NRL footy is back as Melbourne Storm and Brisbane Broncos kick off the 2019 season.
After an off-season dominated by off-field problems, it is time to let the footy do the talking once again with some blockbuster games in store
We preview each of the games below:
Melbourne Storm vs Brisbane Broncos
Thursday, March 14
Melbourne begin life without Billy Slater as they prepare to take on Brisbane in the season opener for 2019 on Thursday night. For the better part of two decades, Melbourne have operated with Slater and Cooper Cronk steering the team around the paddock, but after Cronk’s departure at the end of 2017, Slater has joined him after retiring at the end of last season. It means Cameron Smith is the only member of the iconic ‘Big Three’ left remaining at the Storm, but as long as he’s there – along with master coach Craig Bellamy – Melbourne will always be a threat and among the leading contenders for the title. Jahrome Hughes is the man to replace Slater at fullback, while Cameron Munster and Brodie Croft start the season in the halves. Brisbane meanwhile begin life with new coach Anthony Seibold, who arrives at the club following an impressive debut season with the Rabbitohs. The Broncos have been underwhelming for a number of years now, and that continued last season as they were eliminated in the first week of the finals by the Dragons. Much will be expected of Jack Bird after the utility suffered through an injury-prone 2018, while there will be a debut off the bench for 19-year-old prop Thomas Flegler. Melbourne have had the wood over Brisbane over the years, winning 22 of their 26 meetings since the Broncos beat them in the 2006 Grand Final. The Storm also traditionally start the season on fire, and with a full off-season under their belt, Bellamy will have his team fine-tuned to the maximum for this match. Expect the Storm to open 2019 with a win.
Prediction: Storm win ($1.66 TopBetta)
Newcastle Knights vs Cronulla Sharks
Friday, March 15
With arguably the most electrifying youngster in the game and after bringing in one of the sport’s biggest enforcers, much will be expected of the Knights in 2019 – at the very least a top eight finish after years of languishing at the foot of the ladder. Kalyn Ponga is set for another spectacular season after his extraordinary breakout campaign last year, and if he can avoid any lengthy injuries along with Mitchell Pearce, they could transform into the best halves pairing in the competition. David Klemmer also arrives from the Bulldogs and will be determined to re-establish his reputation as one of the NRL’s most feared forwards. He is set to make his Knights debut on Friday, along with fellow fresh faces Edrick Lee, Hymel Hunt, Jesse Ramien, James Gavet and Tim Glasby, while Kurt Mann will come off the bench. It’s been another off-season of controversy for the Sharks, this time surrounding the salary cap, while coach Shane Flanagan was axed mid-way through the pre-season. John Morris has taken the head coaching gig as a result, but while he has a roster capable of challenging for the premiership, I’m not sure how the Sharks will go this season. Shaun Johnson doesn’t really suit their gritty style of play, while the loss of Luke Lewis (retired) could be a massive one. Paul Gallen also isn’t getting any younger, while a second row pairing of Briton Nikora and Kurt Capewell isn’t exactly a jaw dropper. Cronulla have a better team on paper, but I’m liking the Knights to start the season with a bang. Newcastle love playing at home, and if Ponga and Pearce are clicking, I think they can steer the home side to an opening round win.
Prediction: Knights win ($1.89 TopBetta)
Sydney Roosters vs South Sydney Rabbitohs
Friday, March 15
If anything, the Roosters have strengthened their side since beating Melbourne to win the premiership last season – can they begin their title defence with a victory over their main rivals? The two main departures of the Roosters’ Grand Final winning team were Blake Ferguson and Dylan Napa, but they’ve arguably brought in better players in the form of Brett Morris, who will start on the wing, and Angus Crichton, who will make his Roosters debut off the bench against his former club. Blessed with arguably the best backline in the competition – including James Tedesco, Latrell Mitchell and Cooper Cronk – the Roosters are as good a chance as any team in the last 25 years or so to secure back-to-back premierships this season. Meanwhile, Wayne Bennett will be relishing the opportunity to test his Rabbitohs side against the best in the business straight off the bat. It will be very interesting to see how Bennett fares at South Sydney, especially considering how well Anthony Seibold did at the club last season, guiding them to the preliminary finals. Braidon Burns starts at centre for the Rabbitohs, with Dane Gagai shifting to the wing and new signings Ethan Lowe and Corey Allan on the bench. The Roosters have been dominant over the Rabbitohs in recent fixtures, and I think they’ll emerge victorious again on Friday night. Trent Robinson’s side don’t have a weakness, and if they avoid complacency, I think they can go all the way again this season. The Rabbitohs will keep it close, but the Roosters’ class should prevail in the end.
Prediction: Roosters win ($1.63 TopBetta)
New Zealand Warriors vs Canterbury Bulldogs
Saturday, March 16
Both the New Zealand Warriors and Canterbury Bulldogs will be determined to build some early-season form when they collide in the opening round of the NRL season on Saturday. After promising so much for the bulk of last season, the Warriors’ campaign ended in rather underwhelming fashion, failing to lock down a top four spot, ultimately clinging onto a finals position in eighth and then bowing out in the first week of the finals. With the loss of Shaun Johnson (and his back-up playmaker Mason Lino), the Warriors are all of a sudden lacking halves – could that impact their creativity and free-playing spirit? Issac Luke is also injured for the opening game of the season, so there players in key positions for this clash are vastly inexperienced. Could that mean an opening for the Bulldogs? Dean Pay’s team are the bookies’ favourites for the wooden spoon this season, but as we know, the Dogs love it when their backs are against the wall. A lot of their potential success depends on whether Lachlan Lewis can avoid second year syndrome and build on what was a very impressive debut last season. Dylan Napa will makes his Bulldogs debut in place of David Klemmer, while there’s surprisingly no room for Rhyse Martin, the sharpshooting goal-kicker who was one of the form players in the second half of last season. Both teams will fancy claiming the two points on Saturday, but I’m leaning on the side of an upset for the Bulldogs. The Warriors might struggle without noted halves pairing, while the Dogs love getting in a scrap and grinding their way to victory. I’m backing the away side in a low-scoring and close contest.
Bulldogs win ($2.36 TopBetta
Wests Tigers vs Manly Sea Eagles
Saturday, March 16
Michael Maguire and Des Hasler have both won premierships, but they face an uphill battle to guide their respective sides into a finals position this season. Taking over from Ivan Cleary, Maguire will be aiming to build on a ninth place finish for the Tigers last season in a year that could have been so much better. Indeed, the Tigers were in the top four for most of the first half of the season and even in the top eight until the last couple of rounds, when they ultimately ran out of steam and finished one rung below the top eight. Former Roosters player Ryan Matterson is an excellent signing for the Tigers, but they will be without some firepower in the backline for this game, with both Moses Mbye and David Nofoaluma out injured. Josh Reynolds is the man to miss out on a spot in the 17, with Benji Marshall partnering Luke Brooks in the halves, while Robbie Farah starts at hooker. Meanwhile, after a bitter end to his tenure at the Bulldogs, Hasler has returned to Brookvale in a bid to achieve more success with his beloved Manly. Hasler’s methods and style of coaching became stale at the Bulldogs, so it will be interesting to see if he’s developed a more contemporary approach to his tactics upon his return to Manly. It was a season to forget for the Sea Eagles last season, plagued by one controversy after the next, but it looks like it could be another long campaign on the field in 2019. Tom Trbojevic is out injured in a big blow for this game, while Kane Elgey will start as Daly Cherry-Evans’ partner in the halves. The Tigers have won the last three games between the teams, and at Leichhardt, I’m going to back them to make it four. It’s always tough picking first round games when teams have zero runs on the board, but the Tigers have had the wood over the Sea Eagles in recent meetings, and coupled with the Leichhardt factor, that should be enough to get them over the line.
North Queensland Cowboys vs St. George Illawarra Dragons
Saturday, March 16
North Queensland start life without future immortal Johnathan Thurston on Saturday night when they play host to the Dragons. It’s still tough to imagine the Cowboys without Thurston in their ranks, with the former superstar halfback becoming a legend of the game up north and transforming the club from NRL battlers to premiership winners. However, you can also argue Thurston’s farewell season last year – when he was far from 100 per cent fit and not anywhere near his best – hurt the club and Michael Morgan, who guided the team to the Grand Final the previous season but couldn’t take charge of his team with Thurston still calling the shots. It will be interesting to see if Morgan can recapture that form after what was essentially a gap year for the Cowboys last season, but with a forward pack as strong as theirs, he will surely have space to roam and create. Meanwhile, the Dragons have been notorious for their strong starts to seasons over the last two years, including being top of the table across the first 11 rounds of last campaign. Corey Norman’s arrival at the club allows him to re-unite with former Broncos teammate Ben Hunt in the halves, with Gareth Widdop shifting back to fullback in his last season with the club. The Dragons also possess an extremely dangerous forward pack, led by James Graham and boasting current NSW Origin stars Paul Vaughan, Tyson Frizell and Tariq Sims. Having won the last three games between the teams and with their sharpness at the start of the last two seasons, I make the Dragons out as favourites for this one. I’m not sure how the Cowboys are going to perform this season, and coming up against a very strong Dragons side in the opening round might prove a step too far.
Dragons win ($1.99 TopBetta
Penrith Panthers vs Parramatta Eels
Sunday, March 17
It’s a rematch of Round 1 last season when the Panthers and Eels renew their rivalry out west on Sunday afternoon. Parramatta raced out to a 14-0 lead on that occasion but couldn’t hold on as the Panthers scored the last 24 points of the match. It was a theme that played out over the course of the season for both sides – Penrith were guilty of starting slowly in countless matches, while the Eels were typically inconsistent and missed out on the finals. For Penrith, this is an opportunity to put their off-season woes behind them and get the focus back onto on-field performances. Ivan Cleary is back for his second tenure as Panthers coach and it’s vital he gets off to a successful start, especially with many picking the club as premiership winners this season. Dylan Edwards starts at fullback for the Panthers, while new signings Tyrell Fuimaono and Hame Sele will come off the bench. It will be another uphill battle for the Eels to secure a finals spot this season, but they have added some strike power out wide, bringing in Test and Origin winger Blake Ferguson from the Roosters. Fellow new recruit Junior Paulo is in doubt due to a hamstring injury, while Dylan Brown will partner Mitchell Moses in the halves. Matches between these teams are usually close, but the Panthers – who have won the last two meetings – clearly have the better team. If they can put their off-season drama to the side, they should have enough quality at home to start the season with a win.
Panthers win ($1.54 TopBetta
Gold Coast Titans vs Canberra Raiders
Sunday, March 17
Another high-scoring clash awaits between the Titans and Raiders as the two teams square off in the last game of the opening round on Sunday night on the Gold Coast. One team has scored at least 30 points in the last four games between the teams, while the last nine encounters have seen at least 40 points scored overall. Both the Titans and Raiders appeared to be on the rise after impressive 2016 seasons – Gold Coast made it into the finals and were one of the most watchable teams in the competition, while the Raiders surged all the way to the preliminary finals, where they were close to taking out Melbourne at AAMI Park. However, they’ve each gone backwards over the last two seasons – the Titans have finished in 14th and 15th, while Canberra have slumped to consecutive 10th place finishes. Canberra’s slide down the ladder has been especially frustrating – they scored the second most points in the competition last season, but they lack discipline in defence and lost so many close games. Ricky Stuart has come out and said his side have focused more on defence this pre-season – will the Raiders be a different team in 2019? Gold Coast meanwhile have added more size to an already massive forward pack, signing former Raider Shannon Boyd, who will start in the front row on Sunday. He joins fellow big boppers Jarrod Wallace, Kevin Proctor, Ryan James and Jai Arrow in a fearsome forward pack. As mentioned, these sides aren’t exactly the most defensive-minded teams in the competition, which has ensured a lot of points over the last few seasons. It’s a tough one to pick, but the Titans should be buoyed to kick off their new season at home, and if they can win the forward battle, they will likely put on enough points to win.
Panthers win ($1.87 TopBetta