Wes Naiqama and brother Kevin could take on their former club Newcastle for the Panthers in the opening round of the 2014 VB NSW Cup. Credit: NRL Photos Copyright: NRL Photos
1. Penrith v Newcastle
Round 1 at Centrebet Stadium, Saturday March 8
The VB NSW Cup season opener features the Windsor Wolves in their first match in their new guise as the Penrith Panthers NSW Cup side. It will see them pitted against Newcastle - the team they bundled out of contention in the 2013 grand final qualifier. The Knights, who finished second last season and would have been eyeing a place in the season decider, will no doubt be out for revenge against the side that sent them packing from fourth place on the ladder. They'll be looking to do so against a squad that has a fairly strong Newcastle flavour about it - either of brothers and former Knights Kevin and Wes Naiqama could be in the frame for this one, as could fellow former Knights Will Smith, Ethan Cook and Sam Anderson. The Panthers are also coached by Hunter product and former Knights under-20s coach Garth Brennan.
2. Wyong v North Sydney
Round 1 at Morry Breen Oval, Sunday March 9
In this key Round 1 clash the Bears travel north up the F3 (or should that be M1?) to face a Wyong side that will be stinging coming off a last-place finish in 2013 - but which will be bolstered by a couple of former Bears stars. Darren Nicholls made the VB NSW Cup Team of the Year as captain and five-eighth while second-rower Bennett Leslie is a NSW Cup representative player. Seeing those two players lining up in the green and gold of the Wyong Roos will add some extra spice to this burgeoning rivalry to kick off the season.
3. Canterbury v Cronulla
Round 1 at Belmore Sports Ground, Saturday March 8
There's been a power shift in the NSW Cup. Canterbury won a hat-trick of titles from 2009 to 2011 (in 2009 as Bankstown) but Cronulla are emerging as the new NSW Cup powerhouse and are the defending premiers. Meanwhile the Bulldogs slipped to a disappointing 12th last season, ahead of only Wyong.
That's no reason to think this will be a one-sided affair however - the Sharks' victorious 2013 unit has experienced something of a cleanout with the likes of halfback Chad Townsend, Stewart Mills, Kirisome Auva’a and Tyrone Peachey all having moved on. But the Bulldogs have also undergone mass changes with last year’s halves pairing of Kris Keating and Joel Romelo gone.
This match could see the club debuts of a couple of former NRL stars - Dragon Chase Stanley may well line up in the halves for his new club the Bulldogs, while former Test and Origin winger Eric Grothe Junior could feature for his new club Cronulla.
4. NZ Warriors v Illawarra
Round 2 at Eden Park, Saturday March 15
Eden Park will host a VB NSW Cup match for the first time ever in this Round 2 clash between the Warriors and Cutters. The Warriors - previously the Auckland Vulcans - will be boosted by the arrival of Cronulla's 2013 NSW Cup Halfback of the Year Chad Townsend (unless Townsend is called into the NRL squad) while the Cutters could feature any number of NRL hopefuls in the halves including Josh Drinkwater and Super League recruit Michael Witt. Both sides will be hoping to springboard into an improvement on their sixth- (Vulcans/Warriors) and ninth- (Cutters) place finishes in 2013.
5. North Sydney v Manly
Round 7 at North Sydney Oval, Saturday April 19
One of the longest-standing rivalries in the NSW Cup, this local derby is always well supported by fans of both clubs and there is no better reason to get out to North Sydney Oval than a visit from the Bears' northern beaches rivals.
Manly may be boosted by the addition of the Bears' NSW Cup Prop of the Year Josh Starling, although given the dearth of bookends on the northern beaches in 2014 he may well be a feature of the NRL squad by Round 7.
6. Wyong v Newcastle
Round 7 at Newcastle Sports Ground, Sunday April 20
This northern derby takes place at one of the real boutique venues, the Newcastle Sports Ground, and the little brothers of central coast rugby league will be looking for an improved performance in their second year in the NSW Cup. They'll be boosted by a new coach, having nabbed NSW Cup Coach of the Year Rip Taylor from the Knights. He'll be better placed than anyone to plot the downfall of his former club and will no doubt be eyeing this match against the Knights as one of the Roos' 'must-win' games of 2014.
7. Cronulla v Penrith
Round 8 at Remondis Stadium, Saturday April 26
It takes us until Round 8 to get a Grand Final rematch between the Sharks and Panthers but it should be a riveting battle. Vanquished grand finalists the Panthers will go into 2014 as one of the favourites again, boosted by plenty of talent from the club's premiership-winning Under-20s side moving into senior footy, while premiers Cronulla have seen plenty of significant departures, as mentioned above.
This should still be a key clash in deciding who will finish at the top of the ladder in 2014, and with the Panthers out for revenge against the reigning premiers expect plenty of spirit in this contest.
8. North Sydney v Canterbury;
plus Penrith v NZ Warriors
Round 8b at Centrebet Stadium, Saturday May 3 (double header)
This Western Sydney double header presents a feast of afternoon footy for rugby league fans as Centrebet Stadium hosts the Panthers and Warriors followed by the Bears and Bulldogs.
With regular NRL taking a holiday this weekend, with a week off between Rounds 8 and 9 due to the representative weekend, this double header presents the perfect opportunity for footy-starved fans to get out and see some top quality rugby league action following Friday night's Test between the Kangaroos and Kiwis.
9. Newtown v North Sydney
Round 9 at Henson Park, Saturday May 10, and Round 13 at North Sydney Oval, Saturday June 7
Over 200 years of rugby league history will be on display when these two foundation clubs come together in Rounds 9 and 13. The first of those is at Newtown's historic Henson Park home ground, with the return meeting at North Sydney just a month later, with the clubs playing for the Frank Hyde Shield (named for former Jets, Bears and Tigers great, and renowned commentator, Frank Hyde).
The Jets took the Shield from the Bears by the narrowest of margins in 2013, going down in the first leg by 12 points before winning the return bout by 14. With so much history involved it's always a great tussle between these two old clubs and with plenty of fringe Roosters and Rabbitohs likely to line up, and the sides having finished third (Bears) and fifth (Jets) in 2013 this one should produce some high-quality football to boot.
10. Mounties vs Wentworthville
Round 13 at Aubrey Keech Reserve, Saturday June 7
Two of Sydney's strongest local clubs will do battle over three grades in the NSW Cup, the Ron Massey Cup and True Blue Chemicals Sydney Shield at Aubrey Keech Reserve in this Round 13 afternoon of footy at Aubrey Keech Reserve in Hinchinbrook in South West Sydney.
Given the pure size of the areas these clubs have to draw on their eighth- (Wentworthville) and 10th- (Mounties) place finishes in 2013 can be considered a disappointment.
Eels feeder club Wentworthville were premiers in 2008 following a hat-trick of titles to Parramatta in 2005-7, while Canberra won the title in 2003. And given the strengths of the Raiders' junior system Mounties can reasonably be expected to be a force most years. As such this meeting should be not just an interesting clash but a key one in terms of how the ladder will pan out as the year progresses.