Broncos v Rabbitohs
Thursday 5 March 7.05pm (AEST)
The look of freshly mown grass, the click-clack of boots on concrete, the smell of oil (both liniment and from the deep fryer), the drinks flowing and the crowd overflowing.
It can only mean one thing – rugby league is back.
An endless summer has given way to autumn and by the opening whistle on Thursday night, 152 days would have elapsed since the full-time siren sounded on the 2014 Grand Final.
Although the Four Nations, Auckland Nines and World Club Series have been run and won in the interim, nothing quite compares to the sheer thrill and excitement of the opening round of an NRL season.
Recent off-field dramas engulfing the game are set to be extinguished when defending premiers South Sydney travel north to take on a Brisbane Broncos side reinvigorated by the return of master coach Wayne Bennett and the addition of some new faces in key positions.
Bennett's return to the Broncos' helm is just one of many subplots surrounding this Round 1 blockbuster. Justin Hodges becomes sole captain of the Broncos with former co-captain Corey Parker lining up for his 300th NRL match – becoming only the second Bronco to do so behind future Immortal Darren Lockyer.
There'll be new faces for the Broncos too with Anthony Milford, Adam Blair and James Gavet all named in Bennett's 18-man squad.
Johnston's fitting Brisbane return
Broncos-Bunnies blockbuster the perfect start
Rabbitohs can go back to back: Renouf
Parker a 300-game Fantasy man
Wigan win breeds Bronco belief
Red-hot Reynolds still out to improve
Maguire excited by Stewart's potential
Jordan Kahu starts the season at fullback in place of the injured Darius Boyd and after two years in the rugby league wilderness, outside back Aaron Whitchurch has impressed Brisbane's coaching staff enough to earn a place on the bench.
The Rabbitohs will start the season in a position they haven't been in since 1972 – as defending premiers.
However, they look just as potent as last season despite the loss of Sam and Luke Burgess, with Manly veteran Glenn Stewart a ready-made replacement coming straight into the side.
Success in the Auckland Nines and their 39-0 drubbing of St Helens in the World Club Challenge will provide a massive boost for the Bunnies as they look to become the first side to win back-to-back premierships since the Broncos did in 1992/93.
Chris Grevsmuhl, Tim Grant and Stewart will don the cardinal and myrtle jersey for the first time with Souths coach Michael Maguire naming an extended bench of seven for the trip to Brisbane.
Did You Know: New Broncos recruit Anthony Milford was only six years old when Corey Parker made his first-grade debut against the New Zealand Warriors in Round 6, 2001. Justin Hodges was playing his seventh NRL match.
Watch out Broncos: For Broncos fans the night will be about Bennett and Parker. However another Immortal-in-waiting, Greg Inglis, will be out to break the hearts of the home fans yet again. Inglis scored four tries against the Broncos in 2014 – a hat-trick in Round 23 at ANZ Stadium and a brilliant 85-metre solo effort in Round 8 at Suncorp. The Rabbitohs fullback had another stellar season in 2014 – crossing for 13 tries and laying on 15 try assists – however it's Inglis's kick-return ability that has the Broncos nervous.
Brisbane's fledging halves pairing of Ben Hunt and Anthony Milford have been putting in extra work on their kicking game this week in order to limit the kick return metres of Souths' skipper, who topped the kick-return metres chart in 2014 with 1,658 metres. The Broncos may attempt to kick the ball into touch at times to limit his carries, although keeping him quiet for the full 80 minutes is another story.
Watch out Rabbitohs: Corey Parker will likely lead the Broncos out on Thursday night in honour of his 300th game, but new skipper Justin Hodges will be proudly running out of the tunnel right behind him. Hodges' transition from larrikin to leader over the course of his 15-year career has been a long and winding road. Now 32, the veteran centre is targeting another premiership under the tutelage of Wayne Bennett, fully casting aside their acrimonious split when Hodges signed for the Sydney Roosters in 2001. A right-sided centre by trade, Hodges is tipped to fill in at fullback when the Broncos are on the offensive and then switch back to his preferred position while defending.
South Sydney must also keep a close eye out for Hodges around the play-the-ball due to his notoriety as an effective dummy-half runner. Hodges averaged five dummy-half runs per game in 2014 at an average of almost nine metres per run. Similarly to Inglis, implementing a plan to stop Hodges is easier said than done.
Key Match-Up: Luke Keary & Adam Reynolds v Anthony Milford & Ben Hunt.
The halves match-up of Souths' Keary and Reynolds against new Brisbane pairing Milford and Hunt shapes as another intriguing sidenote. Keary's introduction into the side late last year allowed John Sutton to shift into a ball-playing back-rower, offering the Rabbitohs another dimension in attack.
Halfback Reynolds was a mainstay during Souths' premiership season and managed 16 try assists, seven tries and four line breaks during the year, while kicking an impressive 105 goals from 120 attempts at an average of 87.5 per cent. For the Broncos, Hunt was the clear standout performer in 2014 and the pressure is now on the 24-year-old to avoid becoming a one-season wonder.
Hunt's figures last season were nothing short of astonishing: 13 tries, 19 try assists, 19 line-break assists and 20 line breaks came from his 25 games. His halves partner, Canberra recruit Anthony Milford, only started five matches at five-eighth last year but still had a heavy role in the playmaking duties. Milford ended the season with 12 tries, 14 try assists, 16 line breaks and 16 line-break assists. The 20-year-old is likely to play a more structured brand of football under the watch of Bennett and it's likely to take a handful of games together before he starts to gel with Hunt.
The History: Played 30; Broncos 21, Rabbitohs 8, Drawn 1.
South Sydney may have been Brisbane's perennial whipping boys throughout the 1990s and 2000s, but since 2011 – the season Inglis joined the club – the Bunnies have held a slender head-to-head advantage over the Broncos.
Since meeting in Round 16, 2011, Souths have won four out of seven games against Brisbane including the last three encounters. Souths beat Brisbane by an aggregate score of 70-42 last season, outscoring Brisbane by 12 tries to eight.
What Are The Odds: Brisbane Broncos $2.35 South Sydney Rabbitohs $1.60
Over three times more individual bets have been placed on the Bunnies in the head-to-head market, therefore firming them as warm favourites. South Sydney were $2.03 outsiders at one stage of betting, although this was back in November.
Match Officials: Referee: Gerard Sutton. Assistant Referee: Grant Atkins. Touch Judges: Russell Turner and David Munro. Video Referees: Jared Maxwell and Luke Phillips.
Televised: Channel 9 – 7pm (AEST).
The Way We See It: As far as form is concerned, the Auckland Nines and World Club Series are the only guides to read off in 2015. It'll take a few matches before we see both sides fully hit their straps and on paper the Rabbitohs look better equipped to hit the ground running having taken out both of these pre-season trophies. The Broncos will be up for the challenge against the defending premiers and with a raucous home crowd, Wayne Bennett's return and Corey Parker's 300th providing increased motivation, they may well pull off an early-season upset. However, in a low-scoring affair, it's the Rabbitohs by four points.