NRL ROUND 1 PREVIEW AND TIPS 2020

The 2020 NRL premiership is finally upon us, which means attention can switch from futile debates – like whether the new ‘Simply the Best’ ad was an uplifting celebration of everything that makes rugby league great, or the worst thing that has ever happened in the code's 112-year history – to something we can all agree is awesome. The footy.

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Hope springs eternal for all 16 clubs as they begin their 30-week quest to NRL Grand Final glory.

NRL Round 1 is brimming with grudge matches, derbies and flip-of-the-coin showdowns destined to go down to the wire. Big-name recruits wearing new colours for the first time, key injuries leaving big line-up holes, rookies looking to make an immediate mark and even the christening of a new stadium – this weekend is shaping as a five-city rugby league bender that will have fans begging for mercy on Monday morning.

The season’s opening round is traditionally full of surprises. Which underdogs will defy the doomsayers with a boilover victory? And whose pre-season optimism balloon will get popped by a shock defeat? Gorge yourself on the buffet that is Sportsbet’s NRL Round 1 preview.

PARRAMATTA EELS V CANTERBURY BULLDOGS

8:05PM (AEDT) THURSDAY 12 MARCH @ BANKWEST STADIUM

Experts are swarming on the Parramatta Eels as the hot 2020 NRL premiership tip, making them more popular than a restocked toilet paper shelf at Coles. That’s not a good role for the blue-and-golds, who have been title-less since 1986 and are chronic underachievers when the spotlight of expectation burns brightest.

The effervescent Eels can pile on quick points to blow any team off the park. But the gap between their best and worst footy is huge, their fortunes hinge too much on the form of halfback Mitchell Moses, and they are yet to prove themselves as a team willing to get into the grind.

But finals appearances in 2017 and ’19 – either side of a wooden spoon in 2018 – have catapulted the Eels to the fourth line of title betting. Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Ryan Matterson arrive to bolster an engine room that has farewelled Manu Ma’u and Tepai Moeroa. Centre Waqa Blake is racing the clock to prove his fitness for Thursday night.

Canterbury are the inverse of Parramatta. The Bulldogs posted an NRL-low 56 tries last season yet clawed their way to a 12th-place finish on the back of gritty defensive efforts and a never-say-die attitude.

A dreadful attack will outweigh the Bulldogs’ pluckiness when it comes to their finals prospects. Glaring inexperience in the halves and at hooker, plus a lack of variety in the pack, negates the class of players like Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, William Hopoate, Corey Harawira-Naera and Josh Jackson. But they are capable of frustrating flighty teams like the Eels.

Parramatta lost to Souths and drew with Penrith in the pre-season. Canterbury beat a low-key Cronulla line-up before going down narrowly to Canberra.

Parramatta have won six of the last eight encounters between the arch rivals. But honours were shared in 2019, with the Eels’ 36–16 early-season romp at ANZ Stadium – including ‘Gutho’ and ‘Fergo’ doubles – countered by the Bulldogs’ 12–6 boilover in the latter rounds.

The Eels are 8–3 against the line at Bankwest Stadium. But this NRL Round 1 game is the season opener and a grudge match. The Bulldogs – who did not concede more than 16 points in winning five of their last six games in 2019 – are the clear option with a double-digit start.

NRL expert tip : Bulldogs

 

CANBERRA RAIDERS V GOLD COAST TITANS

6:00PM (AEDT) FRIDAY 13 MARCH @ GIO STADIUM

Canberra fans may be clinging to their vendetta over last season’s ‘six again’ controversy with mafia-like commitment, but the Raiders themselves must put their Grand Final near miss in the rear-view mirror. The well-worn ‘you have to lose one to win one’ philosophy holds less credibility these days – Grand Final heartbreak hangovers are more common, with only one club (Melbourne in 2017) lifting the trophy 12 months after succumbing in the big one.

There are also some major line-up changes for the Green Machine to negotiate. Moving reliable No. 7 Aidan Sezer on in favour of Englishman George Williams is a gamble. Curtis Scott, under a police-charge cloud, arrives as a replacement for enigmatic centre Joey Leilua. Wing staple Jordan Rapana reluctantly went to rugby union, though former rah-rah Bailey Simonsson is a ready-made substitute. However, the absence of Brit back-row sensation John Bateman – sidelined by shoulder surgery until mid-April – shapes as the most significant line-up change as the Raiders get their campaign underway in NRL round 1.

That’s not to suggest Canberra don’t deserve backing at $7 on the third line of premiership betting. Internationals Jack Wighton, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Josh Hodgson, Josh Papalii, Elliott Whitehead, Joseph Tapine and Nick Cotric headline a team sheet that would be the envy of most. Their depth is solid.

The Gold Coast Titans approach a new era under the tutelage of Justin Holbrook, who served a coaching apprenticeship under Roosters mastermind Trent Robinson and also guided St Helens to the Super League crown last year.

The Titans finished last in 2019 and are $3.50 favourites to pick up the NRL’s most undesired utensil again this season. There’s been little player movement over the holidays and luckless captain Ryan James is out for the year. But if the likes of Ash Taylor, Tyrone Peachey, Bryce Cartwright and Shannon Boyd play to their salary rather than providing local-park-footballer value, Holbrook will have a decent team on his hands. Jai Arrow is an elite forward and Moeaki Fotuaika is on his way to similar status. The chance to cement the fullback spot should bring out the best in game-maker AJ Brimson.

Pre-season form was encouraging enough for both clubs. Gold Coast reached the NRL Nines semis and beat a full-strength Brisbane in trial action. Canberra edged Canterbury in their only hit-out.

Credit where it’s due: the Titans have won four of their last six at GIO Stadium. They also boast a 12–11 all-time record against the Raiders, one of just three rivalries where the Titans find themselves in the black. But the Raiders have won four of the last five between the clubs, including a 21–0 shutout on the Gold Coast in Round 1 last season.

The Titans have also won just three of their last 16 away from Robina. The Raiders, meanwhile, are aiming to improve on an uncharacteristically modest 5–6 record at GIO Stadium during the 2019 regular season.

With a hefty line set, consider this stat: last season’s meeting between the clubs was the first time in nine years that the Raiders have recorded a Round 1 win by a double-digit margin and only the second time in the Titans’ 13-season history that they have lost by the same. Rust, line-up disruption and expectation should make this harder for the Raiders than the odds suggest.

NRL expert tip : Titans

NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS V BRISBANE BRONCOS

8:05PM (AEDT) FRIDAY 13 MARCH @ QUEENSLAND COUNTRY BANK STADIUM

To the surprise of no one, the Brisbane Broncos open their 2020 campaign in the sought-after Friday-night timeslot. But the Sunshine State’s traditional big dogs won’t be the star attraction as the North Queensland Cowboys christen their sparkly new stadium in Townsville on the 25th anniversary of their humble premiership entry.

There’s also plenty of goodwill surrounding the Cowboys’ chances of returning to the play-offs after back-to-back bottom-four finishes. The arrival of fullback Valentine Holmes is a game-changer, while Kiwi international Esan Marsters adds strike to an uninspiring three-quarter line. A forward pack headlined by Jason Taumalolo and Jordan McLean is among the NRL’s best, though the Cowboys still look a quality prop short in NRL Round 1 – particularly with Josh McGuire currently sidelined.

Forward strength and depth is not a concern for the Broncos, despite Matt Lodge’s knee injury and the possible absence of new skipper Alex Glenn. But with their 58–0 finals obliteration at the hands of Parramatta still brutally clear in the memory, under-pressure coach Anthony Seibold has rolled the dice in key positions. Unwanted Melbourne halfback Brodie Croft will be expected to steer the ship immediately, while Jack Bird has won the race for the No. 1 jersey. Payne Haas, David Fifita and co guarantee a strong platform and game-breaking potential galore, but the Broncos’ defence was appalling at times last season.

The Cowboys lifted the spirits of their fan base with a stirring Nines triumph last month, before pipping the Broncos and going down to the Storm in trial action. The Broncos also lost to the Titans to cap an underwhelming pre-season program.

The Broncos still hold a commanding 34–16 lead in this rivalry, with two matches drawn. After a 7–3 Cowboys run, the Broncos have won four of the last five. An extraordinary eight of the last 11 derbies were decided by four points or less.

North Queensland have won six of their last seven in Round 1 and the more experienced hosts should take the points in a thriller befitting the occasion.

NRL expert tip: Cowboys

NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS V NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS

3:00PM (AEDT) SATURDAY 14 MARCH @ McDONALD JONES STADIUM

Pray for the team that loses the first Super Saturday game of NRL 2020.

Three-time wooden spooners Newcastle assembled a star-studded roster, but coach Nathan Brown could only take them to consecutive 11th-place finishes in 2018–19. After Brown was knifed, and the Knights underwent a cloak-and-dagger acquisition of highly rated coach Adam O’Brien, the critics will be sharpening… Okay, that’s too many blade-type references for one sentence. But you get the picture: anything less than the Knights’ first finals appearance since 2013 will be regarded as a dismal failure.

And then there are the Warriors.

Optimism among the NRL’s resident basketcase fans is at an all-time low. Wooden-spoon predictions are flowing quicker from this side of the Tasman than sheep jokes. Little in the way incoming talent, a pedestrian forward pack and the loss of a long-held identity as a team capable of rolling anyone on their day does not bode well for an improvement on last year’s 13th-place effort.

Only a win or a stoic loss can prevent immediate pressure piling up on coach Stephen Kearney and the Warriors.

There are a couple of similarities between the Knights and Warriors heading into 2020. Both have new No. 9s – Jayden Brailey and Wayde Egan, respectively – in an otherwise quiet summer recruitment-wise. Both are grappling with who to start at five-eighth and both are still trying to put their outside-back puzzle together.

But the Warriors’ limp final trial loss to Wests Tigers was compounded by an injury to captain and saving grace Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. His absence is a crushing blow to start a tenuous campaign. The Knights were one of the better pre-season performers, shining at the Nines and crushing a weak Roosters line-up 58–0. Kalyn Ponga, Mitchell Pearce and David Klemmer should have it all over their opposite numbers on Saturday.

The Warriors’ home win over the Knights in 2017 (with David Fusitu’a bagging a hat-trick at centre) snapped a seven-year Round 1 losing streak. They’ve now won three season openers on the bounce, providing a good option for NRL Round 1 tips. The Knights have won just two of their last eight against the Warriors; last season they powered to a 36–18 win in Auckland before an Origin-depleted line-up went down 24–20 at home.

The Knights are a shaky proposition in most circumstances. But there’s even less to like about an under-strength Warriors side on a warm afternoon in front of a heaving Novocastrian crowd.

NRL expert tip: Knights

SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS V CRONULLA SHARKS

5:30PM (AEDT) SATURDAY 14 MARCH @ ANZ STADIUM

Regular finalists South Sydney and Cronulla head into NRL season 2020 with big question marks hanging over their line-ups.

The Rabbitohs have lost brothers Sam and George Burgess, as well as John Sutton and Adam Doueihi. Marquee signing Latrell Mitchell has been pitchforked into the unfamiliar and demanding fullback spot. Cameron Murray’s shift to an edge second-rower role also looks a gamble.

The Sharks boast more rocks-or-diamonds players than any team in the NRL, headlined by Shaun Johnson, who would captain any hypothetical ‘Enigma XIII’. That ensures the Sharks will get their share of wins but are destined to struggle for consistency. Jesse Ramien’s return to the club can’t make up for Paul Gallen’s retirement and the underrated impact of Kurt Capewell and Matt Prior leaving. Josh Morris wants out, while fellow outside backs Josh Dugan, Matt Moylan and Bronson Xerri are under injury clouds.

But, like Souths, Cronulla still feature a dynamic pack, matchwinners in key positions and more grit that most.

Neither club has won more than two in a row against the other in the past decade, but Souths have taken the points in the last six encounters at ANZ Stadium. A Wade Graham– and Shaun Johnson–inspired Cronulla got up 39–24 at home in the only meeting in 2019.

Neither side is likely to be anywhere near their best over the early rounds. Expect both teams to get down in the trenches for a scrappy-but-engrossing showdown.

 

PENRITH PANTHERS V SYDNEY ROOSTERS

7:35PM (AEDT) SATURDAY 14 MARCH @ PANTHERS STADIUM

Penrith are flying under the radar as far as the NRL’s most under-pressure teams go – there’s a lot to be pessimistic about at the foot of the mountains. New recruits Api Koroisau, Kurt Capewell and Zane Tetevano will capably plug some gaps, but linchpin James Maloney leaves a cavernous hole. Their first-choice fullback is out until Round 7, Nathan Cleary is yet to prove he can run the team on his own, and the Panthers are on the middle-to-lower section of the competition’s spectrum in every area of the team sheet except maybe the back row.

Fresh from becoming the first back-to-back premiers in 26 years, Sydney Roosters embark on a quest to chalk up the first three-peat since the 1981–83 Eels. They also claimed an emphatic World Club Challenge victory in England last month. But the retired Cooper Cronk and Souths-bound Latrell Mitchell have been vital cogs in their success – for now the pair will be replaced by the inexperienced Kyle Flanagan and retrenched back-rower Angus Crichton.

In the past seven seasons – a period in which they collected a bounty of four minor premierships and three Grand Final wins – the Roosters have won just two Round 1 fixtures. The Panthers have started three of their last four campaigns with a loss.

The Panthers have won five of their last eight against the Roosters at home, including a 19–10 mid-season boilover last year. The Roosters turned the tables at the SCG in the penultimate round, cruising to a 22–6 win.

The Roosters are top-four certainties and the Panthers are highly unlikely to reach the finals. But punters love a home underdog – especially early in the season – and the Panthers, strong in the trials, are hard to overlook with a generous start.

NRL expert tip: Panthers

MANLY SEA EAGLES V MELBOURNE STORM

4:05PM (AEDT) SUNDAY 15 MARCH @ LOTTOLAND

It’s arguably the greatest NRL rivalry not based on proximity – and a mouth-watering way to get Sunday arvo footy underway for 2020.

Manly are the dark horse in the premiership race, rallying from second-last to sixth after the return of prodigal son Des Hasler as coach last season. Meanwhile, critics have given up forecasting the decline of the Melbourne machine – if a key player leaves, Craig Bellamy simply rolls another NRL-ready player off the production line.

The Sea Eagles’ stable full-strength line-up is as strong as any, but depth remains an issue. That will be tested from the outset with Jake Trbojevic and Addin Fonua-Blake unavailable for NRL Round 1. The Storm aren’t without their challenges following the departure of first-choice centres Will Chambers and Curtis Scott, and injuries preventing Brandon Smith and Christian Welch from taking the field for another month.

The Storm accounted for the Warriors and Cowboys during the trials. The Sea Eagles went down to the Sharks in their only hit-out.

Curiously, all four Manly–Melbourne clashes in the past two seasons have gone the way of the visiting team. Last season, the Sea Eagles won a golden point thriller 11–10 at AAMI Park, but the Storm romped in 36–6 at Brookvale five weeks later – their fourth straight victory at the venue. The bitter rivals tend to produce nailbiters or absolute blowouts. Of their past 15 encounters, nine were decided by four points or less and the other six featured 20-plus margins.

But the stat ruffling Des Hasler’s impossibly lush hairdo is that the Storm have never lost in Round 1 during Bellamy’s 17-year tenure. The Storm have also won nine of their last 10 outside Melbourne and look the goods against an understrength Sea Eagles.

ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA DRAGONS V WESTS TIGERS

6:15PM (AEDT) SUNDAY 15 MARCH @ WIN STADIUM

Paul McGregor has been at the helm of St George Illawarra since 2014. It’s a riddle the rugby league world is still trying to untangle, particularly after the club lost 15 of its last 19 to finish second-last in 2019.

In worrying signs for 2020, Gareth Widdop’s return to England leaves the keys with uber-enigmas Ben Hunt and Corey Norman. The fullback situation is a shambles. To complete the Saints’ spine calamity, skipper Cameron McInnes will miss half the season with injury. Mercifully, they have a quality hooker replacement in Issac Luke, while Trent Merrin will help soften the temporary loss of Korbin Sims and the ongoing unavailability of Jack de Belin.

But their deficiencies run too deep to be masked by a couple of good buys and last month’s heartening Nines campaign.

Wests Tigers have become a team that’s more than the sum of its parts in just one season under Michael Maguire. The incoming Leilua brothers are very un-Maguire players – potential match-winners plagued by unreliability – but likely fullback Adam Doueihi is a great pick-up. With Ryan Matterson, Robbie Farah and Esan Marsters leaving, the Tigers probably landed on the debit side of the balance sheet.

Moses Mbye will miss Round 1 – though no one seems to know what his best position is anyway – and scepticism continues to surround the Tigers’ forward pack, despite harbouring a few impressive tyros.

The Dragons boast a 20–17 head-to-head lead in the battle of the joint ventures. The Tigers stormed to a 42–14 late-season win last year, with Paul Momirovski scoring a hat-trick in a 26-point haul. Oddly, the clubs have not met in Wollongong since 2008.

The Tigers put together an impressive 5–2 record outside Sydney in 2019. The Saints have won only two of their last six at WIN Stadium. The visitors appear far more settled heading into 2020 – and solid value as slight outsiders in NRL round 1 tips.

NRL expert tip: Tigers

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