Brad Fittler nailed his team changes perfectly for Origin II.
Just 22 weeks after the Penrith Panthers lifted the NRL premiership at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, the quest of the 15 other teams to prevent them from repeating as premiers finally gets underway this weekend.
The premiers’ off-season has not been without drama, with several players having departed for other clubs while Nathan Cleary underwent shoulder surgery and is hopeful of featuring in round one.
They have the honour of kicking off proceedings when they welcome the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles to the foot of the mountains, in what will be the final season played at Penrith Stadium in its current configuration before it is knocked down and rebuilt at year’s end.
The grudge match between Adam Reynolds and his old club the South Sydney Rabbitohs will have to wait, with the newly-appointed Broncos captain and new halfback ruled out of Friday night’s clash after testing positive for COVID-19.
Among the other matches of the round, the Warriors will begin another season mostly based in Australia against the Dragons in Redcliffe, where they have set up camp for at least the first half of the season while they remained locked out of their home country.
At this stage, it remains unclear when Nathan Brown’s side will return to Mount Smart Stadium, with a planned homecoming against the Panthers in mid-June called off.
The Wests Tigers, without a finals appearance for over a decade, have the unenviable task of facing the Melbourne Storm, which has not lost their first match of a season since 2001 (or 2004 if you include their Round 2 loss to the Knights after they had a bye in Round 1).
At the end of the round, a new-look Bulldogs side stacked with premiership stars Matt Burton and Josh Addo-Carr make the long trip north to Townsville to tackle the Cowboys in the battle of last year’s two worst-performed teams.
Round 3 of the NRL Women’s season features a potential grand final preview between the Dragons and Broncos, while the Roosters and Knights will attempt to get off the mark when they clash at the SCG before their men’s sides do battle in the afternoon.
The other match sees the Eels and Titans, with one win each to their credit, do battle on Sunday afternoon before their men’s teams take centre stage at CommBank Stadium.
Here is your preview to Round 1.
Panthers vs Sea Eagles
It all kicks off on Thursday night, when the Penrith Panthers unfurl their premiership in front of their fans prior to their clash against the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles at the foot of the mountains.
It will also mark a homecoming of the side after they and the other nine NSW-based clubs were forced to evacuate north to Queensland at the peak of last year’s COVID-19 outbreak in the Harbour City, eventually winning the title at Suncorp Stadium.
Last year’s Clive Churchill Medallist, Nathan Cleary, is racing the clock to be fit for the season opener, and if he is passed fit to play he will lead a different-looking Panthers side into battle at home for the first time since July last year.
Brent Naden, Matt Burton and Tevita Pangai Jr. have crossed to wooden spooners the Bulldogs, while Kurt Capewell has moved north to Brisbane where he will hope to be part of a Broncos revival in 2022.
First in the line of fire are the Sea Eagles, who will once again be led by veteran halves Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans, more than a decade removed from when the rookies led their side to its eighth and most recent premiership in 2011.
The Stewart brothers might be long gone, but the Trbojevic brothers have proven worthy replacements, not least Tom who took out last year’s Dally M Medal as the best individual player in the NRL last season.
An impressive season by the Silvertails saw them finish fourth on the ladder and get to as far as the preliminary final where they were stopped in their tracks by the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
Now they have the enviable task of making the painfully long 76.6km trek out west to the foot of the mountains, where they can expect to be booed as the Panthers faithful welcome and toast their champion team back home.
Try as the Sea Eagles might, but the Panthers should kick off their premiership defence with a win, as they failed to do in 2004 (when it lost to the Knights by 20-14 in the first match of that season).
Prediction: Panthers by eight points.
Raiders vs Sharks
The Craig Fitzgibbon era at Cronulla begins with a tough road trip to Canberra, where the 2002 Clive Churchill Medallist will come up against his Roosters premiership-winning coach from the same year, Ricky Stuart, who this year begins his ninth season as Raiders coach.
A tumultuous 2021 season saw John Morris sensationally sacked as the club’s coach, despite taking his side to the finals in two completed seasons as coach, with Josh Hannay thrown into the hot seat on an interim basis.
The coaching dramas, among other issues, were factors in the club finishing ninth on the ladder, meaning the club missed out on finals football for the first time since 2014, and just the second time in the past decade.
Just how serious they are of their intent to return to September was highlighted by their off-season recruitment drive which saw them land Storm pair Dale Finucane and Nicho Hynes, as well as former Dragons captain Cameron McInnes, who sat out the entire 2021 season due to a knee injury.
They have lost some experience though, with Aaron Woods, Shaun Johnson, Josh Dugan and Will Chambers among others leaving the club.
The Raiders are also another club which has had a longer off-season to prepare for this season after also missing the finals last year, losing its final regular season match against the Roosters to finish in tenth place on the ladder – therefore sitting out September for the first time since 2018.
Among their arrivals include Jamal Fogarty and Adam Elliott from the Titans and Bulldogs, respectively, while this will be Josh Hodgson’s final season in the nation’s capital before he joins the Parramatta Eels next year.
The clash in the coaches’ box between the 2002 Roosters premiership mentor (Stuart) against his Clive Churchill Medallist (Fitzgibbon) promises to be interesting and intriguing, and I think the Green Machine have the goods to come up with the win at home.
Prediction: Raiders by six points.
Broncos vs Rabbitohs
What was shaping as a grudge match has unfortunately lost its spark, with new Broncos captain and halfback Adam Reynolds ruled out of Friday night’s clash against his old side the Rabbitohs after contracting COVID-19 last week.
Still, despite the Pride of the League winning both clashes last year by at least 29 points, including by 46-0 in the teams’ last meeting, we can look forward to the latest instalment of the rivalry between the Broncos and Rabbitohs, which has reached fever pitch in recent years.
There was the direct coach swap between Wayne Bennett and Anthony Seibold, while several players have called Brisbane and South Sydney home, including, among others, brothers Ben and Shane Walker, Ashley Harrison, Dave Taylor, Jaydn Su’A and James Roberts.
Adam Reynolds is the latest player to join the club of playing for both sides, though as mentioned at the lead he has been ruled out meaning another fellow recruit, Kurt Capewell, will captain the side on Friday night.
A new era has begun for the Rabbitohs, with Jason Demetriou taking the reins from veteran coach Bennett, and Cameron Murray becoming the club’s newest captain following Reynolds’ departure.
Jaydn Su’A and Tautau Moga have both left for the Dragons, while Dane Gagai has returned to Newcastle and veteran Benji Marshall has retired.
But despite the loss of so much experience, many will expect the Rabbitohs to be up there among the contenders for the premiership, while it will remain to be seen how the Broncos are tracking in their rebuild under second-year coach Kevin Walters.
It will be difficult to pick a winner with any real confidence here, but I think the Bunnies’ recent successful history should get them the points in this one, but not without an almighty fight from the Broncos.
Prediction: Rabbitohs by 10 points.
Roosters vs Knights
A huge double header sees the Roosters and Knights’ NRL and NRLW teams take centre stage at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Saturday afternoon.
In the NRLW, both sides will be seeking their first win of the season, and in the case of the Knights their first win in the competition, following competitive efforts against the Eels and Broncos in their first two matches.
Meanwhile, despite fielding a star-studded line-up featuring representative centres Jessica Sergis and Isabelle Kelly, the Chooks have so far disappointed, with their poor skills proving costly in a shock loss to the Titans in Wollongong last Sunday.
The men’s sides then take centre stage at 3:00pm, with Trent Robinson to begin his tenth season in charge of the Roosters fresh off the news that he has had his contract with the club extended to the end of the 2028 season.
By the end of it, only Wayne Bennett (21 consecutive seasons at the Broncos between 1988 and 2008 inclusive) and Craig Bellamy (who is about to begin his 20th consecutive season as Storm coach) will have served as coach at any one club in continuous fashion for longer.
With playmaker Luke Keary back on deck after he missed all but the opening three rounds of last year, the Chooks enter the new season as premiership favourites, and it will be exciting seeing him partnered with last year’s rookie half Sam Walker in the halves.
Walker single-handedly saved his side’s season after debuting against the Warriors in round four – the round following Keary’s season-ending ACL injury – leading an injury-hit side to the semi-finals where they were comfortably beaten by the Sea Eagles in Mackay.
Meanwhile, the Knights enter a new era with captain Mitchell Pearce having departed for the Super League, while veteran playmaker Blake Green retired after a journeyman career which saw him play for seven different NRL clubs.
Connor Watson is also another notable departee, returning to the Roosters with his presence in the tricolours set to prove a subplot at the SCG on Saturday afternoon.
There are only two notable arrivals in the Steel City – those of Dane Gagai (who returns to the club after 92 games with the Rabbitohs) and Adam Clune, who joins from St George Illawarra.
Under second-year coach Adam O’Brien, the Novocastrians did well to reach the finals for the second consecutive year, only to be knocked out in its elimination final against the Parramatta Eels, two decades after they sprung a famous upset victory against them in the 2001 decider.
Facing one of the premiership favourites will be a good test for O’Brien and where the Knights are at, but if they can cause an upset victory here, then who knows where it could take them in 2022?
Prediction: Roosters by 12 points
Warriors vs Dragons
The team most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the New Zealand Warriors, begin another season of uncertainly based in Australia with what looks to be a winnable first-up clash against the St George Illawarra Dragons in Redcliffe.
Such are the sacrifices that the Warriors have made in recent years just to be able to play the game they love, they have gained the respect and trust of the competition, with members of rival clubs going as far to purchase a Warriors membership to support the team financially.
But the time for excuses are over, and it’s time for the club to start delivering on the field, not least with Shaun Johnson back at the helm following his three-year stint with the Cronulla Sharks, as well as the arrival of discarded Titan Ash Taylor.
Another side eager to return to finals in 2022 are the Dragons, who crashed and burned towards the end of last season when the competition was relocated north to Queensland after COVID-19 smothered Sydney and sent the Harbour City into a 100+ day lockdown.
What became known as barbecue-gate, a scandal which would see Paul Vaughan sacked by the club, saw the side crash from finals contenders to 11th place by season’s end, failing to win a match after its round 17 bye.
Their recruitment drive during the off-season saw them land the likes of Aaron Woods, Jaydn Su’A, George Burgess, Francis Molo, Moses Suli and ex-Wests Tigers captain Moses Mbye, who will somewhat fill the void left by the retired Corey Norman.
Despite being touted as wooden spoon favourites, the Dragons managed to spring two impressive results during the pre-season, first defeating the Parramatta Eels before reclaiming the Charity Shield for the first time in a decade with an impressive win over the Rabbitohs.
Whether that can translate into regular season success remains to be seen, and while it’ll be difficult to pick a winner between the Warriors and Dragons with any real confidence, I think the visitors might get up in this one.
Prediction: Dragons by four points.
Wests Tigers vs Storm
After surviving a stay of execution following yet another unproductive September (or October in the case of 2020), the heat will be on Michael Maguire and his five newly-appointed captains to ensure that the Wests Tigers put an end to over a decade without finals action.
In three seasons with the Souths premiership-winning mentor at the helm, the Tigers have regressed each season, first finishing ninth in 2019, followed by eleventh and thirteenth placings in each of the last two seasons.
And now, to kick off the 2022 season, they have drawn the short straw, facing a Melbourne Storm side which, on the flipside, has missed finals only once since 2002, and that was due to salary cap breaches uncovered in 2010 which sentenced the club to the wooden spoon.
Further, the Storm have not lost a round one match since 2001, and have not lost its opening match of a season since 2004 when it lost to the Newcastle Knights at the since-demolished Olympic Park Stadium after having had a round one bye.
The first season of the post-Cameron Smith era saw them rack up a record-equaling 19 consecutive wins, and were denied the all-time record when they ran into the Parramatta Eels at Suncorp Stadium towards the end of the regular season.
Still, they finished as runaway minor premiers, before losing its preliminary final against the Penrith Panthers; still, it was another successful season for Craig Bellamy’s side and they will be keen to continue performing to the standards they’ve set for themselves for all these years.
Jesse Bromwich will continue as the club’s co-captain, though has a new sidekick in Christian Welch, who replaces Dale Finucane who moved to the Cronulla Sharks during the off-season.
As much as the Tigers would like to cause a boilover at CommBank Stadium, it will be hard going past the Storm in this one.
Prediction: Storm by 20 points.
Eels vs Titans
It will be a huge Sunday for rugby league fans in western Sydney as they are treated to not one, not two, but three matches, with two NRL Women’s matches to be played before the main event at 4:00pm.
The first match pits the Dragons up against the Broncos in a potential NRLW Grand Final preview, with both sides undefeated after two rounds; the Broncos fought off a brave challenge by the Knights to win 28-10 while the Dragons beat the Eels 10-0 in shocking conditions.
The Red V’s win was marshaled by rookie halfback Rachael Pearson, who scored all ten of her side’s points (one try and three goals), but they have had Madison Bartlett sent straight to the tribunal on allegations of biting a Parramatta opponent.
The second sees the Eels and Titans’ women’s sides face off at 1:45pm, with the former side playing in front of their fans at home for the first time, before their men’s counterparts round out the CommBank Stadium triple header at 4:05pm.
Both sides enter the new season with high expectations after reaching the finals last year, only to crash out in heartbreaking circumstances, with the Eels falling two points short of eventual premiers the Panthers in the semis while the Titans were pipped by the Roosters at the death in the elimination final.
Of course the Eels won’t be happy with just making the finals, they’ll want to go all the way, and there is nothing more to motivate them than the fact that their 35-year premiership drought is currently the longest by any side in the NRL (excluding the Titans and Warriors, who have never won).
Playmaker Mitchell Moses in particular found it painful watching their bitter rivals go all the way to the point that he couldn’t even enjoy his own off-season, and the pain felt last September will be the spur for them to succeed in 2022.
As for the Titans, their return to finals football came just two seasons after they claimed a second wooden spoon, and third-year coach Justin Holbrook will be keen to ensure the club’s recent upward trend continues into the new season.
Facing the Eels at what was formerly known as Bankwest Stadium will be a good first-up challenge for the men from the holiday strip, but I think the home side should get the job done.
Prediction: Eels by 18 points.
Cowboys vs Bulldogs
To finish off the round, last year’s two worst-performed clubs – the Cowboys and Bulldogs – go head to head in the tropics with both seeking a first-up win to kick off what is hopefully an improved season for both sides.
Both clubs endured tough seasons under their respective first-year coaches in Todd Payten and Trent Barrett, with the on-field successes they enjoyed in the teens decade continuing to wear off, with neither side having played finals since 2017 and 2016 respectively.
The Cowboys won only one match in the second half of the season, while the Bulldogs, despite having already been sentenced to their first wooden spoon since 2008, finished their horrid 2021 campaign in style thrashing the Wests Tigers by 38-0.
But despite an aggressive recruitment drive headed by premiership stars Matt Burton and Josh Addo-Carr, as well as discarded Dragons pair Matt Dufty and Paul Vaughan, the bookies are predicting another long season for the boys from Belmore, and coach Trent Barrett.
Well, at least that’s what they’re forecasting if their 36-6 loss to the Sharks in their last pre-season outing is anything to go by.
However, there is a good omen for Bulldogs fans and it’s that the last two times they have won a wooden spoon, they’ve hit back hard to reach the preliminary final the following season, and in the case of 2008-09 very nearly finish on top of the ladder.
Not much is again expected of the Cowboys in 2022, as Todd Payten continues to stamp his authority on a club that has underachieved since the club qualified for the grand final in 2017 after finishing that season eighth on the ladder.
The club will be banking on the experience of Sharks premiership-winning halfback Chad Townsend to belatedly fill the void left by the legendary Johnathan Thurston, while Jason Taumalolo is set to play despite refusing to publicly reveal his COVID-19 vaccination status.
Francis Molo (to the Dragons) is a huge loss, as are those of Justin O’Neill and Michael Morgan, who have both retired.
So much so, two former Queensland greats, Scott Sattler and Gary Belcher, have tipped the club to win its first wooden spoon since 2000; though they were also the worst-performed team in 2010, they were saved from embarrassment by the Melbourne Storm salary cap saga.
Despite the grim pre-season forecast, I think the Cowboys will get their 2022 season off to a winning start – and who knows what they could produce if they can get some early-season wins together?
Prediction: Cowboys by 10 points.