Schick Preview: Canberra Raiders v Penrith Panthers
The Canberra Raiders and Penrith Panthers kick off their highly anticipated 2016 campaigns with what should be an exciting showdown in the nation's capital.
Both teams come in boasting at least one marquee recruit, but that injection of talent appears slightly offset by the disruptions of injuries to key players.
The Raiders appear to have come off better than the Panthers though, with key playmaker Blake Austin demoted to the bench having not adequately recovered from a serious shoulder injury.
In his place the more than capable Sam Williams will combine with former Titans half Aidan Sezer, who comes to Canberra with huge raps and huge expectations.
Meanwhile Penrith are without key strike weapons Matt Moylan and Dean Whare, with Will Smith and Waqa Blake respectively slotting into their places.
New coach Anthony Griffin won't be too demoralised by those losses however as he's set to unleash star back-rower Trent Merrin in Panthers colours for the first time.
Griffin's other new recruits Peta Hiku and Suaia Matagi will also feature with Hiku named at centre and Matagi to join Tyrone Peachey and Elijah Taylor on the Penrith bench.
For Canberra, English international Elliot Whitehead has surprisingly pushed their 2015 player of the year Sia Soliola to the bench, while Sisa Waqa is the notable omission from Ricky Stuart's first 2016 team.
Watch out Raiders: Trent Merrin makes his first NRL appearance for Panthers with huge expectations. His impact through the middle of the field will no doubt lay a tremendous platform for the Panthers' backs to go to work, unless the Raiders can push him back and prevent his offloads. Combined with the super-skillful Bryce Cartwright in the back row, Merrin is a danger man for the Raiders.
Watch out Penrith: Joey Leilua is in amazing shape and showed in his one trial appearance against the Knights that he's also finding some great form. A blockbusting 40-metre run for a try against his former club showed Raiders fans just how far Leilua had come since arriving from the club out of shape late in 2015. He'll be looking to reward the faith coach Stuart has shown in him with a huge first-up performance in 2016.
Key match-up: Shaun Fensom v Trent Merrin. Round 1 games are won in the forwards. While the backs take time to work out their combinations, these two blokes will be going hammer and tongs trying to get their side on the front foot. While Merrin has all the tools to break the game open, the super tough Fensom has the necessary tools to completely shut him down with his awesome defence. Whichever player gets the upper hand in this battle of midfield goliaths will go a long way to earning on-field success.
The history: Played 67; Raiders 33, Panthers 33, Drawn 1. The last time these two sides met the Raiders snatched a late victory thanks to a length of the field Edrick Lee intercept, keeping their 2015 finals hopes alive.
What are the odds: Raiders: $1.68, Panthers $2.20. There has been a lot of money on the home side in this one with Sportsbet. Canberra have firmed from $1.80 while the Panthers have drifted from the same price. There's more money on the Raiders to get home by 13+ than there is on Penrith 1-12 and 13+ combined. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Gavin Badger. Assistant Refree: Dave Munro. Touch Judges: Brett Suttor and Dave Ryan. Review Officials: Ben Galea & Jason Robinson. Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 3.00pm AEDT.
The way we see it: Both these sides will be raring to go to start their campaigns the right way, paving the way for an intriguing first-up clash from two 2015 also-rans. However the Raiders deserve strong favoritism playing at home with an almost full-strength side. While the Panthers will benefit from a strong pack and a skillful back row it seems they have fewer points in them than the Raiders who couldn't find room for Sisa Waqa, and possess a gun on the bench in the form of Blake Austin. Raiders by 12.