A renewed focus on Sunday afternoon blockbusters at major venues, a spectacular year-long array of major event matches and an action-packed opening four rounds including a Grand Final replay are among the key features of the 2014 NRL Telstra Premiership draw.
Members and fans are once again able to plan their season in advance as the NRL today announced dates, times and venues in a season schedule that kicks off on Thursday March 6 with the Roosters opening their Premiership defence against their oldest rivals the Rabbitohs.
"Ensuring that members can plan around when their team is playing has remained a key priority," NRL Head of Football, Mr Todd Greenberg, said today.
"This is a draw that has been built around fans and building major events in major stadiums while retaining traditional venues."
The stunning opening round also sees the Bulldogs host the Broncos at ANZ, the Panthers against the Knights, grand finalists the Sea Eagles against the Storm, the Cowboys home to the Raiders, the Dragons against the Wests Tigers and the Eels against the Warriors.
In an action-packed start to the year, the early rounds feature stand-out games week after week with the grand final rematch between the Roosters and the Sea Eagles scheduled for Friday March 28 at Allianz Stadium (Round 4).
Heritage Round (Round 5) will feature a new annual event on the NRL Calendar – a showdown between two teams that have amassed the most premierships in the history of the game with the Dragons hosting the Rabbitohs at the historic SCG.
A key feature of the 2014 NRL Telstra Premiership draw is a Sunday afternoon schedule that will encourage members and families to ANZ Stadium with the Dragons against the Wests Tigers (Rounds 1, 20), the Bulldogs against the Panthers (Round 3), the Bulldogs against the Eels (Round 14) and the Wests Tigers against the Bulldogs (Round 19). The Sea Eagles will also host arch rivals the Eels in another Sunday spectacular (Round 3), while the Broncos will take on the Sea Eagles at Suncorp in a post-Origin Sunday showdown (rd 12) and three Leichhardt Oval games for the Wests Tigers (Sea Eagles Round 5, Titans Round 8, Panthers Round 17).
April sees both Easter (Round 7) and ANZAC Day (Round 8) establish new traditions. As well as partnering with ANZ Stadium and the Easter Show on Good Friday for the traditional Rabbitohs v Bulldogs the NRL will also entice 'show-goers' with a 4pm Easter Monday match between the Parramatta Eels and the Wests Tigers with the aim of establishing it as an annual fixture.
A week later ANZAC Day will see event games in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne with the emotion-charged Dragons v Roosters game at Allianz Stadium leading off the day's events.
The draw also features:
• Evening scheduling of seven out of eight games each week over the first three rounds to reduce heat issues;
• Key event rounds beginning with a Members Round (Round 2), Men of League Heritage Round (Round 5), Harvey Norman Women in League Round (Round 10), Close the Gap Round (Round 23) and the Glory Bound rounds in the lead up to the finals;
• In partnership with Fox Sports the NRL has increased the number of day games, moving Sunday evening games to Saturday afternoon;
• Matches in Gosford (Sea Eagles v Rabbitohs, Round 2), Perth (Bulldogs v Storm Round 4 and Rabbitohs v Warriors Round 13), Darwin (Eels v Raiders, Round 22), Cairns (Rabbitohs v Knights, Round 21), Wellington (Warriors v Wests Tigers, Round 4) and Hamilton (Bulldogs v Warriors, Round 10);
• The Warriors playing their opening three matches in Auckland at Eden Park;
• Four Thursday night games in the run to the semi-finals; and
• Two games at the historic SCG – Dragons v Rabbitohs (Round 5), Rabbitohs v Manly (Round 22).
"The draw is a spectacular advertisement for our game," said Todd Greenberg. "Wherever you look over the 26 competition rounds there are just great contests.
"Fans will appreciate the big Sunday match-ups as well as the regular Friday night and Saturday evening games and we have worked with our broadcasters to ensure that the schedule delivers compulsive viewing.
"Nine has some great games on free to air and Fox Sports has made a commitment to taking Super Saturday to a new level by taking its first choice games from Monday to Saturday evening.
"With the increase of Saturday afternoon games there is a chance on a number of weekends for fans to watch the Holden Cup, VB NSW Cup and then two NRL matches live from 11am through till well after 9pm."
2014 sees the retention of the Representative Round with a World Cup final rematch between Australia and New Zealand in Australia on May 2 (venue to be announced); Fiji v Samoa on May 3 and AAMI Country v City at Dubbo on May 4.
The Holden State of Origin Series sees two games at Suncorp Stadium on May 28 and July 9 with ANZ Stadium hosting the Blues on June 18.
"We looked at a number of options around Origin including a shortening of the Origin period but that was not supported by the players," Greenberg said.
"We have tried to ensure a proper balance that maintains Origin as a unique event requiring unique preparation while also ensuring fans have access to NRL Telstra Premiership games.
"This is the most challenging area of the draw and we have agreed to work with the senior players in assessing the way the matches unfold and in determining the best long-term approach."
The 2014 season commences with the week-long Festival of Indigenous Rugby League in Newcastle in February concluding with the chance of a lifetime for talented Indigenous players from regions across NSW and Queensland to be coached by Laurie Daley in a trial against the Newcastle Knights at Hunter Stadium on February 8.
The new Dick Smith Auckland Nines from February 15-16 and the World Club Challenge at Allianz Stadium in February 22 will be among the other key pre-season highlights.
Memberships are on sale at all clubs now.