Schick Hydro Preview: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v Brisbane Broncos
South Cross Group Stadium
Thursday, 8:05PM AEDT
The defending premiers start their Telstra Premiership title defence at home against the Broncos on Thursday night in what is a match between two competition heavyweights.
Both sides lost inspirational leaders in the off-season, with Brisbane captain Corey Parker retiring and Cronulla veteran Michael Ennis also hanging up the boots.
Ben Barba's departure has also meant a backline reshuffle for the Sharks, while a number of off-season signings have bolstered the depth of the Broncos squad.
Gerard Beale has been named at fullback for Cronulla with Valentine Holmes out injured, although Holmes is being given some chance of playing having been included among the reserves in jersey 21. New recruit Edrick Lee will line up on the wing.
For Brisbane, Tautau Moga has edged out David Mead and will make his Broncos debut at centre, with young guns Tevita Pangai Jr, Herman Ese'ese and Jai Arrow joining Alex Glenn on the bench. New recruit Korbin Sims starts at prop with Josh McGuire replacing the retired Parker at lock.
Why the Sharks can win: Cronulla have history on their side, with six of the past seven defending premiers winning in Round 1 (Sydney Roosters the only exception in 2014). The men from the Shire have an outstanding forward pack; with the likes of Paul Gallen, Andrew Fifita, Wade Graham and Luke Lewis some of the NRL's best metre-eaters. Home crowd advantage will play a big role in this one as the Sharks' loyal supporter base cheer on their premiership-winning heroes for the first time in 2017. The euphoria and elation surrounding the Sharks' triumph is still raw after their fans and club waited 49 years to be crowned champions.
Why the Broncos can win: No Ennis, Barba or Holmes means the Sharks are vulnerable in Round 1. Young hooker Jayden Brailey will make his NRL debut in a position that Ennis made his own. The rookie has been thrown into the deep end having to line up against the ever-consistent Andrew McCullough who is the ultimate professional. Beale will be a makeshift fullback for Shane Flanagan's men and it's something the Broncos can exploit. The Sharks are far from full strength and that gives Brisbane the upper hand. The Broncos enter the match at full strength, with their backline boasting some of the game's best in newly appointed captain Darius Boyd, star five-eighth Anthony Milford and Queensland winger Corey Oates.
Key match-up: Chad Townsend v Ben Hunt. Townsend was a huge part of Cronulla's premiership run and he will need to increase his workload after the departures of Ennis and Barba. Townsend must make his presence felt early, and in particular he must help guide young Brailey in what is his first NRL match. Meanwhile, Hunt must prove his heart is still in it after signing on with the Dragons for the 2018 season. His kicking game will be key in this contest because he will not have much support from Milford. Repeat sets will also be important for the Broncos as they try and tire out the Sharks' big forward pack.
The history: Played 51; Sharks 20; Brisbane 31. Cronulla-Sutherland have won four of their last five against the Broncos. In the one meeting between the two sides in 2016, the Sharks jumped out to a 28-6 half-time lead before Brisbane fell short of a huge comeback to lose 30-28. On a more positive note for the Broncos, Wayne Bennett's men have won three of their past four matches at Southern Cross Group Stadium, with their most recent being a 10-2 victory in 2015.
What are the odds: Sportsbet's market for this game turned upside down once Valentine Holmes was ruled out. The Sharks went from favourites to outsiders as a result of six times as much money being invested on the Broncos. Brisbane 1-12 is the most popular winning margin, while Darius Boyd has been the best backed to score the first try of the new season. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Matt Cecchin; Assistant Referee: Alan Shortall; Touch Judges: Brett Suttor & Chris Butler; Review Official: Luke Patten; Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live coverage from 8.00PM; Fox League – Live coverage from 7.00PM.
NRL.com predicts: We're predicting the Sharks to start 2017 slowly. The injury to Holmes is a huge factor in this match, especially with the likes of Australian international Boyd in Brisbane's No.1 jersey. As well as this, the loss of Ennis and Barba cannot be underestimated, with the pair having 441 NRL games of experience between them. The Broncos look strong across the park and should be too good. Brisbane by eight.