2016 Draw: Top 10 clashes
NRL.com has taken a look through the draw to pick out what will be some of the most eagerly-anticipated head-to-head battles of 2016, with some traditional rivalries sharing billing with some newly-formed grudge matches.
10. Sharks v Dragons – Round 2, Shark Park, Sunday March 13
There's nothing like a local derby and fans won't have to wait long for a resumption in the battle of Sydney's southern beaches. The Red V head to the Shire in Round 2 knowing home ground counts for plenty when these two meet (each thrashed the other in their respective home games last season). Meanwhile Dragons junior Jack Bird – snatched by Cronulla in a major coup last year – is reportedly in Paul McGregor's sights for a return to the 'Gong in the near future, adding plenty of extra spice to an already tantalising match-up.
9. Knights v Sea Eagles – Round 8, Hunter Stadium, Monday April 25
This 2pm game will be the first in a triple treat of Anzac Day football, but all eyes will be on the first head-to-head meeting between one time master and apprentice Nathan Brown and Trent Barrett. Brown is back as a head coach in the NRL at Newcastle after an impressive stint over in the Super League – that following a less successful one as Dragons mentor when he was in charge of some former teammates. They included Barrett, and Brown's now-infamous slap to Barrett's face in an attempted fire-up gone wrong may be water under the bridge to the two men but will be cause for plenty of interest among fans and media. Barrett will be desperate to get one over his former coach and teammate in what will be just his eighth game as a first grade coach. Meanwhile Trent Hodkinson, who made his name on the northern beaches, will be just getting into his stride in red and blue and hoping to stake a claim for the imminent Origin campaign.
8. Roosters v Warriors – Round 5, Allianz Stadium, Sunday April 3
Roosters prodigal son Roger Tuivasa-Sheck returns with a new-look Warriors outfit. The 2015 Dally M fullback of the year is the one that got away for Trent Robinson's men, upsetting their succession planning strategy in order to return to his native New Zealand on a deal the Tricolours just couldn't match. He'll be up against a host of very close mates in this homecoming, while he and fellow high-profile recruit Issac Luke will be expected to be the final keys in the puzzle to turning the Warriors from a hot-and-cold danger side to genuine contenders. It's the major – but not the only – subplot in what will be the very first 2pm kick-off of the year with early rounds featuring a host of late afternoon and evening games.
7. Raiders v Wests Tigers – Round 8, GIO Stadium, Saturday April 23
The Raiders were an absolute blessing to the neutral NRL fan in 2015, featuring in a huge number of thrilling finishes and memorable matches. While their heartrate-elevating finishes to games (there were agonising late losses as well as miraculous wins) won't have boosted the life expectancies of their diehard fans, they certainly provided top shelf entertainment throughout the year.
Arguably none of their efforts was more outrageous than that sunny Sunday afternoon at Leichhardt in Round 7 when they let the Tigers explode to a 22-0 lead before five unanswered tries saw them run out 30-22 winners. The return bout was memorable for different reasons as the Tigers took a win from Canberra's home ground in a spiteful game best remembered for Dave Shillington being sent off for an attempted head-butt on Aaron Woods.
The Tigers have recruited former Canberra NYC premiership winner Michael Chee Kam as well as 2015 Raiders forwards Joel Edwards while one of Canberra's best last year was Tigers discard Blake Austin, who will be looking to continue to pile the misery on his former club. Add in the subplot of James Tedesco's contractual about-face in 2014 and there is no shortage of reasons to mark this one down in the calendar.
6. Panthers v Sea Eagles – Round 26, Pepper Stadium, date TBA
Not a regular entrant on our 'most anticipated clashes' lists, this meeting between two clubs at opposite ends of Sydney's geography got a whole lot more interesting in 2016 with the arrival on Sydney's northern beaches of former Penrith assistant Trent Barrett as Manly head coach. He's brought with him Penrith and New Zealand star Lewis Brown and premiership-winning hooker Api Koroisau, as well as reserve playmaker Isaac John.
Although the sides will face off at Brookvale in Round 14, Barrett's return to Penrith will be closely watched by Panthers fans, as will the efforts of several former Panthers in his ranks, as the youthful squad of mountain men hope their club has made the right decisions around recruitment and retention in their playing and coaching ranks.
5. Storm v Warriors – Round 8, AAMI Park, Monday April 25 (Anzac Day)
Last year's epic five-game Anzac Day rugby league marathon had just about everything – except for this now-obligatory clash between the Warriors and the Storm. This year's draw is richer for the return of this always memorable clash that pits a Storm side studded with Kiwi stars up against a host of their Test teammates from the Auckland-based club on a day that marks a significant day in the calendars of both countries and reminds of the sacrifices made by soldiers from both sides of the Tasman. They split the spoils one apiece last year but the Warriors will be hoping the addition of New Zealand Test stars Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Issac Luke will boost their win rate in 2016.
4. Rabbitohs v Bulldogs – Round 4, ANZ Stadium, Friday March 25 (Good Friday)
The past two seasons have seen these two clubs who share the same home ground forge an intense rivalry. From Souths rampaging home over the top of the Dogs in the 2014 Grand Final to the ongoing all-English rivalry between Dogs skipper James Graham and the Bunnies' Burgess cohort to the at-times spiteful but nevertheless enthralling Good Friday clash last year, you just know there is going to be plenty of feeling in this one. It's no accident these sides are meeting again in a Good Friday extravaganza in a match no fan should miss.
3. Sea Eagles v Eels – Round 7, Brookvale Oval, Thursday April 14.
Otherwise known as "Kieran Foran's return to Brookvale".
The sheer volume of foot traffic between Sydney's northern beaches and western suburbs adds plenty of spice to what is already a long-standing rivalry. With former Manly assistant Brad Arthur at the helm, Parramatta last year lured out long-serving Manly junior Anthony Watmough. He joined Manly 2011 premiership winner David Gower and they are this year joined by arguably the biggest recruit of the lot, star five-eighth and Sea Eagles junior Kieran Foran – as well as hot property Clint Gutherson and forward James Hasson. Manly meanwhile are skippered by former Eels prodigy Jamie Lyon and feature Sea Eagle-turned Eel-turned Sea Eagle Darcy Lussick.
With Manly's strong finish to 2015 after a horror start eventually coming unstuck at the hands of an Eels side who had already trounced them in Round 1, an argument could be made the Eels cost Geoff Toovey's men a spot in the 2015 finals. With new coach Trent Barrett and a host of new recruits, this maroon and white squad is bursting at the seams with possibilities. In fact, along with the Warriors it could be argued no other team has recruited as well as Manly and Parra and what better way to strut their stuff than against traditional cross-town rivals.
2. Roosters v Rabbitohs – Round 1, Allianz Stadium, Sunday March 6
The oldest rivalry in the NRL is also one of the fiercest and it will be on again as soon as Round 1 2016. Headlines will be dominated by the return of prodigal son Sam Burgess to the cardinal and myrtle and while his first outing will be of enormous interest to not only Rabbitohs fans but league fans across the country, there is plenty more at stake here.
These two foundation clubs have shared some epic battles both across the past century-and-a-bit as well as in recent years. Both will be unhappy with how their 2015 seasons ended; 2014 premiers the Rabbitohs were bundled out in awful fashion by the Sharks in the opening week of the finals after a disappointing close to the season while 2013 premiers the Roosters claimed a third straight minor premiership before a shock opening week finals loss to the Storm set them on the back foot for a preliminary final loss to the Broncos.
This Sunday afternoon blockbuster will be arguably the most hotly-anticipated of all the mouth-watering Round 1 fixtures.
1. Broncos v Cowboys – Round 4, Suncorp Stadium, Friday March 25 (Good Friday)
There are few clashes in any season that carry more fervour than the Grand Final 'rematch'. For all the inevitable talk of revenge, an early-season win over your grand final tormenters carries only the most hollow satisfaction. But for the resurgent Broncos this first clash will be a chance to reassert some dominance over their upstart little brothers from up north. For four-time Dally M Medallist Johnathan Thurston and his triumphant Cowboys, it will be a chance to add more bragging rights over a Broncos side they believe they have the measure of and claim a big scalp early in the title defence.
Few will have forgotten just how entertaining the meetings between these two proud Queensland clubs were last year. A Round 3 trouncing at the hands of Brisbane had local media blasting the sorry 0-3 Cowboys. They then found their mojo and squared the ledger in Round 10 with a 31-20 win. The two clubs fought out the most entertaining and memorable clash of the finals at Suncorp in a 16-12 win by Brisbane before matching that and so much more in one of the most pulsating and memorable Grand Finals of all time, famously stolen late by a Kyle Feldt equaliser on the final siren and a Thurston golden point field goal.
Whatever happens, there will be plenty of extra feeling in a meeting that is never short on passion and one that will have not only fans of both clubs but every neutral licking their lips in anticipation.