A massive opening three rounds, a 10-hour Anzac Day extravaganza across two nations and live broadcasts of Sunday afternoon football are the key talking points from the NRL's 2015 draw released today.
The season kicks off with a Thursday night blockbuster on March 5 between the Broncos and Rabbitohs at Suncorp Stadium in an opening round packed with clashes between traditional rivals including Manly at Parramatta on Friday, the Roosters and Cowboys on Saturday night – reliving their epic finals clash – and a reprise of the epic Panthers v Bulldogs Preliminary Final on the Sunday afternoon.
The dates and times for every game across the first 20 rounds have been fixed with the NRL to visit Perth, Darwin and Bathurst again as well as returning to storied grounds including the Sydney Cricket Ground and Belmore Sports Ground in 2015.
There will also be a reduced workload for clubs and players around a State of Origin Series that will be played across three states, with extra byes in rounds where representative stars are unavailable.
Fans will be treated to five games on Anzac Day back-to-back from midday to 10pm in honour of the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing in 1915, with games scheduled right across Australia and New Zealand.
The Saturday smorgasbord kicks off in New Zealand at midday Australian time (2pm local time) with the Warriors hosting the Titans followed by the Cowboys in Newcastle at 2pm, the Roosters and Dragons meet for their traditional clash at Allianz Stadium at 4pm, the Sea Eagles visit Melbourne at 6pm and finally the Eels travel to Brisbane for an 8pm kick-off.
Easter Monday will feature three games, with the Eels and Wests Tigers again doing battle after putting on an amazing show for more than 50,000 fans on Easter Monday in 2014. The Storm and Warriors face off at AAMI Park at 5pm before the Panthers host the Cowboys at 7pm.
There is an abundance of afternoon games throughout the first 20 rounds with nine games kicking off at 3pm on Saturday in Australia and three 5pm kick-offs in New Zealand that will broadcast live back to Australia at 3pm. All told there are 17 games kicking off by 5pm on a Saturday throughout the first part of the fixed draw, 12 Sunday 2pm starts and 19 live games on free-to-air from 4pm on Sundays.
Rounds 11, 14 and 17 will each feature just four games rather than five – one each on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday – with a view to easing the burden on clubs in pre-Origin rounds.
"We went in and worked with our broadcast partners and clubs really closely to try and understand within the agreements that we've signed, what we could deliver," NRL head of commercial Paul Kind told NRL.com.
"I think the biggest outcome is Sunday on Channel Nine will go live at four o'clock... to the credit of Nine and Fox we've been able to work together to make that happen."
With the strong opening rounds, the NRL expects to attract bigger crowds than it did in 2014 which was one of the key issues addressed from the season just past.
"The other [important lesson] was the value of your key public holidays and event days and clubs working with the game and the broadcasters to build events," Kind said.
"We've seen the success of events across the game in 2014 and we took advice from that and grew it to another level in 2015."
The reduction of games from five to four in major Origin bye rounds was done deliberately with a view to player welfare and reducing the impact on clubs as well as not scheduling major blockbusters in those rounds with the game's biggest drawcards unavailable for their respective clubs.
"We deliberately targeted trying to minimise the number of what you call 'blockbuster' games in that Origin period," Kind said.
"It's inevitable there are going to be some and you're looking at Friday night football on Channel Nine throughout that period, so it's inevitable there are some games still there but we've tried to minimise those.
"There has been a focus on that. Having said that, State of Origin remains in its traditional Wednesday night slot where we think it belongs and where it's so dominant and where it's such a big part of our season."
NRL Head of Football Todd Greenberg told NRL.com that there are "massive positives" for all clubs.
"There's the free-to-air coverage for some of the clubs that didn't get as much last year, there's a great mix of Sunday afternoon footy which will be live, which is fantastic and I think the front end of the season will be very strong," he said.
"Fans should be looking at their own club calendars right now [and] planning their season. They've got great certainty to know where their clubs are playing between now and Round 20, they know where they're playing, they know the kick-off times. It's a big part of our draw being fixed. Fans should be jumping on their club websites and NRL.com today and starting to plan their year for next year."
Putting the draw together was one of the most complex challenges faced by the NRL, with a range of competing interests between fans, players, clubs and broadcasters. Hundreds of man-hours have gone into putting it together from late in the 2014 season, with a range of people looking at it each through different coloured glasses.
"We've got to make sure the players' workload and the collective bargaining agreement are in principle within the draw, which they are," Greenberg said.
"We try to maximise our attendances with our clubs and we try to make sure the big games are played in the right spots.
"It's not an exact science and it won't please everybody, but we think we've got a wonderful draw for 2015 that's certainly an improvement."