At last, after months of pent up anger and frustration, the opening round of the 2005 Rugby League season is upon us, bringing with it a host of exciting match-ups on offer this weekend. For those of you who assumed the foetal position due to League depravation, you may now remove your thumb and replace it with a sauced-up four n� twenty.
Bulldogs v Dragons at Telstra Stadium, Friday 7:30pm.
What a cracking game to open the year with. The Dogs and the Dragons always play hard against one another and this one will be no exception�it could go anywhere!
It will be a very tough first assignment for St George Illawarra. Their trial form has been less than inspiring, rumours have swept through the club pointing to a rift between players and coach and they go into the clash missing Trent Barrett, Mark Gasnier and Jason Ryles. By contrast Canterbury will be without only one player in Willie Mason, who is now likely to miss most of the season.
Nothing is impossible though, and the Dragons faithful will be hoping that the team shows up and plays with plenty of enthusiasm and starch. Sometimes the Dogs are caught napping in the first game of the year before they turn it around and punch out their trademark consistency. But on the other hand, Saints aren't renown for their early season form either.
The key here is Brent Sherwin. If he is fully fit and over the hip injury he's been carrying for a little while now, he should be able to get the ball to his outside men with plenty of room to move. The Bulldogs forwards will try to work the Dragons pack and eventually wear them down, but their bench doesn't look that great with green-horn forwards Armit, Czislowski and Myles.
Canterbury will get the two points, but they'll have to earn it. Saints will be out to put the last couple of weeks behind them with a strong performance.
Tigers v Eels at Telstra Stadium, Saturday 5:30pm.
Here's a funny one, to begin with it�s being refereed by a Pom. Last week the Tigers played out a bizarre trial against Canberra and they have the bye in Round 2. So they could take a little while to get used to the regular season.
If they go all out and try to smash Parra off the park at least they won't have to back up next week. Equally, if they lose the contest, they can always start their season again in Round 3 with the added bonus of getting Benji Marshall back and having two points on the ladder.
Brian Smith must feel a bit nervous. He's just been handed the keys to a new car and been told not to wreck it. But he won't want to take too long to break-in the engine. The pack looks robust, the backline creative and the bench versatile. But he's admitted that there is a need for patience so I hope he listens to himself and refuses to make wholesale changes next week if they lose.
I do like the look of their new halfback though, and if he can cement the position Parramatta could well have a good year. However, I'm not so sure about John Morris at 5/8. I know he hasn't been given much of an opportunity and deserves a shot, but I think PJ might find himself there before too long.
The Eels in a close one, but I did flip a coin.
Roosters v Rabbitohs at Aussie Stadium, Saturday 7:30pm.
Here's another belter! Souths will be pumped for this one and the Roosters will be aiming to get their act together with a host of new players in the backline.
I like the look of South's halves; Joe Williams is the real deal and John Sutton appears to have size, speed and a bit of ticker about him. They've filled some gaps in the forwards and backs, and the selection of Adam MacDougall at fullback will make for interesting viewing.
Like the Dragons, Easts have had their share of disruptions in the lead-up to the season. As if losing Freddy and all the hysteria surrounding that wasn't enough, Brett Finch then managed to find a way to break both his hands and land on the bench for a month. It's not great, but their depth is good. Wing plays well at 5/8 and Stuart Webb goes ok at hooker, so it really comes down to their packs.
I think the Roosters have the edge here, but only just. With Peter Cusack coming across and Bryan Fletcher in good form, the Bunnies will stand toe-to-toe with them at some point. But with Cayless, Morley, Fitzgibbon, Ricketson and Flannery on the other team, there is little room to hide. Nor is there much respite, with human wrecking-ball Anthony Tupou getting involved around the quarter-time mark.
The boys from Bondi should get the points here, but an upset isn't out of the question, especially early in the season when teams are trying to find their rhythm.
Sharks v Panthers at Toyota Park, Saturday 7:30pm.
Both teams have shown pretty good trial form, and with a few new combinations this one won't be so cut and dry.
Paul Franze finds himself lining up against his old team mates and they're sure to let him know about it. But Penrith's pack looks very solid and this year is shaping as a big one for the 2003 champions. With Clinton and Ross up front, Waterhouse at lock and some hard heads on the bench, they will be very difficult to stop.
But this is being played at Shark Park, in the dark, and nothing really surprises me when you travel down south to meet Cronulla at home. Kimmorley and Dykes look a formidable combination, enough to trouble any team in the comp. They're missing stalwart Jason Stevens, and could really use him against the Panthers. New boy Hutch Maiava replaces him and he'll need to play well to contain the opposition pack.
I think the Mountain men will take this one out, but the clash between the half pairings of Gower-Campbell and Kimmorley-Dykes will be a classic.
Broncos v Cowboys at Suncorp Stadium, Sunday 3:00pm.
The banana benders go head to head in their first encounter for the season in what shapes to be the match of the round.
There will be few seats available at Lang Park as well, with a groundswell of support for this game no doubt being created following their historic semi-final clash last year in Townsville. The Broncos will be out to avenge their defeat and the Cowboys will want to consolidate last year's great finish with a first up win and show the League that they're a force to be reckoned with.
Both sides have recruited smartly, with Thurston and Webb for the Cowboys covering the losses of Fien and Morrison respectively. Likewise, Thorn and Hodges have been added to the Broncos squad with the departure of Tallis and Frawley. The teams look solid across the park and up front will be an absolute bone-shaker.
I think the Broncos have an edge though. It is at home and the Thurston-Sheppard combo will take a little time to click.
Storm v Knights at Olympic Park, Sunday 2.30pm.
The southern capital gets a taste of real footy before the AFL gets underway for the year.
There will be a huge amount of interest in this game because of Andrew Johns� comeback and his opposing number 7 will want to put his stamp on the game. The Storm had a bit of a clean out at the end of the season and bought in a few new players. Unfortunately Jamie Feeney got injured and won�t play this week.
Newcastle found themselves in a similar predicament and with Kennedy and Tahu leaving the club, their line-up looks a little thin on experience. Buderus�s foot injury won�t help their cause either.
Melbourne should take out this one, as it�s always hard down at Olympic Park and with Johns� just trying to find form, it may take Newcastle a few weeks to get into gear.
Warriors v Sea Eagles at Ericsson Stadium, Sunday 12:00pm.
This will be a good test of credibility for both teams and an interesting first hit-out.
The Warriors made some astute purchases over the off-season, including Price, Wiki and Fien. But their coaching ranks were bolstered with Ivan Cleary, Kevin Campion and now Peter Sterling entering the fold.
Manly also picked up some good cattle, Kennedy and Tahu will add a huge amount of skill and experience to a team in desperate need. Also, centre Terry Hill showed some evergreen form in the trials and his progress will be closely monitored.
But it�s the Warriors in this one. Ericcson Stadium in an unforgiving land, and they look too good in this one.