History will be made when the 2017 NRL Telstra Premiership kicks off in March. Star players will square off against former teammates, coaches will renew rivalries, and streaks will be on the line. Here are the biggest storylines ahead of next year's opening round.
10. Coaching elite set for 27th meeting
The two most successful head coaches of the past decade will renew their rivalry when the Bulldogs host the Storm in Round 1. Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy boasts imposing records against virtually every counterpart in the NRL, but has struggled against Des Hasler, in part due to a run of six straight losses against the Dogs. In fact, Bellamy only has a 38.5 per cent winning record (10 wins from 26 matches) against Hasler – his worst strike rate against any other coach (minimum five games). However, he does hold a 2-1 advantage on grand final day.
9. JT has the last laugh
While there will be several juicy matches involving players taking on their former clubs, only one opening-round fixture pits a head coach against his former side. Jason Taylor spent three seasons at the Rabbitohs, guiding them to the finals in 2007, but left the club in controversial circumstances two years later. Now at the helm at the Wests Tigers, Taylor has the responsibility of nurturing some of the most exciting talent in the NRL. With a 3-1 record against his former club, he will be keen to make it four wins in a row on the first Friday night of the season. And of course, that is not the only narrative on the night…
8. Premiership defence
History suggests the Sharks will open their 2017 campaign with a win over the Broncos, but there might be a silver lining for the boys from Brisbane. Six of the past seven premiers started the following year with a Round 1 win (the Roosters were the only exception in 2014). However, the news isn't so bad for the team that loses the season opener. Take the Sharks for example. They played the 2015 premiers in Round 1 last year, and despite losing to the Cowboys, went on to win the competition. Rewind a further 12 months and the Broncos lost to 2014 premiers South Sydney but still reached the grand final. And who did the Bunnies play in the 2014 season opener? The Roosters. And how did they fare that year? Glory, glory.
7. Overall form has been like day and knight
The Warriors and Knights have had one of the strangest rivalries in rugby league when it comes to momentum. Newcastle dominated the early contests between these sides with 12 wins and a draw from the first 18 encounters, but the form line has been flipped on its head since then. In the 18 matches since, the men from across the Tasman have enjoyed 13 victories compared to Newcastle's five wins. Even their for and against is freakishly close, with the Warriors 38 points ahead thanks to a 36-point win in Round 14 last season. Can the Knights make it 18 wins apiece?
6. Can the Raiders handle the heat?
Melbourne's Olympic Park was often dubbed the 'Graveyard' by visiting teams, and for good reason. Just ask the Raiders, who managed one win from 12 attempts in the Victorian capital. While the southernmost stadium in Australia is no longer an issue for the Green Machine, the antipodean arena is starting to get of equal concern. The Raiders have won just one of their past 10 matches in Townsville dating back to 2005, and will be hard-pressed to improve that record in what will be stifling conditions against the Cowboys, who like Canberra, bowed out of the 2016 title race in the preliminary finals.
5. Reunion for the class of 2013
It wasn't long ago that the Brookvale faithful were cheering on the likes of Clint Gutherson, David Gower, Kieran Foran and Anthony Watmough. In fact, all four of them were a part of the Sea Eagles squad in 2013, but as of last season, were on Parramatta's books. While Foran and Watmough are no longer with the club, Gutherson has developed into a fan favourite while Gower has continued his role as Mr Reliable for his new club. Eels coach Brad Arthur is another with links to the northern beaches club given he was an assistant at Manly in 2013. Plenty has changed since then, and Parramatta will hope that translates to the scoreboard given their 50-10 loss all those years ago.
4. Blues brothers in waiting?
The season might be another four months away but that won't stop people making bold – and sometimes outlandish – State of Origin predictions. Two names that will be on everyone's lips are Mitchell Pearce and Jarryd Hayne, and the star duo will begin their journey back to the Blues in a Round 1 showdown on the Gold Coast. Hayne has played 20 matches for NSW at fullback, wing and in the centres, but it still remains unclear where he would slot in if picked in 2017. There are no such issues where Pearce is concerned, with the Blues veteran looking to add to his 15 appearances in the halves. Both could be in Laurie Daley's plans for next year, or they could quite easily miss out on selection. Their auditions start on March 4.
3. Streaks go on the line
What better way to knock off work early on Friday night than to head down to Belmore for a replay of the 2012 grand final. The first 6pm game of the season pits the Bulldogs against the Storm in what should be a match of epic proportions. Last year's beaten grand finalists will head into the game trying to extend an incredible record that has seen them win 12-straight season openers, but that streak will be in serious jeopardy against a Bulldogs side that has won six in a row against the Storm.
2. Mitch takes the Reins at Penrith
Mitch Rein's move from the Dragons to the Panthers was always going to lead to a spicy reunion when the clubs did battle in 2017, and neither party will have to wait long with the teams drawn to square off on the first Sunday of the season. The local junior played 132 matches for the Red V but joined the Panthers on a two-year deal after the Dragons didn't offer him a contract extension. Rein's recent comments about his former side's style of play have added more spice to what was already set to be a heated affair.
1. Farah set to earn his stripes at new club
Well this one should be interesting. The Rabbitohs were hot and cold in 2016, but with the Blues No.9 controlling the ruck, they could be the competition's dark horse next season. There will be plenty of fireworks when these sides meet in what is set to be an emotion charged clash on Friday night. Farah's highly publicised split from his beloved Wests Tigers will ensure this garners plenty of attention in the build-up to this clash.