Here is the next part in this six-part series on the NRL’s most powerful clubs.
Ladies and gentlemen, the wait is nearly over, because after nine weeks in hibernation we finally have some live NRL action to look forward to this weekend.
After Round 1 went ahead without a hitch, Round 2 matches were played with fans locked out of stadiums for the first time in over a hundred years of Australian rugby league history, as the coronavirus pandemic started to reach its peak in Australia.
Subsequently, as the rate of infection increased, the decision was made to suspend the season indefinitely, and at the time it was unclear whether the season would return.
In the intervention, Peter V’landys and Wayne Pearce came up with what was dubbed “Project Apollo” – manufacturing ways to get the NRL season back up and running while ensuring the safety of all players and parties concerned.
All NRL players and staff are now living under the strictest rules possible – only being allowed to leave their places of residence for club training, shopping for essentials and picking up their children from school.
The number of new cases has also dramatically decreased, with human movement both interstate and abroad having decreased in the face of the world’s biggest health crisis in a century.
But now, Australia is past the worst of the pandemic and this has cleared the way for some normality to return to our lives, including the return of the NRL season, which fans will have to enjoy from in front of a television screen with non-essential mass gatherings still outlawed by the Government.
Until an effective vaccine is developed and approved by the government, crowd attendances at sporting events will remain a non-existent thing, though there have been talks to slowly allow fans to attend matches again, so long that social distancing measures are adhered to.
Without further ado, let’s preview Round 3 of the rebooted NRL season.
Broncos versus Eels
The first match of the revived season sees the Parramatta Eels make the trip over the border to face fellow unbeaten side, the Brisbane Broncos, at Suncorp Stadium on Thursday evening.
While the NSW-Queensland border remains shut to the public, and is likely to be the case until September, all NRL and AFL clubs have been granted an exemption to access Queensland by air, so long that players either agree to take a flu jab or be granted an exemption from it.
It is expected that the Eels will fly out of Sydney on a chartered flight to Brisbane early on Thursday afternoon, and then catch a direct bus to Suncorp Stadium to play their match before catching a flight home straight after full-time; it would likely be midnight when they land.
The blue and gold could not have been more impressive in its last outing before the suspension of the season, thrashing the Titans on the Gold Coast 46-6 to sit on top of the ladder after two rounds.
Even more impressive were the Brisbane Broncos, which first defeated the Cowboys 28-21 in Townsville before edging out the Rabbitohs 22-18 in a thriller at Suncorp Stadium.
This will be the first time the two sides face each other since last year’s elimination final, in which the Eels handed the northerners their worst ever defeat with a 58-0 humiliation at Bankwest Stadium.
However, this will be a different Broncos side that the Eels face and at Suncorp Stadium, they will be a much tougher proposition.
That said, as impressive as the Eels have been to start the season, I think the Broncos will take the points.
Prediction: Broncos by eight points.
Cowboys versus Titans
The first of the two Friday night matches sees the Gold Coast Titans, with their tails between their legs after two disappointing defeats to start the new season, make the difficult trip to face the Cowboys in Townsville.
The task that new coach Justin Holbrook has at hand was easy to see in the opening two rounds, as they succumbed meekly to the Raiders and Eels in the opening two rounds, and even with the reduced season, things don’t appear to be looking bright in the short-to-long term.
To register their first win of the season, they’ll need to smash two hoodoos; firstly, they haven’t beaten the Cowboys since 2014, nor have they won in Townsville since Round 1, 2012, when they won 18-0.
On the flipside, the Cowboys will be playing at their new North Queensland Stadium for just the second time, and will be hoping for a much better result after the Brisbane Broncos wrecked the venue’s inauguration by handing them a 28-21 defeat.
The Cows’ other outing saw them stay ahead of the Bulldogs as they won 24-16 in the first ever NRL match without crowds in attendance. It was masterminded by another dominant performance from Jason Taumalolo, who will need to lead from the front again if they are to win.
History favours the men from Townsville, which has won their past nine matches against the Titans dating back to 2014, and will be favoured to make it ten straight this Friday night.
Prediction: Cowboys by 16 points.
Roosters versus Rabbitohs
Without doubt, this is the match to look forward to.
Originally, this match was due to be played on a Friday night in Round 3, though while the NRL fixture has been reworked, the match between the Roosters and Rabbitohs will remain as part of the new Round 3.
It will see Latrell Mitchell face up against his old side for the first time, after he left Bondi Junction in acrimonious circumstances at the end of last season, eventually crossing over to the Rabbitohs to link up with veteran coach Wayne Bennett.
Already Mitchell has had a slow start to life at Redfern, being hooked midway through the second half against the Sharks while also being quiet against the Broncos in Brisbane in Round 2.
However, facing the Roosters could be exactly what he needs as he looks to rediscover the form that saw him earn State of Origin selection not very long ago.
Another boost for the Bunnies will be the return of centre James Roberts, after he entered rehab earlier this month, but they will be without Cody Walker due to a two-match suspension imposed by the NRL.
The Bunnies’ points-for-and-against is an even 0, having beaten the Sharks by four points at home before losing to the Broncos by the same margin before the competition was suspended.
The Roosters, meanwhile, have fared worse – being run down from behind by the Penrith Panthers at the foot of the mountains before being sunk by a Daly Cherry-Evans field goal in a 9-8 loss to the Sea Eagles at Leichhardt Oval.
That has left them at zero wins and two losses and facing a huge mountain to climb if they are to become the first triple-premier since Parramatta in 1981-83.
After being rested from the opening two rounds, captain Boyd Cordner is now a chance to play every match for the rest of the season before he leads NSW into battle in the State of Origin arena after the end of the season.
His return could be exactly what the Chooks need as they look to belatedly kick-start their season, and a bid for a third straight premiership.
Prediction: Roosters by 12 points.
Warriors versus Dragons
The first match on Saturday afternoon sees the New Zealand Warriors play their first “home” match on the Central Coast when they face the Dragons, with both sides desperate to break their season ducks.
The Warriors were in the middle of playing its Round 1 match against the Knights, which they lost 20-0, when New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that all arrivals into her country would be required to quarantine for a fortnight upon arrival.
They then played their Round 2 match against the Raiders on the Gold Coast, before the NRL season was shut down and the players subsequently returned home to New Zealand.
Now, the season revival would not have been possible if not for their selfless return back to Australia, where they quarantined and trained in Tamworth for two weeks before relocating to the Central Coast, where they will base themselves indefinitely.
Given their injury toll, the club has been granted permission to loan players from rival clubs so as to stay as competitive as possible while they remain separated from their families for an indefinite period of time.
There is, however, talk of a Trans-Tasman bubble which would allow travel between Australia and New Zealand without the need to quarantine in either country, given the low number of active COVID-19 cases.
On the other side of the coin are the Dragons, who also dropped their opening two matches but could so easily have won both if not for some lapses in defence, especially in their Round 2 loss to the Panthers at Kogarah Oval.
Their 0-2 start has already generated some impatience among the fans, who continue to insist they will not head anywhere while Paul McGregor remains their coach.
They have also lost their last three against the Warriors, after previously not losing to them since 2016, but I think they should break that streak with a win here.
Prediction: Dragons by eight points.
Sharks versus Wests Tigers
The twilight match will see the Cronulla Sharks face the Wests Tigers further away from home, with the match to be played at Bankwest Stadium in Parramatta – an hour’s drive from Cronulla.
Having already been forced out of Shark Park due to redevelopments to the adjacent leagues club, the Sharks moved their home games to Kogarah Oval, but that venue has been deemed not to meet biosecurity requirements for the NRL’s return under phase one.
Playing home games out of Bankwest will effectively give them the nickname “Parramatta Sharks”, and had Paul Gallen not retired at the end of last season, this would’ve been a good chance for him to experience the new ground that opened in April last year.
The Sharks were unlucky not to win any of their first two games, first being denied a win over the Rabbitohs after being pinged for a forward pass that could’ve otherwise led to a try, and then being pipped by the Melbourne Storm at Kogarah Oval in Round 2.
Now they will face a Wests Tigers side which sits at 1-1 but were extremely disappointing in its Round 2 loss to the Knights at Leichhardt Oval after starting with a come-from-behind win over the Dragons at Wollongong in Round 1.
When play was suspended, the Tigers sat in ninth place on the ladder – a position all too familiar with them as that’s where they finished in three of the past four completed seasons, most recently last year.
In fact, it was in their last meeting against the Sharks last year where they imploded; with a finals berth on the line, and with Robbie Farah playing his farewell game before retirement, the Tigers crumbled in front of their fans at Leichhardt Oval to lose 25-8.
Though there is still a long way to go before October (which is when the finals series will take place – one month later than usual), the Tigers will surely want to avoid a repeat of that insipid performance, which saw their finals drought extend to eight seasons.
While both sides appear evenly poised, I think the Tigers should take the points.
Prediction: Wests Tigers by six points.
Storm versus Raiders
After some uncertainty over whether the Storm would be permitted to play their home games at AAMI Park, the club has been given the green light on that front and will, on Saturday night, welcome the Canberra Raiders to the Victorian capital.
It will be the first time the Storm play at home this season after starting their year with consecutive trips to Sydney, first defeating the Sea Eagles at Brookvale Oval in Round 1 before edging out the Sharks at Kogarah Oval six days later.
As per the government restrictions currently in place, fans won’t get the chance to see their heroes in the flesh, however there are talks that the Storm are in discussions to slowly allow fans back into AAMI Park sooner rather than later.
The Victorian government recently announced that from June 22, indoor sporting venues, stadiums, cinemas and concert venues can host up to 50 seated patrons, so long that social distancing measures are adhered to.
While it remains what this will mean for the NRL and AFL, both of which will lock fans out of grounds “for the foreseeable future”, the Storm have been given approval by the NRL to push ahead with its “test case”, though there is still some way to go on that front.
On the field, they’ll be hoping to settle a score against the Canberra Raiders, which is unbeaten with two wins from as many matches, having lost to them twice at home last year – first in Round 22, and then in the qualifying final last year.
In the latter match, a try to John Bateman saw the Raiders score an upset 12-10 victory – marking their first finals win away from Canberra since 2010 and ultimately setting them up to reach the grand final, which they lost to the Roosters in controversial fashion.
That came four weeks after they came from 18-0 down to beat the Storm 22-18, and in what will be their third visit to Melbourne in ten months, I think they can do it again.
Prediction: Raiders by two points.
Panthers versus Knights
The first of two matches on Sunday afternoon will see the Penrith Panthers take on the Newcastle Knights in a match that has been transferred to Campbelltown Stadium.
The mountain men are one of several clubs which will have to play their home games away from their true home grounds, but there is every chance they will be permitted to play at Panthers Stadium again this season when the NRL reviews the stadiums situation after Round 9.
They had made an impressive start to the season, but had to come from behind to win both its openers against the Roosters at home, and then the Dragons at Kogarah Oval.
However, their task against fellow 2-0 team the Knights will be made even harder with playmaker Nathan Cleary to miss the next two matches due to a suspension arising from his breaching of strict social distancing guidelines.
As for the Knights, after starting the season with a 20-0 win over the Warriors, they ran riot against the Wests Tigers at Leichhardt Oval, winning 42-24 – but then dropping to second on the ladder on for-and-against (+38 to the Eels’ +46).
It is a positive start for new coach Adam O’Brien, who had promised to bring a hard edge to the club, which has not made finals since 2013 and has struggled mostly since Andrew Johns retired early in the 2007 season.
Due to new protocols restricting long-term accommodation at and around certain places, it’s expected the Knights will leave Newcastle sometime after 12:00 on Sunday, play their match at Campbelltown and then make the trip back home, making for a five-hour round trip.
It will be a tough test for both sides, but Nathan Cleary’s absence could prove telling for the Panthers – and I think the Knights will take the points.
Prediction: Knights by 10 points.
Sea Eagles versus Bulldogs
The final match of Round 3 sees the Sea Eagles take their home game against the Bulldogs to the Central Coast, somewhat paying homage to the failed merger of the early-2000s that was the Northern Eagles.
After falling short against the Storm in the opening round, the magic boot of Daly Cherry-Evans got the Sea Eagles home in a thriller against the Roosters at Leichhardt Oval, with the Silvertails winning 9-8.
That match was originally going to be played on the Central Coast, but was moved to Leichhardt Oval so as to reduce travel by both clubs just as the coronavirus pandemic hits its peak in Australia.
They will now start favourites on Sunday to beat the Bulldogs, which lost their opening two matches of the season amid trying circumstances, in particular having two players stood down, and subsequently sacked, for disciplinary reasons.
The Dogs were brave in losing 8-2 to the Parramatta Eels in front of over 20,000 fans at Bankwest Stadium – something that now seems like ages ago – before being put on the back foot in the Round 2 loss to the Cowboys at an empty ANZ Stadium.
Five-eighth Kieran Foran – who was given next to no chance of playing this season after undergoing shoulder surgery last year – could yet put his hand up to make a miracle comeback for the clash against his old club.
However, on the Central Coast, the Sea Eagles’ experience should win out here.
Prediction: Sea Eagles by six points.