The 15 must-see clashes of 2014
1. Broncos v Bulldogs
Round 1 at ANZ Stadium, Friday March 7
Round 22 at Suncorp Stadium
Bulldogs fans are no strangers to seeing star players walk out on the club mid-contract, and as the return of SBW last season showed – they have long memories. Canterbury may have granted Ben Barba a release on compassionate grounds but you can bet blue and white fans will be seeing red when the 2012 Dally M medal winner lines up against Des Hasler's band in Round 1. Barba will be looking to relegate a horror 2013 to the rubbish bin – for him, the perfect start would be putting his old club to the sword in the Broncos' season opener. Expect plenty of niggle and trash-talking on the field when this one gets underway. The refs could have the job ahead keeping a lid on things.
2. Roosters v Rabbitohs
Round 1 at ANZ Stadium, Thursday March 6
Round 26 at Allianz Stadium
Two proud clubs. Two foundation clubs. The two best clubs of 2013 (based on the regular season), only denied an epic grand final clash by an irrepressible Manly side, will be desperate to establish dominance over the other in 2014. Rabbitohs fans will still be smarting after missing out on a chance to face the Tricolours in the season decider after trouncing their fellow foundation club in the season opener. There are also plenty of 'what-ifs' for the Bunnies faithful after a Round 26 playoff for the minor premiership was won by the Roosters, who went on to win the comp. If the Bunnies had got up in that one the finals draw would have played out differently – would cardinal and myrtle fans still be singing "Glory, glory to South Sydney" in celebration of a premiership or would the Chooks have got the job done anyway? Brace yourselves for a resumption of hostilities.
3. Roosters v Sea Eagles
Round 4 at Allianz Stadium, Friday March 28
Round 16 at Brookvale Oval, Friday June 27
They may already have two premierships to their name in recent memory but Sea Eagles fans will be filthy they let the big one get away last year – and doubly so that it happened on the back of some, shall we say, peculiar officiating decisions that saw the most penalised NRL team of 2013 snag a rare, lopsided penalty count. Another thing that won't please the super-competitive northern beaches side one iota is the fact their eastern suburbs rivals were too good for them not once, not twice or three times – but four times in one season! The Roosters got the points in Round 9 and Round 16, banked more bragging rights in that highly entertaining 4-0 win in the opening week of the finals, and then obviously the big one on the first Sunday in October. The Roosters will have a target on them in 2014 as far as Manly is concerned.
4. Storm v Knights
Round 3 at AAMI Park, Monday March 24
Round 22 at Hunter Stadium
Their blistering seven-win sequence to start the season aside, the Storm never quite fired on all cylinders in 2013. Then again, you could say the same about 2012, when a five-match losing streak late in the season looked to have snuffed their momentum. But that didn't stop them taking the title. And they would have had similar ambitions last season – until a Novocastrian ambush down in Melbourne in the second week of the finals, that is. Following their loss to the Rabbitohs a week earlier it meant the Storm went out in straight sets despite finishing third on the ladder through the regular season. For fans accustomed to almost monotonous success, it seemed a very un-Melbourne-like effort. The warning signs were there though – in two meetings that season the Storm had trailed the Knights for the better part of 70 minutes in Round 14 and most of the first 50 minutes in Round 23, before luckily escaping with a win both times. They'll be treating Wayne Bennett's boys with plenty of respect in 2014.
5. Raiders v Eels
Round 22 at TIO Stadium, Darwin
Round 26 at GIO Stadium
Talk a powder keg ready to explode! It's not just Ricky Stuart's departure that will have Eels fans riled – it's the circumstances surrounding it as well. 'Sticky' arrived amid considerable fanfare prior to season kick-off in 2013. The former NSW mentor was seen as the potential saviour to lift the blue and golds out of their doldrums. What happened? He sacked a host of regular first graders mid-season, pleaded for patience and spruiked the goal of long-term success – then delivered a second successive wooden spoon and jumped ship. Luckily for Eels fans it looks like most of the stars who had get-out clauses in place allowing them to leave when Stuart moved on look like honouring their contracts. But there's no denying plenty of the Parramatta faithful will spend the off-season sticking pins in voodoo dolls bearing Stuart's likeness. Expect fireworks in this meeting as the Eels desperately strive to get one over the man who walked out on them.
6. Warriors v Panthers
Round 16 at Mt Smart Stadium, Sunday June 29
Round 26 at Centrebet Stadium
Expect plenty of spite when the New Zealanders come up against a club that is making a habit of poaching players from across the ditch – not to mention their coach. Elijah Taylor, a tryscorer in the 2011 Grand Final, is the latest to follow former Warriors mentor Ivan Cleary to the western Sydney club. He joins the likes of Lewis Brown, Jeremy Latimore and Isaac John, who were all at the Warriors as recently as 2011. Warriors fans won't enjoy seeing some of their brightest prospects in Penrith colours so expect them to let Cleary and co. know about it when they meet. The Panthers also have a host of other Kiwis in the squad (who are not former Warriors), including the likes of Sika Manu and Dean Whare, who will be coming up against a number of their New Zealand World Cup teammates, giving this one an added trans-Tasman edge when the sides clash in 16.
7. Titans v Cowboys
Round 4 at Skilled Park, Monday March 31
Round 21 at 1300Smiles Stadium
Traditionally the less-heralded 'little brothers' of Queensland rugby league, Cowboys and Titans fans will be relishing the fact these two sides were for the first time the top-two finishing Queensland clubs in the NRL, courtesy of their form and the Broncos' shock slump. Each of these clubs will be looking to press on in 2014 and reaffirm that rugby league in Queensland no longer starts and ends with Brisbane. Adding extra spice will be a couple of off-season reshuffles – unwanted Cowboys head coach Neil Henry has found himself a place on the Gold Coast as John Cartwright's assistant, where he will be joined by the seemingly just-as-unwanted winger, Kalifa Faifai Loa.
8. Sharks v Wests Tigers
Round 10 at Remondis Stadium, Saturday May 17
Round 26 at Leichhardt Oval
Disgruntled and territorial-minded Wests Tigers fans are starting to suggest Cronulla change their name to the Cronulla Tiger sharks, such is the exodus of players from the black and white to the black, white and blue. And clearly over recent seasons the Tigers' losses have proved to be Cronulla's gains. Possibly the hardest to swallow for fans is Origin and Test prop Andrew Fifita, who moved to the Shire along with Bryce Gibbs in 2012, unwanted by then coach Tim Sheens, to make way for Adam Blair. But with Beau Ryan, Chris Heighington – and in 2014 Blake Ayshford – switching camps, you can hardly blame fans for tearing their hair out in 2013 as they watched their side get soundly beaten twice by a club packed with their former players. Expect a lively reception from Wests Tigers fans – and their players – for the Sharks again in 2014.
9. Sea Eagles v Eels
Round 3 at Brookvale Oval, Sunday March 23
Round 24 at Pirtek Stadium
Here we go again, Manly and Parra – these two gladiatorial clubs have never been overly fond of each other, with some wincingly fierce clashes since the late 1970s (and especially between their champion sides of the 1980s). Flash forward to 2014 and it's what's been happening off the field that's generated a heap of ire. For starters, no-one at Manly is particularly happy that the Eels have lured their 2013 assistant coach to postcode 2150. Even more galling will be the sight of NSW Origin star Will Hopoate donning a blue and gold jersey. The Eels went all-out to secure Hopoate's services prior to his two-year Mormon mission sabbatical and now they're looking forward to being rewarded for their vision and patience. Drilled into their recent memory is the fact two of the Eels' worst losses of a diabolical 2013 came at the hands of a runaway Manly side – you can bet Arthur, Hopoate and the rest of the club will be keen to reverse that trend in 2014.
10. Raiders v Dragons
Round 23 at GIO Stadium
One of the longest and most bizarre hoodoos in rugby league will be back in 2014, as an intriguing battle looms between a number of ex-Raiders facing off against their old club. The most high-profile of those is former Canberra bad boy Josh Dugan, who last season quickly found himself in red and white after being sacked by the Green Machine for off-field indiscretions. He's already had an unsuccesful tilt at knocking off his former club, but is hoping for a better result this year when he is joined by former Raiders half Sam Williams as well as back-rower Joel Thompson. And while the Raiders will be desperate to extend the bragging rights to include their former teammates, the Dragons will be keen to end a losing streak that stretches back seven years: nine times the Green Machine has triumphed over the Dragons since the Red V's last win, at Wollongong in 2007. And you have to go all the way back to 2000 to find a St George Illawarra win in the nation's capital. Pure morbid curiosity should have plenty of neutral fans tuning in to this one to see if the streak continues.
11. Cowboys v Sharks
Round 19 at Remondis Stadium, Friday July 18
Round 25 at 1300Smiles Stadium
If you're not a Cowboys or a Sharks fan, then Cronulla's 20-18 win over North Queensland in the opening week of the 2013 finals may not particularly stand out as one of the biggest moments of 2013. But maybe the words "seventh-tackle try" will pique your interest – because you can bet Cowboys fans are still absolutely filthy over the refereeing blunder that proved a key moment in their heartbreaking exit from the 2013 competition. The red-hot Cowboys entered that one on the back of five straight wins – the best form of any of the top-eight sides – and fans would have given the club a massive chance of dislodging a battered Manly side the following week. The Cowboys will be out for revenge in this one: Tariq Sims v Paul Gallen. James Tamou v Andrew Fifita. Johnathan Thurston v Todd Carney. It should make compelling viewing.
12. Storm v Warriors
Round 2 at AAMI Park, Saturday March 15
Round 24 at Centrebet Stadium
One of the great joys for a rugby league fan is seeing two world-class players face off in their designated positions – and that's exactly what will be on offer here as two of the world's elite fullbacks stare down each other. Even the most casual NRL fan would be aware of what Storm custodian Billy Slater is capable of, but the acquisition of superstar England fullback Sam Tomkins to the Warriors in 2014 should have fans knocking down the gates to ensure they get a seat for this one. Tomkins' performances in the World Cup have been drill-bit reminders of just what a boon he will be for Matt Elliott's crew. This club clash against Slater will be one of his toughest career assignments to date.
13. Dragons v Roosters
Round 8 at Allianz Stadium, Friday April 25
Round 21 at Allianz Stadium
Is it just us, or does Anzac day have a relentless habit of producing one of the contests of the season, year in, year out, irrespective of the form these proud Sydney clubs is in at the time? Admittedly there have been a couple of blowouts over the past few seasons but even those have made compelling viewing. The 28-24 win to the Dragons in 2012 was a humdinger, while delving a little further into the archives the 11-8 win to Brad Fittler's Roosters in 2004 was one of the best club games we can remember – full stop. Recent history has the Dragons victorious over the Tricolours in the 2010 Grand Final, while the Chooks smashed the Red V 34-10 last season in a game memorable for the bizarre halftime announcement of a contract extension for Dragons coach Steve Price – with his side down 22-4 at the break. Given the sense of occasion, the public holiday, and the fierce cross-Sydney rivalry between these two clubs, the Anzac Day classic at Allianz Stadium should be in the diary of even the most casual rugby league fan.
14. Rabbitohs v Bulldogs
Round 7 at ANZ Stadium, Friday April 18
Round 25 at ANZ Stadium
Two of Sydney's best-supported clubs, with two of the most passionate fan bases, the fact the Rabbitohs and Bulldogs play out of the same venue these days virtually eliminates home ground advantage and ensures a healthy mix of each club's supporters at every match. This was borne out on-field last season as the Rabbitohs triumphed in two closely contested encounters, 17-12 and 28-20. The 2012 grand finalists won't be happy about losing twice to the same opposition in a season, let alone a fierce cross-town rival. The sea of blue and white opposite the sea of cardinal and myrtle always makes for a tremendous spectacle and we can't wait for the 2014 instalment.
15. Sea Eagles v Storm
Round 1 at Brookvale Oval, Saturday March 8
Round 9 at AAMI Park, Saturday March 10
As quick as a Brett Stewart or Billy Slater run, Melbourne v Manly has turned into the fiercest, most hostile and bitter rivalry in the NRL. Since 2011's infamous 'Battle of Brookvale', which featured a flurry of fists between the Storm's Adam Blair and Manly's Glenn Stewart, there have been numerous further gripping encounters – none better than the pulsating 90-minute, 10-all draw at AAMI Park in Round 10 last season. If you're a supporter of either club then this is the contest you want to win more than any other during the regular season. And if you're a neutral fan – or better yet a neutral fan who can't stand either club – then this is one battle guaranteed to get the blood pumping both for the quality of football on display and the intense hatred between the clubs that is almost guaranteed to simmer over at some point.