With the release of the 2015 draw there are 208 NRL games for fans to pore over and coaches to start planning for; here are the 10 we believe will most capture the imagination.
Bulldogs v Sharks, Round 20, Sunday 4pm (Belmore Sportsground)
Former Bulldogs skipper Michael Ennis willed his team, pushed his aging body, and tip-toed that rugby league line of ethics right to the precipice of premiership glory last season. And who knows what would've happened if he had played in the NRL decider? But his reward? His boss simply bought a younger version straight out of the box, with no scratches on the face, more wax in the hair and less miles in the legs. Granted, the decision was made midway through the season but nothing exemplifies the cut-throat nature of rugby league than this straight swap of hookers, with young gun Michael Lichaa moving from Cronulla to Canterbury and Ennis going the other way. Couple that with the Sydney return of new Shark Ben Barba, the 2012 Dally M winner who was once the darling of Belmore; triple it with giant chip on the shoulder on the Shiremen for god knows how long and you've got a beauty of a match-up that, even though they won't say so, is all personal.
Eels v Sea Eagles, Round 1, Friday 7.45pm (Pirtek Stadium)
Speaking of matters close to the heart, nothing divides a workplace more than a belief that you've been set up "to look like Hitler". Having already suffered a year-long, public examination of his unhappiness at Brookvale once good friend Glenn Stewart was deemed surplus to requirements for the Sea Eagles, Anthony Watmough left nothing on the table in his first interview at new club Parramatta. The NSW representative reasoned his bitter exit from his 12th and final season at Manly had him coming home "miserable and moody". Throw in the fact that Eels halfback Chris Sandow took their previous upset victory at Parramatta as a personal vendetta against hotshot free agent Daly Cherry-Evans and there's guaranteed to be fireworks between these sides in the very first week of the premiership.
Rabbitohs v Sea Eagles, Round 16, Friday 7.35pm (ANZ Stadium)
Ditto all that for Glenn Stewart, save the comparison to one of mankind's chief pariahs. Stewart's controversial and emotional departure in April was the domino that kickstarted this catastrophic kerfuffle at Manly. Injuries may have been the primary reason that the two-time premiership-winner never pulled on the maroon and white jumper after Round 8 last season, but the alleged non-offer from the club he spent his whole career at would have had plenty to do it with it as well. The fact that he joins the reigning NRL premiers – the team that defeated Manly in the Qualifying Final – will do little to quash the tension when these two sides come together in Round 16. And the best thing? Six weeks later they get to do it all again.
Bulldogs v Rabbitohs, Round 5, Friday 4pm (ANZ Stadium)
You know who hates the grand union of two perfect partners? Forever-bridesmaids. And that's exactly how these Bulldogs will be described if they can't overcome that final rugby league hurdle in their chase for premiership glory. This grand final re-match against South Sydney will be their biggest reminder yet that they've been to the altar twice in three years and been left holding the bouquet. But now that the immovable obstruction that is Sam Burgess is out of the way, James Graham will have a somewhat easier task of screaming his way past three more of them. Good luck with that.
Rabbitohs v Roosters, Round 2, Sunday 4pm (ANZ Stadium)
Surprise, surprise. Everyone will want a piece of the reigning NRL champions next season, not least their neighbourhood rivals who had to bite their lip as 'Glory, Glory' reverberated around old Sydney town long before the Bulldogs even got out of the sheds in the decider. But what would've really gotten the Bondi hipsters tearing into their skinny jeans was the decision to hand the Redfern folk the keys to the city, just one year after they were the ones atop the rugby league pedestal themselves! Two foundation clubs at war; what's better than that?
Bulldogs v Roosters, Round 10, Friday 7.35pm (ANZ Stadium)
And if the Roosters weren't already seething over the Lord Mayor playing favourites, then what about the entire state jumping aboard the Josh Reynolds-Trent Hodkinson bandwagon? The two highly-decorated vets in the six and seven for the Tricolours got as close as they could without getting the job done against the Maroons in 2013 (and in Mitchell Pearce's case, the six years prior to that), before the Bulldogs duo took over and finally got the Blues over the line. James Maloney and Pearce finished last season like the Origin players they're supposed to be and it'll be interesting to see how they perform against the incumbents, ironically the week that Laurie Daley names his team for Game One.
Knights v Broncos, Round 11, Monday 7pm (Hunter Stadium)
He was the coaching saviour meant to deliver Newcastle's first premiership in more than a decade. Instead, Wayne Bennett left the club amidst a trail of destruction that no one could've predicted when he arrived on the doorstep of this proud town three years ago. Will the reception he gets from his old club be a warm one? Who knows. But we can only think the way he manipulated his way back to Brisbane won't be easily forgotten by the good Novocastrian folk, nor the fact that they rarely saw the best of his protégé Darius Boyd, who followed his master interstate. Boyd and Brisbane's Origin reps won't make the trip in Round 11 but we're predicting an ice-cool reception for Bennett and the baby Broncos.
Titans v Broncos, Round 5, Friday 7.35pm (Cbus Super Stadium)
Even in his ripe old age, Wayne Bennett put the bling back into Brisbane this off-season, announcing his arrival with a trio of new recruits in the form of Anthony Milford, Darius Boyd and Adam Blair. But that meant there was too many in the bed, so old man Wayne said: Josh Hoffman, roll over. And at his behest, he did. All the way down to the Gold Coast. But there's no better way to show up an ex-partner than to demonstrate how beautiful the new one is, and in your coveted fullback jumper, no less, so Hoffman would love to get a win over his old club for the Titans on Good Friday.
Roosters v Wests Tigers, Round 9, Friday 7.35pm (Allianz Stadium)
Every good NRL season needs a good master and apprentice story, and no one has said "I owe you one" more times than Jason Taylor has this summer. The new Tigers coach knows the inner sanctum of the 2013 premiers like he knows how to kick goals, so there'll be plenty of expectation to bring that culture to Concord. He'll be hard-pressed meeting those expectations straightaway, given the rawness of his school of kids and the sudden walkout of an improved Adam Blair to Brisbane. JT needs a lot of things to go right for him next year, but a triumph over the powerhouse Roosters in Round 9 will give us a very good indication of the progress he's making.
Dragons v Sharks, Round 12, Sunday 4pm (Jubilee Oval)
The neighbourhood rivalry has lost a bit of its sting in recent years due to the lack of success at either club. But those old wounds might've been scratched open slightly this summer when the struggling Sharks went and stole three players out of Wollongong. The Dragons wouldn't have been too upset to see the injury-prone Kyle Stanley attempt a career revival in the Shire, and things with Gerard Beale didn't quite work out. But the pilfering of promising ball-runner Jack Bird hit the Dragons where it hurts and, particularly if he plays against his old club, things could get testy.
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