The start of the representative season is upon us and the opening salvo between City and Country should provide a taste for what�s to come and will no doubt whet the appetite of the insatiable league fan who can never get enough footy.
The match has been touted as a full-blown Origin selection trial but you can pardon me for taking that concept with more than just a grain of salt.
Blues coach Phil Gould knows exactly who he wants and barring injuries, 95% of the squad for game one has already been chosen. It just needs to be rubber stamped by the selectors.
Notwithstanding the selection scenarios, the game itself should be a beauty and while Country look to have the stronger side on paper, there is no doubt in my mind that City have claims for victory, especially on the back of last years crushing defeat of Country when the boys form the bush were unbackable favourites but still came up well short.
This year, Andrew Johns makes his first appearance for Country since 1995 and the locals at Gosford will turn out in force to see Joey wave his magic wand. With the game sure to be a sell-out and considering the atrocious weather coastal areas of NSW have received this week, that is a magnificent testimony to the people of the Central Coast and their push for their own NRL franchise. That argument is best left for another day though.
To the first of the weekend�s club games and it�s a cracker. Arch rivals St George and Canterbury go head to head for the second time in a month and the Dragons will be looking to get the double over the Dogs after the Dragons won the first match 24-14 at Telstra Stadium on the Easter weekend. In all, this match will have ten players backing up from the City/Country clash the night before and the result will depend on how many of those ten can back up. At this stage you would say only Matt Cooper from the Dragons and Brent Sherwin and Hazem El Masri from the Bulldogs are certainties to make the paddock.
Canberra will be looking to get last weekend�s loss to the Melbourne Storm out of their mind when they host the in-form Panthers at Canberra Stadium tomorrow night. Canberra beat the Panthers earlier this season after trailing 28-12 in the early stages of the second half but staged an almighty rally to score 28 unanswered points to win 40-28. Penrith last week gave their fans a second dose of cardiac arrest with a nail biting win over the Dragons but, with the Raiders losing only one of their past 12 home matches, it will be a big ask for the mountain men to extend their winning streak to five matches.
Also on the Saturday night, we have the Wests Tigers taking on the Cowboys in Townsville and I can�t see anything but a Cowboys victory here. The Tigers attack this year has been woeful and the Cowboys are slowly turning things around, especially at home where it is infinitely tougher to come away with the two points. Matt Bowen and Matt Sing have been in sparkling form for the Cowboys while the Wests Tigers seem to be marking time until next season, where they should have a much more impressive playing roster. The Cowboys, with a win, will be snapping at the heels of the top eight so they realise the importance of a victory tomorrow night.
The first Sunday game sees apprentice take on the master when the Storm, coached by former Wayne Bennett assistant Craig Bellamy, meet the Broncos for the last ever game at ANZ Stadium. The Storm have an enviable record against the Broncos and an upset is definitely possible with the Broncos winning just two of their past seven clashes with the Storm. Melbourne put the previously undefeated Raiders to the sword last weekend and a win here will see the Storm consolidate their spot in the top four. I think the Broncos will win, but it will be by no more than six points.
The Sharks will be looking to make it back to back victories with a win over last placed South Sydney at Shark Park. Souths have endured more turmoil with Chris Walker walking out on the club mid-week while the Sharks need a win to keep their faint hopes of a semi berth alive. Souths will be competetive but Kimmorley will lead the Sharks to their second victory in as many weeks.
One of the best rivalries of the past twenty years comes alive on Sunday when Manly takes on Parramatta at Brookvale. Parramatta have gone with a very inexperienced side and with their finals hopes looking very forlorn with only two victories from nine matches, a victory for the Eels would be a major boost to morale while Manly must win to keep in touch with the top eight. This match will be a low scoring affair considering the wet conditions and Brookvale Oval�s inability to handle so much rain. I think Parramatta will get home in a close fought, 80�s style, wet weather arm wrestle.
The final game of the round is easily the best with two premiership heavyweights going toe to toe. The Roosters take on the Knights at Aussie Stadium and this one is a toss of the coin job. Andrew Johns is back from suspension while the Roosters are still smarting over their loss to the Bulldogs last weekend. If the Roosters lose this match they will have lost two on the trot for the first time this season and will slip out of the top four while the Knights must improve their suspect defensive line if they are to contain the hard running Roosters forwards. I�m leaning toward the Roosters as they will have their trump card, Brad Fittler, fresh and raring to go as Freddy will not be playing in the City/Country clash whereas Johns will. A very hard one to pick but whichever way it goes, the match should be a classic.