St George-Illawarra Dragons v Brisbane Broncos
The NRL has decided to open the 2018 with a new grudge match based around the movement of a few players and coaches between these two sides in recent years, this was only intensified with the acquiring of Ben Hunt from the Broncos. The aim for the Dragons is to increase the stability within the halves and this will be first chance to judge the combination that he will have with Gareth Widdop. Ironically enough, Brisbane coach Wayne Bennett had a great impact on him during England’s World Cup campaign. As questionable as the new Dragons partnership will be, the departure of Hunt will cause plenty of concern at Brisbane. They are venturing to new territory without him and at times last season, there was no doubt that he has a positive effect on Milford. Now that he has left, pressure grows on Milford to perform and Kodi Nikorima to support him; a lot of this requires their forwards to dominate their opponents in the middle. This is one area where the Broncos have little issues with in the past, yet, they will want Andrew McCullough is at his best. The Broncos have also been in the headlines for the wrong reasons leading into this week (depending on your stance) and may well be looking to let out some frustration on their opponents once this encounter begins the 2018 NRL season.
Dragons = New signings, Ben Hunt and James Graham, will debut at halfback and prop respectively. Tariq Sims has been named in the vacant second row position. Fullback Matt Dufty will wear jersey number 18, as the Dragons retire the number 1 in honour of Graeme Langlands.
Broncos = With no sign of Jack Bird (injured), Jordan Kahu moves into the centres, with Jamayne Isaako starts on the wing. Matt Lodge is named to start in the front row, with Andrew McCullough named at hooker.
Overall = Dragons 14 Broncos 23
At WIN Jubilee Oval = Dragons 63% Broncos 33%
Last 5 Matches = Dragons 1 Broncos 4
The Dragons are favourites for this fixture and this is somewhat surprising given the history, strength of the two sides and overall record; perhaps the poor record of the Broncos at this ground is a major factor for punters. Recently, the Broncos hold the upper hand against their opponents; the Dragons have won just 1 of the last 12 meetings, with 4 of those matches being played on home turf. Home ground advantage is very important in any match and the Dragons will need their fans to influence the outcome of this match. If the home team wishes to finish high on the ladder, this just the type of match that they need to win and the incoming players should offer the poise to grind out victory. On the other side of things, the major question lingering for the Broncos (aside from their record at this ground) is how their halves perform; fact is, they have the quality forwards, along with the class in the outside backs to cause their opponents trouble. The concern around Nikorima at halfback is unfounded (at this early stage), the Broncos were victorious in 11 of the 13 games that he started for them in 2017. It is too early on in the season to tell if the Dragons have what it takes to be a genuine contender and with the Broncos offering the standard package, they appear the safest selection in a head-to-head situation. In terms of an investment, season openers are generally close contests and with both sides desperate to start their season off on the right foot, this could go down to the wire. For added motivation, in two out of the past 3 matches that the Dragons have hosted the Broncos, the margin of victory has been 4-points or less. Get set, the rugby league is back!
Either Team Under 6.5 Points @ $2.65
Newcastle Knights v Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles
It is a new direction for the Knights and they will be hoping that the 2018 is a different venture for them. They have recruited strongly ahead of this campaign, adding much-needed experience in key positions. The challenge ahead for the Knights is ensuring that their team plays together strongly. It doesn’t appear as though they will have enough talent to make a run for the Finals at this early stage, yet will want to start off on the right foot. The Sea Eagles will be out to avoid a similar start to last season whereby they lost their first two matches of the season. It will be intriguing to watch the venture of the Sea Eagles without a quality support for DCE in the halves; Blake Green has departed the club and greater focus turns to DCE and the role that he will play. Obviously, they have replacement in mind but the quality that he will bring to the team is still unknown. The Sea Eagles have a host of quality players to find the right balance in their squad; they are a dangerous attacking team regardless of their position on the field and they will need to make the most of the opportunities given to them. The Knights will not be a team that will give up lightly and it is a tough test with uncertainty still lingering over their heads.
Knights = There are a host of new recruits in this side; Kalyn Ponga is named at fullback, Tautau Moga in the centres, Slade Griffin at hooker, Mitchell Pearce at halfback, Herman Ese’ese and Jacob Lillyman both at prop, Aidan Guerra in the second row and Chris Heighington on the bench.
Sea Eagles = Addin Fonua-Blake is named at prop to cover for Darcy Lussick (injured), while Joel Thompson makes his club debut in the second row.
Overall = Knights 12 Sea Eagles 16
At McDonald Jones Stadium = Knights 56% Sea Eagles 25%
Last 5 Matches = Knights 0 Sea Eagles 5
These two sides are even in betting markets, with many people expecting the Knights to be a different team and, in equal measure, the Sea Eagles to struggle. The chances of the home team have dramatically increased since their squad has undergone a drastic overhaul and plenty of players have a point to prove. If the Sea Eagles had greater stability within their halves, the odds would undoubtedly favour the visitors. This is another fixture where the recent history needs to be considered; the Knights haven’t beaten the Sea Eagles since Round 19, 2012 and this is their only victory over the Sea Eagles in the past 10 meetings. Remarkably, the Sea Eagles still only have a 25% winning record at this ground, suggesting that the trip north is a difficult one for them to make. All things considered, it would be surprising to see the Knights come out and look like a complete team with so many new players together for the first time. It will take a while for them to build their combinations and while the Sea Eagles have a similar issue in their halves, they have a host of good players that understand how to win matches just like this. Even if the Sea Eagles were slow to start last season, they will be aware of how a similar start can build pressure on the entire squad. With this in mind, the odds offered on the visitors are worth taking up, although the margin of victory will be a lot closer than it has been in the past.
Sea Eagles 1-12 @ $3.10
North Queensland Cowboys v Cronulla Sharks
Attention on Friday night will turn to Townsville with future immortal, Jonathan Thurston, taking the field for his 300th NRL match. A career that has spanned over two clubs has been reduced from injury, with this match being the first chance to have a look at him in competition for the first time since Origin 2 in 2017. The Cowboys will host the Sharks to mark the milestone and, along with the return of JT, will welcome back a few star players to their team. They showed amazing determination to finish the season as runners up and are in a strong position to go one better this year. The Sharks are also considered a leading team for the 2018 Premiership and will relish the tough test that is offered with the trip north; they were victorious here in their last match and will have no fear as to the task ahead. For them, 2018 offering plenty of hope with change in their playing ranks. The most notably of these is the inclusion of Matt Moylan and release of James Maloney to the Panthers. They lost plenty of experience with Maloney, the 5/8 during their Premiership success. Whether or not Moylan has what it takes to fill the large void left is unknown but it does add another dimension to their attack. These two teams have enjoyed a healthy rivalry recently; they have faced off three times in a Finals match since 2013. The most recent was last year, where the Cowboys upset the Sharks by 1-point on their epic Finals run.
Cowboys = Ben Hampton is named at fullback for Lachlan Coote (injured), while new recruit Jordan McLean, partners Matthew Scott at prop.
Sharks = New recruit Josh Dugan is named in the centres, while the other club debutant, Matt Moylan, will start at 5/8. Sione Katoa is named to make his NRL debut on the wing.
Overall = Cowboys 16 Sharks 24
At 1300Smiles Stadium = Cowboys 55% Sharks 55%
Last 5 Matches = Cowboys 1 Sharks 4
The Cowboys will be spurred on by the external factors surrounding this match; they are favourites to win this game, with many preferring to see what the Sharks offer with a few different players in key positions. It is hard to go past the home side, with a host of players returning and the quality in other areas being improved, they are out to set the standard for others to reach this season. Recent history suggests that the Sharks know how to beat the Cowboys, regardless of where this game is played and have a good record at this ground to support their case. Nevertheless, they have never played with the level of emotion that will be accompanying this fixture. Games are not won with just emotion and the Sharks will be doing their best to disrupt their opponents. They have one of the toughest defensive structures of any team in the competition and will hardly want to give up this edge without a fight; you can expect the Cowboys play makers to attract extra attention for the entire duration of this match. A lot more will be needed though to disrupt the momentum of the Cowboys and it will be interesting viewing to see how they deal with the pressure. At the end of the season, this may be a match that we look back on as an early season preview of a Finals intensity match, with the Cowboys making a statement as the Sharks use the game as another stepping stone to building a strong combination within their team.
Cowboys -5.5 @ $1.90
Wests Tigers v Sydney Roosters
Much like a few other fixtures this weekend, the NRL has considered player movement and creating a new rival ahead of this fixture. The biggest story running through this match is the departure of fullback James Tedesco to the Roosters as he approaches the peak of his career. Arguably one of the best fullbacks in the game, the Roosters will be hoping that Tedesco can provide a difference at the back for his team and stability in their spine that was offered by Michael Gordon. The other noticeable inclusion is halfback Cooper Cronk, moving to Sydney for his personal life and coincidently landing a lucrative deal at the Roosters. That move also came at a cost, with the club parting ways with Mitchell Pearce and coming under heavy scrutiny. As for the Tigers, they have been attempting to rebuild their club and start fresh under the guidance of Ivan Cleary. He took over the club in the middle of 2017 and is wanting to leave his mark on the playing squad. In the short term, he has to deal with the departure of several quality players and it appeared as though he improved the attitude within the team. Whether or not this has extended into this season is unknown at this stage and no doubt that it was a gruelling off-season under Cleary. He demands plenty from his players and the expectations will remain high, regardless of the quality possessed within his team.
Tigers = Corey Thompson is named to start on the wing, with Tui Lolohea named at fullback. Of the new recruits, Pita Godinet will start at hooker, Josh Reynolds will play 5/8 and Russell Packer is named at prop. Benji Marshall is named to come off the bench but is battling a calf injury to be fit for this game.
Roosters = James Tedesco and Cooper Cronk are named to make their club debuts at fullback and halfback respectively. Sio Siua Taukeiaho is named to start at prop.
Overall = Tigers 2 Roosters 22
At ANZ Stadium = Tigers 42% Roosters 47%
Last 5 Matches = Tigers 0 Roosters 5
Everything in this game points towards the Roosters winning easily; rugby league is a different beast though and it will be surprising if it occurred without trouble. They have a superior squad of players and to make matters worse, the Tigers haven’t beaten the Roosters since Round 20, 2011 and have just the solitary win from their past 12 meetings. The Tigers will be enthusiastic though and may find their motivation higher than their opponents; plenty of players within this squad have a point to prove and Ivan Cleary is a great motivator of men. The Roosters are also relying on their new combinations working immediately and despite the level of work they would have put in during the off-season, it won’t happen as quickly or as smoothly as they or their fans would like. Understandably, they are heavy favourites for this game but for them to come out and dominate, as the talent within their team suggest they should, from the first game of the season would be surprising. With that in mind, take the visitors to still win this game, but by a smaller margin than expected.
Roosters 1-12 @ $3
South Sydney Rabbitohs v New Zealand Warriors
The NRL heads to Perth on Saturday night with the first of two double-header matches featuring the Rabbitohs and Warriors. Since 2014 when they broke their premiership drought, the Rabbitohs have been a club that is rebuilding. Their team was torn apart following their success and now they find themselves with a renewed direction under the guidance of a fresh coach, Anthony Siebold. He is out to turn around the fortunes of the club that would play well at times in 2017, but struggled to cover the injuries suffered by several key players. With those players returning, Siebold has rejuvenated the Rabbitohs attack and they plan to showcase their talents in this match. The Warriors will be dreading the trip west to Perth, going winless here in 9 attempts. It appears to be a favourite move for teams taking games to the west, choosing the Warriors as an opponent. Now only do they struggle with the travel, their execution in matches is also questioned. Perennial underachievers, the Warriors will be hoping that an injection of new players from successful clubs with change the attitude of poor performance within the club. Whether or not this has the desired effect is unknown at this stage of the season; if the Warriors continue their run of dismal performances then coach Stephen Kearney will not last long in his current position. It was amazing, to say the least, that he last into this year and the board have shown faith in him. However, with many strong coaching candidates without jobs this year, they will not remain patient for too long before frustration grows. The talent is there for the Warriors and they have the opportunity to make a statement in their opening game of the season.
Rabbitohs = Greg Inglis is named in the centres for his return from injury, with Alex Johnston taking up the position at fullback; this allows Richie Kennar to make his NRL debut on the wing. Damien Cook is named at hooker, with Robbie Farah named in the reserves. Rookie Tevita Taola, will make his NRL debut off the bench.
Warriors = Peta Hiku will make his club debut in the centres, Blake Green at 5/8, Adam Blair at prop and Tohu Harris in the second row. Reserve hooker, Sam Cook, will make his NRL debut from the bench.
Overall = Rabbitohs 13 Warriors 16
At Perth Stadium = Never played at this venue
Last 5 Matches = Rabbitohs 5 Warriors 0
The Warriors are shuddering at the thought of taking the first for this match given their record in Perth, as well as the fact that they haven’t beaten the Rabbitohs since Round 7, 2012. Nevertheless, like all other clubs this weekend, they have the opportunity to start the season fresh and prove their doubters wrong. The reality of that actually happening though is far-fetched at this early stage. There is a lot to like about the Rabbitohs team, including the rejuvenated attack that performed well in the Charity Shield. The inclusion of Damien Cook at hooker suggests they will be fast through the middle and attack their opponents on the edges once they have them moving on the back foot. As favourites, most punters believe that this will also be the case; rather than predict a blow-out performance, this safer option is to have the “home” team winning by just over a converted try.
Rabbitohs -6.5 @ $1.90
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs v Melbourne Storm
The second of the double-headers features a new-look Bulldogs team, up against the 2017 Premiers. Excitement is high out at Canterbury, as they have a new coach in Dean Pay and have recruited several big-name players in the hope that they can make the Finals this year. Having a new man at the helm is expected to see a change in the Bulldogs attack; last year, they were the worst in the league, averaging just over 15-points per game. It became boring, predictable and concerning with each match they played. The Storm had no such issues last season and are out to become the first team in the history of the NRL to win back-to-back titles. The task was made increasingly difficult the moment Cooper Cronk left for Bondi, however such is the strength of the Storm, there is no doubt that they have planned for this moment. What they hadn’t planned for was the unavailability of Billy Slater ahead of this match, which was meant to be his 300th game. Suffering an injury in the World Club Challenge, the Storm have taken the option to rest him for this match; coincidently, it also means that Slater can celebrate his milestone in front of home fans next week, but read into that as much as you would like.
Bulldogs = Matthew Frawley is named at 5/8, partnering Kieran Foran in the halves, as he makes his club debut at halfback. Moses Mbye has been pushed to fullback. Rookie Jeremy Marshall-King will make his NRL debut from the bench.
Storm = Cameron Munster is named at fullback for Billy Slater (injured), while Ryley Jacks stars at 5/8. Nelson Asofa-Solomona starts in the front row, with the returning Ryan Hoffman starting in the second row.
Overall = Bulldogs 21 Storm 17
At Perth Stadium = Never played at this venue
Last 5 Matches = Bulldogs 4 Storm 1
This is an ugly game to invest on as more is needed from both sides before you can invest on them with confidence. The unknown surrounding the Bulldogs and the impact Dean Pay has on their team in enormous and they may just have the right mix against a strong team that is missing a few stars. For the Storm, Brodie Croft is a quality players, but the loss of Slater at the back and movement of Munster has caused them disruptions in the past. All things considered, the class of the Storm should get them through this match; they are a club that prides themselves on hard work and stepping up to any challenge. The Bulldogs may need another week or two for the players to grow accustomed to one another, as well as for their attack to gel with the direction nature that Foran brings to this team. It is not surprising to see the Storm as favourites for this game, yet you should tread carefully when investing. The safest option, like the previous match, is for the Storm to win by slightly more than a converted try and wait to see what their opponents offer in their 2018 campaign.
Storm -6.5 @ $1.85
Penrith Panthers v Parramatta Eels
The Panthers are desperate to start this game and let their play do the talking, as questions surrounding their coach, Phil Gould’s influence and player unrest, have plagued them in recent weeks. It wasn’t made any better when the Panthers suffered a horrendous trial loss to a second-rate Bulldogs team, although anyone knows to take trial form on its value; no team has ever won the competition in a trial game. Their hope in 2018 is to make the Finals and have acquired the services of James Maloney to add some much-needed experience to their attack. This came at a cost, losing Matt Moylan and later Bryce Cartwright, but their influence on the playing squad may not be a missed as many think. On the other hand, the Eels have been quietly going about their business and only answering questions related to Jarryd Hayne and his poor ethic at training. Aside from that, the Eels have retained a similar squad to last season and will be aiming to again finish inside the Top 4. After a few disappointing seasons, Brad Arthur found the right mix within his team that increased their belief and more importantly, had them winning games on their defence. It was brutal to watch at times and it is again going to be a feature of their play. Perhaps the inclusion of Hayne at centre at not at fullback demonstrates the faith that Arthur has in other players and point towards a desire for other players to prove themselves as quality players, rather than one-hit wonders.
Panthers = As expected, James Maloney is named to make his club debut at 5/8. Viliame Kikau is named in the second row, leaving Corey Harawaira-Naerea and James Fisher Harris coming from the bench.
Eels = Bevan French is named at fullback, with Jarryd Hayne returns to the Eels in the centres. New signing, Kane Evans, will come off the bench.
Overall = Panthers 17 Eels 19
At Pepper Stadium = Panthers 54% Eels 41%
Last 5 Matches = Panthers 2 Eels 3
When markets first opened, these two sides were difficult to split, but that has since changed with the Eels edging ahead as favourites. Many believe that the Eels have the class over their opponents, with the one area that may decide this match, defence, being a strength of the visitors. The home ground advantage cannot be overlooked, especially with the Eels record at this ground. Nevertheless, they have proven themselves as a quality team during several stages of 2017 and it would be surprising to see this attitude disappear ahead of their campaign. This is even before considering the problems at the Panthers and how they may struggle to cover all areas of the field. Much like plenty of other teams this weekend, the Panthers will need more time to create combinations that are conducive to positive play. The Eels have a very similar set up to last season and this will benefit them throughout this match. They need to create as much momentum in the middle of the field and catch their opponents out on the edge with their speed. Take the visitors to cover the line, nullifying the chance that the Panthers could come out and make a real contest of this match.
Eels -1.5 @ $1.90
Gold Coast Titans v Canberra Raiders
The Titans are a new-look outfit, following the departure of several players and most importantly, a fresh coach. Garth Brennan has been hired from Penrith and comes to the Titans with a high level of enthusiasm for his first crack at coaching in the NRL. Most judges in the league have a strong opinion that this man has what it takes to make it in one of the toughest leagues. His first task will be to restore the home ground advantage of the Titans, who will want to return to the Finals after missing out last season. Not much went right in 2017 for them, but it was a learning curve that places them well ahead of 2018. The Raiders also had their season ended early, as they were unable to live up to the hype of being Premiership contenders. Instead, they produced inconsistent performances and barely rated as a second thought compared to the leading teams in the competition. As good as they were at scoring points, they struggled to halt their opponent’s momentum at times and it became a real issue towards the end of the season. The loss of hooker Josh Hodgson only further hampers their 2018 aspirations, yet they have acquired Siliva Havili for this match and may be in the market to higher another well-known player that is unhappy at his current club.
Titans = Jai Arrow is named to make his debut at prop, as will Leilani Latu. Bryce Cartwright will start for his new club at lock, and Mitch Rein coming from the bench.
Raiders = Sam Williams is named at halfback, Aidan Sezer at 5/8 and Blake Austin on the bench. Siliva Havili is named at hooker for his club debut.
Overall = Titans 11 Raiders 9
At Cbus Super Stadium = Titans 48% Raiders 40%
Last 5 Matches = Titans 2 Raiders 3
The Raiders are strong favourites for this game given the changes that has occurred in the off-season for the Titans but this has proven a downfall of the visitors in the past. This ground is not one where they typically perform well and there are also plenty of unknown about them ahead of this fixture. The loss of Hodgson is also being overlooked somewhat, with the need to build a strong combination in the spine essential to their overall success. The Titans have recruited well and have a strong set of players that are quality on their day; the challenge for them is maintaining this consistency over the entire contest. It is never easy to produce a spurring performance from the opening stages of the competition but this is just the type of match that the Titans will need to win if they are to change the perception that they are still a club that is rebuilding. The Raiders have proven in the past that they are too inconsistent to invest with confidence and the conditions (wet & humid) will play nicely into the home sides hands. This could be the first major upset of the season and with that in mind, the strength of the Titans forwards combined with the class of their halves, puts them slight ahead of their opponents and suggests they will start the season off on a positive note.
Titans @ $2.25