Mark these gripping NRL clashes down in your diary... miss them and you’ll kick yourself!
Round 1 – Roosters v Rabbitohs
March 7, Allianz Stadium
Has the opening game of an NRL season ever been as highly anticipated as this year’s clash between the Sydney Roosters and South Sydney? These two clubs have been rivals for as long as rugby league has been played and there is certainly no love lost between them but there will be some extra spice this time around – not least of all because of the long-awaited return to the NRL of former Canterbury enforcer Sonny Bill Williams.
Sure, he was a despised man in Aussie sport when he walked out on the Bulldogs in 2008, but having since won a rugby union World Cup with the All Blacks there is no doubt his star status has returned.
And let’s not forget the two remarkable meetings between these two sides last season: in Round 1 the Roosters scored two tries in the final two minutes to steal a stunning victory and then, in a twist even Hollywood scriptwriter M. Night Shyamalan would have been proud of, Souths returned the favour in Round 19 with Adam Reynolds finishing off a length-of-the-field team try in the final minute to steal a 24-22 win.
Round 1 – Storm v Dragons
March 10, AAMI Park
The form guides suggest that St George Illawarra could struggle big time this season given their lacklustre 2012 and the retirements of Ben Hornby and Dean Young, but there is more to their opening round clash with premiers Melbourne than meets the eye.
The Dragons made no secret of the fact that they threw a truckload of cash at Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy over the off-season in an attempt to lure him north in 2014 and although he eventually decided to extend his Storm stay, current Dragons coach Steve Price must surely feel aggrieved that management were so openly willing to push him to the side. Price has a point to prove and will no doubt be gunning for his new-look side to make an early statement against the competition benchmark.
Round 2 – Cowboys v Storm
March 16, 1300SMILES Stadium
Always one of the most eagerly anticipated clashes of the year, this is very much a match-up of Queensland’s State of Origin playmakers.
Melbourne’s spine is the envy of the NRL, with Maroons veterans Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk leading the way; however, if there is one side that can match them for sheer brilliance it is North Queensland with their star duo of Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen. Oh, and they also happen to boast the all-Australia front row of bookends Matt Scott and James Tamou.
The Storm and Cowboys split last year’s games one apiece – however North Queensland will be eager to make amends for a 42-18 loss on home soil in Round 6.
Round 3 – Storm v Bulldogs
March 21, AAMI Park
The most-anticipated game of any season is usually the grand final replay and although there are plenty of other blockbusters during the early rounds, this one remains a must-see. Disappointingly, the Bulldogs will be without star fullback Ben Barba and front-rower James Graham – who is serving a suspension for biting the ear of Billy Slater in last year’s decider – but they won’t be lacking motivation to turn the tables on the side that ruined their premiership dream.
This also serves as the latest chapter in the ongoing rivalry between respective coaches Craig Bellamy and Des Hasler – the pair having now contested three grand finals with Bellamy prevailing twice. In 19 meetings Hasler leads the head to head 10-9.
Round 5 – Bulldogs v Sea Eagles
April 5, ANZ Stadium
Des Hasler’s sudden departure from Manly 12 months ago was the story of the year as he took over a struggling Canterbury side and guided them all the way to the 2012 grand final. Although he was a Manly legend as both a player and coach, the manner of his departure and his efforts since to lure across the cream of the Sea Eagles’ talent doesn’t sit well with his former club. Rest assured, this one is personal.
While Hasler failed in attracting the signatures of Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans last year, he did manage to secure giant forward Tony Williams and the clash of the Bulldogs’ monstrous pack with the similarly powerful Sea Eagles will be a sight to behold. Expect fireworks.
Round 5 – Titans v Broncos
April 5, Skilled Park
Two awful seasons at the Titans have detracted somewhat from what was developing into one of the great local derbies, but some conspicuous player movements have returned the spice to this one.
Front and centre sits veteran playmaker Scott Prince – the former Gold Coast captain having basically been told last season that he was no longer wanted by the club he had served so loyally since their inception in 2007. Originally headed to England, Prince instead finds himself back where it all began at the Broncos and he will be keen to teach his former bosses at the Titans a lesson.
In fact, Prince could well prove to be one of the buys of the year as Brisbane look to return to their winning ways following a disappointing back-end to the 2012 season.
This clash also pits new Gold Coast recruit Dave Taylor against the club he made his debut for in 2006.
Round 6 – Roosters v Bulldogs
April 12, Allianz Stadium
The game everyone has been waiting for! It is now almost five years since Sonny Bill Williams walked out on the Bulldogs just months after inking a rich new five-year deal and the resentment hasn’t waned one bit out Belmore way – certainly not amongst the fans.
To make matters worse from Canterbury’s perspective is the fact that Williams returns to the NRL this season not with any old club but the one they’ve despised the most over the past decade – the Sydney Roosters! Much of that stems from the exodus of Bulldogs players to the Roosters in the years following their epic 2004 grand final clash – namely Braith Anasta, Mark O’Meley and Willie Mason (although Sam Perrett’s transfer to the Roosters last season was a small step towards balancing the ledger).
The fact remains however that no player spark the emotions quite like SBW. Make no mistake: Sonny Bill will be just as eager to get one up on his former club as they will be to teach him a lesson. If you have more-pressing plans for April 12 (but really, what could they be?) make sure you or a friend records it on Foxtel IQ!
Round 9 – Wests Tigers v Sharks
May 10, Allianz Stadium
The joke doing the rounds is that the Cronulla Sharks should be renamed the Cronulla Tiger Sharks this season, such is the influx of players from the 2005 premiers over the past two seasons.
In 2012 it was the departures of prop Bryce Gibbs and back-row enforcer Andrew Fifita that had the close-knit Tigers playing group scratching their heads and this year they’ve lost two more long-time servants to Cronulla in Chris Heighington and Beau Ryan.
While there is no ill-feeling amongst the players themselves, expect Cronulla’s latest batch of arrivals to make a statement to those Tigers officials that were so willing to let them go.
Round 10 – Storm v Sea Eagles
May 20, AAMI Park
The single greatest club feud of the past seven years is still a bitterly disputed contest whenever these two sides come together.
Two-time grand final combatants in 2007 and 2008 (for one win apiece), it was at Brookvale Oval two years ago that this rivalry reached its peak as emotions spilled over in what was dubbed ‘The Battle of Brookvale’.
The image of Glenn Stewart and Adam Blair going to toe to toe on the sidelines after both were sin-binned – and the subsequent wave of players rushing in to assist – remains, for better or worse, one of the enduring images of recent times and don’t think there has been any cooling off over time. This is still one clash that both clubs desperately want to win.
(Also, you can guarantee the return fixture at Brookvale Oval in Round 25 will be even more intense in atmosphere and physicality.)
Round 20 – Sharks v Panthers
July 28, Sharks Stadium
They’ve got a fair while to wait, but rest assured star Cronulla recruits Luke Lewis and Michael Gordon have this one pencilled into the diary.
The departure of so many of their star players this season has devastated the Penrith faithful – even if it is part of the club’s long-term rebuilding plan – and it will no doubt be painful for them to watch two of their favourite sons running out against them.
For Lewis and Gordon, however, the motivations are very different. Lewis had played 208 games over 12 seasons for the Panthers but couldn’t bear to go through that rebuilding cycle once more. Gordon, on the other hand, was frustrated by his inability to secure the No.1 jersey long term and signed with a club he believed would offer him that opportunity.
The great irony is that his rival for the fullback spot at Penrith, Lachlan Coote, looks set to spend 2013 in the halves... but that’s one for the ‘what if’ files.