Newcastle Knights v New Zealand Warriors
In what shapes up as one of the more intriguing games of the opening round, the Newcastle Knights and New Zealand Warriors will be looking to kick off their campaigns on the right note following inconsistent 2014 campaigns.
Newcastle will be keen to continue building Hunter Stadium as a fortress under new and improved coach Rick Stone, as they head into the game with a five-game winning streak at home, including a 28-22 win in Round 23, 2014 over their opponents this weekend.
The flair of Tyrone Roberts and Jarrod Mullen in the halves along with a permanent return to fullback for captain Kurt Gidley is sure to excite plenty of Novocastrians, however reigning Golden Boot recipient and Warriors halfback Shaun Johnson will certainly be the man to watch.
Johnson, after his starring role in New Zealand's victorious Four Nations campaign, has plenty of new puzzle pieces to work with thanks to the additions of Ryan Hoffman and Bodene Thompson to the Warriors' back row – a huge boost towards the club's fortunes.
Joining Hoffman and Thompson in their Warriors debut will be Auckland Nines star Solomone Kata, Sam Lisone and Albert Vete. Chad Townsend will also start at five-eighth with Thomas Leuluai pencilled in for hooker and NRL All Star Nathan Friend coming off the bench. Suaia Matagi is 18th man.
Surprisingly, Australian international Sione Mata'utia was named 18th man with coach Stone preferring Joey Leilua in the centres. Gidley's move to fullback also sees Tyler Randell line up for his second NRL appearance from the bench to help hooker Adam Clydsdale. James McManus will also celebrate his 150th NRL game while fellow winger Akuila Uate is just a hattrick away from racking up 100 tries for the Knights.
Watch out Knights: Solomone Kata blasted onto the scene at the Auckland Nines in a huge way. An absolute star for the Warriors in their run to the quarter finals, the young centre's performances in Auckland should have Dane Gagai second-guessing himself considering Kata scored four tries and earned a spot in the Team of the Tournament.
Watch out Warriors: Five-eighth Mullen will start the season fighting fit and raring to go unlike this time 12 months ago. His kicking game should be a highlight of this contest and something the Warriors backline of Kata, Tuimoala Lolohea, Manu Vatuvei and Konrad Hurrell should be wary of. In 16 games last season, Mullen kicked the pill 7,360 metres downfield (460 metres per game) and he didn't struggle to find open space either.
Key Match-Up: Beau Scott vs. Ryan Hoffman – While they may be friends and back row teammates on the representative scene, away from the glitz and glamour of State of Origin a scintillating battle between Ryan Hoffman and Beau Scott beckons. The grunt of Scott – who averaged 74.4 metres and 25 tackles last year – up against the hard working Hoffman – 23.3 tackles and 109.1 metres per game for Melbourne in 2014 – may prove to be one of the game's highlights. Their respective line break and offload abilities will be sure fire hits too.
The History: Played 32; Knights 16, Warriors 15, Draw 1. The Knights haven't fared all that well against the Warriors in recent times having only won four times in their past 16 appearances against their upcoming opponents. They were successful in their most recent meeting when they overcame their counterparts 28-22 in Round 23 last season, thanks to a Mata'utia hattrick.
What are the Odds: Plenty of punters are going for the Knights here with nearly double the amount of money placed on them as the visitors, but the Warriors are the pick for the line of -1.5. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee – Ashley Klein; Assistant Referee – Chris Butler; Sideline Officials – Rick McFarlane and Phil Henderson; Video Referees – Steve Clark and Steve Folkes.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live (4:30pm)
The Way We See It: Both teams have had impressive pre-seasons including quarter final berths at the Nines, but the home advantage – considering their current streak at Hunter Stadium – should be enough for Newcastle to start their season off with a bang. Knights by 6 points.