20 games that will decide the Premiership
1. Rabbitohs v Roosters (ANZ Stadium, Round 1)
The Bunnies seized the initiative with a hard-fought win in the corresponding clash to open season 2013. The Roosters may have lost that one but they went on to clinch the minor premiership in Round 26 and eventually the title and would be aware they have the capacity to deliver a substantial blow with a win first up here. Expect plenty of memberships to be sold on Friday depending on who wins the season-opener on Thursday.
2. Bulldogs v Broncos (ANZ Stadium, Round 1)
The blue and whites need to make a statement that for them, life goes on without Ben Barba. To do so with a win over Barba wearing opposition colours would be a huge boost to their premiership campaign. Meanwhile should Brisbane win, it's likely Barba's contribution would be a telling one, setting the 2012 Dally M winner – and the Broncos – up for a possible return to the glory days.
3. Manly v Storm (Brookvale Oval, Round 1)
The two most dominant teams of the past decade will be out to assert themselves early. Remember the Battle of Brookvale back in 2011? We're not suggesting the fisticuffs will fly but the intensity will strip the paint off the walls of Geoff Toovey's coaches box. When the Storm last visited Brookvale back in Round 25 they were handed a 28-8 hiding in an uncustomary poor display. This is the perfect chance to show they remain a dominant force.
4. Dragons v Wests Tigers (ANZ Stadium, Round 1)
Always a tough battle, this clash provides the opportunity for one of the struggling sides of 2013 to jump out of the blocks and give their fans plenty of reasons to get behind their cause. And it's amazing how the two competition points will keep the wolves from the door of either coach Steve Price or Mick Potter. The Dragons are away to the Warriors in Round 2 while the Tigers head for the Gold Coast, and no team wants to start the season 0-2.
5. Raiders v Titans (GIO Stadium , Round 3)
Both of these sides are expected to knock on the door of the top eight, but which will emerge as genuine finals contenders? We may know after this game. The Raiders enter the arena following two tough games against the Cowboys and Knights, while the Titans head here after battles with the Sharks and Tigers. Winning will provide precious momentum and engender some self-belief that better days are ahead.
6. Storm v Knights (AAMI Park, Round 3)
Newcastle get to prove their semi-final win was no fluke in this Monday night showdown in the Victorian capital. With both sides likely to be at full strength it will be a battle for bragging rights and a chance for Wayne Bennett to show that his rebuilding in the steel city is on the verge of paying dividends. Another defeat of the Storm on their home turf may also help to break down their unbeatable aura for future visiting teams.
7. Roosters v Sea Eagles (Allianz Stadium, Round 4)
The 2013 Grand Final rematch. It's been a long time since the Sea Eagles sang their team song in the changerooms after a game with the tricolours. In fact they were mute on four occasions in 2013 and agonisingly had to listen to Trent Robinson's crew blast out 'Here Come The Roosters' on four occasions. A key game of the opening half of the draw, for certain.
8. Titans v Cowboys (Skilled Park, Round 4)
For most of last season the Titans spearheaded the Queensland club challenge, before a late spurt from the Cowboys saw them clinch a berth in the playoffs and along with it the title of No.1 team in the Sunshine State. That it is being played on Monday night should keep the Cowboys faithful to a minimum and with Origin likely to affect both teams this is two points that will seem like four when we get to September.
9. Titans v Broncos (Skilled Park, Round 6)
A fortnight after they meet the Cowboys, the Titans lock horns with arch rivals Brisbane in a Friday night showdown that will see another piece of the puzzle fall into place when it comes to the hierarchy of the Queensland teams. Will the Broncos have lifted enough over the off-season to see off the Titans' threat? How will the Titans fare playing just five days after a trip to Melbourne? Despite finishing higher on the ladder this season the Titans went 0-2 against the Broncos and have only beaten their south-east Queensland rivals once in their past six clashes. Time to strike a blow for the little bro.
10. Cowboys v Broncos (1300SMILES Stadium, Round 9)
Which brings us to the final piece in the puzzle that is the battle for Queensland. The two competition points on offer in this Friday night match-up will seem like gold to the victor, coming as it does just before the Origin period. The Cowboys suffered two-point defeats twice to the Broncos last season and if either of these teams can pick up both of their early season match-ups they should be well placed as we approach the halfway mark.
11. Rabbitohs v Storm (ANZ Stadium, Round 10)
There are still fans of both of these teams trying to work out where the end to 2013 went so wrong. Having been entrenched in the top four for the majority of the season the Storm were bundled out in straight sets in the finals, first beaten by South Sydney and then Newcastle at home in the shock result of the finals. Rabbitohs fans were making arrangements for Grand Final breakfasts when they led 14-0 against Manly before their hopes were crushed in an avalanche of maroon and white. Have South Sydney freed themselves from the hold the Storm had over them? Has the premiership window closed just a little for both these clubs? This game will reveal plenty.
12. Panthers v Eels (Centrebet Stadium, Round 12)
There's no question that fans of the Panthers and Eels will be hoping to have been given a gauge of the expectations of their side before they come together for a good ol' fashioned western shootout in Round 12. The Jamie Soward-Peter Wallace combination should be showing signs of cohesion by this point and the impact that both Will Hopoate and Chris Sandow will have on their side's season will be more than evident. It's a game both coaches will circle as 'winnable' but one of them might have some explaining to do after 80 minutes.
13. Titans v Storm (Skilled Park, Round 14)
When the Storm landed at Coolangatta in 2013 they did so minus Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Ryan Hoffman and the Titans scored a well-earned 18-12 victory. They face the same prospect in 2014 but the Titans also won't be without their own challenges with co-captains Greg Bird and Nate Myles heading for opposing Origin camps. But the Titans' forward depth – injuries aside – should be able to cover the load. Of course, if Dave Taylor and Jamal Idris earn representative recalls the ledger evens dramatically but this represents as good a chance as any of stealing two points from the Storm.
14. Wests Tigers v Raiders (Campbelltown Stadium, Round 16)
It's hard to imagine Tigers fans will be eager to celebrate the 25-year anniversary of the 1989 Grand Final but sticking a knife into the Raiders' finals chances would bring a smile to the face. If Mick Potter's men aren't in finals contention at this point of the season his future would appear grim at best while the Raiders will be trying to prove the dramas of 2013 are well behind them. This game should tell us whether these teams are contenders or pretenders.
15. Rabbitohs v Titans (ANZ Stadium, Round 17)
No Greg Inglis. No Greg Bird. No Nate Myles. Putting together a premiership campaign is all about how you handle adversity and this clash will be a crucial two points in their respective finals aspirations. Both of these teams play three games minus their rep stars during the Origin period and how they are placed at the end of Round 17 will determine what kind of a run they can put together in the back-half of the season. The Titans are without a win over the Rabbitohs since March 2010 but perhaps Dave Taylor is the man to inspire an upset.
16. Broncos v Storm (Suncorp Stadium, Round 20)
Two of the sides most affected by the heavy Origin toll, this is the game both coaches will be targeting as their springboard for the finals charge. The Broncos historically have suffered the most from Origin hangovers while Storm coach Craig Bellamy has found it increasingly difficult to manage as his 'big three' get a year older every season. If the Broncos are travelling well to this point they can expect to draw a near capacity crowd and perhaps that will give them the energy they need to snare the two points.
17. Rabbitohs v Sea Eagles (Sydney Cricket Ground, Round 22)
There are no more iconic images in the history of the cardinal and myrtle than John Sattler being chaired from the SCG, smashed jaw bouncing as his teammates carried him atop their shoulders, following the 1970 Grand Final between these two clubs. They haven't faced off at the hallowed ground since 1985 and whichever team can recapture past glories will take a further step towards writing a new chapter of success. The forward cash will be brutal, if not quite so barbaric as their forbearers.
18. Roosters v Storm (Allianz Stadium, Round 25)
Back in 2011 the Storm rested a host of stars when they played the lowly Roosters and were promptly handed a hiding in the final round of the regular season. It's safe to assume that won't happen on this occasion. There's nothing to suggest both of these teams won't be top four material again in 2014 and registering a win over a premiership contender this late in the season is always a confidence booster. They may meet again in September, and if they do, the mental scarring from this clash could be crucial.
19. Every game in Round 26!
The match-ups for the final round of the regular season provide an absolutely mouth-watering proposition for what could transpire. Are the Roosters and Rabbitohs headed for another minor premiership showdown? Will Ricky Stuart's Raiders end the finals hopes of his former club, the Eels? Will Knights coach Wayne Bennett put the final nail in the coffin of the man who replaced him at the Dragons, Steve Price? Will a host of former Tigers leave for Cronulla with heavy hearts after a tough afternoon at Leichhardt? Which of the Queensland connections will suffer the most heartbreak when the Storm host the Broncos? Expect to hear the phrase, "And it all comes down to this..." repeatedly over the course of the weekend.
20. Telstra Premiership Grand Final (ANZ Stadium, October 5)
Everything that happens prior will determine who makes it to the big day but nothing that comes before matters once the two teams step out onto the field. It's 80 minutes of football that represents 11 months of blood, sweat and tears and at the end of it for one waits immortality while the other consoles themself with a sad Monday. It's the moment that legends are created and champions made.