Broncos, the club they defeated to win the 2015 premiership.

Also in this round, the Rabbitohs and Roosters will face off for the second time this season, following on from their Friday night showdown, which will be the first match of the revamped fixture to be played in Sydney next week.

Both the Sharks and Raiders may find themselves playing off for a finals berth when they face off on the Saturday, while the Dragons and Storm will play the final match of the regular season before the finals kick off the following weekend.

Cameron Smith and Brendon Smith.

(Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

It’s expected that the finals series will remain unchanged from its current format, with the grand final scheduled to be played at the Sydney Cricket Ground on October 25.

However, should the men’s Twenty20 World Cup still go ahead as scheduled, which is shaping as unlikely given the visiting countries would be forced to quarantine for a fortnight upon arrival into Australia, the decider would instead be played at Bankwest Stadium.

There is also some doubt as to whether the third NRL Women’s season will go ahead, with the Roosters having reportedly pulled the pin on any hopes of playing this year, while only the Dragons have committed to the month-long season.

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State of Origin will move to the post-season for the first time, with the three matches to be played on consecutive Wednesday nights in November, which should guarantee high ratings for the Nine Network regardless of whether crowds would be permitted to attend or not.

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NSW coach Brad Fittler has announced his intentions to name an extended squad for the revamped series, and will oversee the NRL finals series before deciding which players he decides to draft into his side, which will be seeking a third consecutive series victory.

The women’s Origin has been scheduled for Friday, November 13, with a venue for that match still to be decided. The Sunshine Coast had been mooted as a host venue, but should Queensland’s state borders remain shut, the match may have to be relocated to Sydney.

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It’s also expected that the Origin series will move back to the winter months next year, meaning that whoever wins the shield this year will only hold it for about eight months.

Those are just some of the highlights of the revamped 2020 NRL fixture, with the countdown now on to Thursday night’s clash between the Brisbane Broncos and Parramatta Eels at Suncorp Stadium.

I will provide a full preview of Round 3 next week.