Cronulla Sharks v Canberra Raiders
An intriguing match-up looms down in the Shire this Sunday evening between two sides who ended up occupying the bottom two rungs on the ladder at the end of last season, but have plenty of reasons to be more optimistic about the year ahead.
The home side in particular are boosted by the return of an avalanche of crucial players from injury and suspension; Kangaroos forwards Paul Gallen and Andrew Fifita in particular played just nine and 12 games respectively. The side has also gained the prized signatures of 2012 Dally M medalist Ben Barba and Canterbury's 2014 captain Michael Ennis.
Regaining coach Shane Flanagan as well as a general sense of normalcy from the ashes of a season ruined by the ASADA fallout will also be a massive boon. The injuries haven't quite dried up though, with representative back-rower Luke Lewis absent to start the season.
The Raiders' season didn't quite reach the depths of Cronulla's woes last year but until a late-season win over the Sharks, the Green Machine were level pegging in the wooden spoon race.
A late three-game winning streak averted that ignominy and two of the key players from that run – rookie halfback Mitch Cornish and makeshift fullback Jack Wighton – will reprise those roles alongside new five-eighth and ex-Tiger Blake Austin and English Test rake Josh Hodgson.
A new-look back row also boasts internationals Frank-Paul Nuuausala and Sia Soliola, as well as regular lock Shaun Fensom who has somehow shaken off a knee reconstruction from late last season to take his place for Round 1.
Other players to watch from both sides include ex-Storm flyer Sisa Waqa on the wing in his first game in green, and ex-Bulldog Mitch Brown on one flank for Cronulla keeping young guns Valentine Holmes and Jack Bird out of the 17.
Feki looking for breakout year
Papalii learns hard lessons from 2014
Sharks only worry is football: Gallen
Robson pumped for Barba debut
Soliolaand Nuuausala find comfort in Canberra
Beale and Leutele reunited at Cronulla
And if you need an extra reason to head to the footy on a balmy Sunday evening in early March, public transport costs are included in the price of the ticket, and the Sharks are offering a free shuttle service from local train stations.
Watch out Sharks: There are a few danger spots for Cronulla come Sunday evening but the bruising new-look back row of the Green Machine – which features rejuvenated hitman Josh Papalii back in his preferred position and Kiwi wrecking ball Nuuausala on the bench, while St Helens premiership winner Sia Soliola returns to the NRL – after leaving the Roosters as a centre – as a hard working forward and genuine leader around the team. Cronulla have one of the best packs in the NRL on paper but they'll need to have done their homework. We're sure Paul Gallen remembers that Josh Papalii packs a punch.
Watch out Raiders: the Sharks have threats all over the park but one man the Raiders will be keeping a close eye on is Broncos discard Ben Barba, who no doubt has a point to prove. We all saw his attacking potential in his stunning 2012 Dally M year and despite a few good games for Brisbane – between stints at five-eighth and fullback – he never hit the heights he'd have been hoping for. With a potent pack to lay a platform and Jeff Robson controlling things at halfback it could create just the right environment for Barba to return to his attacking best.
Key Match-Up: Paul Gallen v Josh Papalii. There are intriguing positional match-ups everywhere you look but in terms of a grudge match we can't go past Gallen and Papalii. A young Papalii virtually made his name by flattening Gal in a club game but Gallen has twice, after being laid out by the young Raider, objected to the lateness of the hit. After an up and down year in which he dropped down to Queensland Cup before returning to the Kangaroos, Papalii could have a point to prove against one of his favourite opponents; we're tipping early fireworks.
The History: Played 61; Sharks 33, Raiders 29. Not much between them historically, and the past 10 are split five apiece. Not only that, the past 10 at this venue are also split five apiece. No help here for the tipsters among us.
What Are The Odds: Sharks $1.42, Raiders $2.90. The Sharks have seen more than seven times the money that the Raiders have, and even at a line of -7.5 there has been little interest in the visitors. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Gavin Morris & Alan Shortall; touch judges Nick Beashel & David Ryan; Video Referees: Matt Cecchin & Luke Patten.
Televised: Fox Sports, Live, 6.30pm.
The Way We See It: We're not prepared to completely write off the Raiders but away from home, early in the season, and given Cronulla's great form at the Auckland Nines and potent forward pack, we're leaning towards the home side. Sharks by 10.