Melbourne Storm vs Brisbane Broncos – Thursday night – AAMI Park
If you listen to the pundits (of which I am probably one), you would think Storm coach Craig Bellamy is facing the greatest challenge of his coaching career. He's one year on from losing Cooper Cronk (who proved a handy inclusion at the Roosters), and in season 2019 he has to scramble together a side without another one of his little big men in Billy Slater. There aren't a lot of jigsaw puzzle pieces shaped like Billy Slater, but Jahrome Hughes has been handed the task of replacing the man who, in my dodgy opinion, is the greatest fullback to ever play the game. I'm not sure how you replace the irreplacable, but Bellamy still has the best pack of forwards in the competition. The GOAT may be an ageing hooker (which sounds like an NRL off-season incident in waiting), but he still knows how to control a game, and he has a pack of men around him that can help shape the board/football field as he wishes. To borrow from Mark Twain – rumours of their death are greatly exaggerated. As for the Broncos, their spanky new zillion dollar academy is literally (not Mark Twain literally) my next door neighbour. Because of this, I've been able to see plenty of the Broncos in pre-season. They look slick, and they trained on Sunday and looked even slicker. Perhaps it's the music Anthony Siebold has crackling through the speakers. Wayne Bennett wanted to stay because he thought this side were the most promising bunch of lads he has ever trained. I keep thinking back to that Rabbitohs backline in 2018, and how darn fabulous they were with the ball in hand when they were on song. And I'm asking myself if Siebold can make that Rabbitohs backline look so good, what can he do with Nikorima, Milford, Isaako, Roberts, Bird, Oates and Boyd? They're my top pick to win the whole box and dice this season...so I better tip them here (even though the Storm almost never lose the first game of the year). I imagine a few Sydney-centric types will be annoyed that the first game of the season involves two out of towners playing out of town...but what a first game of the season.
Verdict – Broncos by 4
Result – Storm 22 defeated Broncos 12
Newcastle Knights vs Cronulla Sharks – Friday night – McDonald Jones Stadium
The NRL is unpredictable enough during the season, so it's hard to take trial form seriously (unless the trial involves Jack de Belin....boom tish!). That said, the Sharks were comfortable victors over the Knights two weeks ago, and in the absence of any other form to work with I'm working with that. How the playmakers in both sides go is where much of the interest in this clash lies. Ponga moves into the halves with Pearce, and those that watched the All-Stars game had a window view into the future (to think the Cowboys let him go....sigh). Almost as interesting is the inclusion of Shaun Johnson at the Sharks. His combination with Townsend and Moylan looks a little bit special. Johnson gets a chance to weave his magic behind a decent pack of forwards at the Sharks, and I don't think he had that luxury at the Warriors.
Verdict – Sharks by 4
Result – Knights 14 defeated Sharks 8
Sydney Roosters vs South Sydney Rabbitohs – Friday night – Sydney Cricket Ground
There is so much to talk about here. I honestly don't know where to start, and once I start I'm not sure if I'll ever finish. I'll try to keep it brief. The only foundation clubs in the NRL at a traditional venue. Our longest serving coach (and Australia's oldest living person) takes up the clipboard at the Bunnies. The Roosters trying to do what no club has done since 1993. Angus Crichton lines up for his new club against his old club. He joins another former Bunny Luke Keary, who won a Clive Churchill (Rabbit) medal with the Chooks last year. Baby George Burgess plays his first game since starring in an off-off-off Broadway play as Prince Charming (honestly not made up). Inglis (possibly) returns...and he's either 15 kilos overweight or in the best shape ever (depends who you ask). If he does return, he squares off against Latrell Mitchell. I could go on...and I will, because unfortunately the talking point out of this game might end up being the state of the playing surface. If the field falls to pieces, and takes out a Tedesco, Mitchell or Inglis for the season in the process, it's the only thing we'll be talking about this weekend. That's disappointing...so I hope I'm wrong. I hope this is a game for the ages, and clashes between these two teams often are. I'll take the Chooks, who have kept things on the down-low since returning from the trip to England. The doubts around Inglis sway me somewhat too.
Verdict – Roosters by 7
Result – Rabbitohs 26 defeated Roosters 16
New Zealand Warriors vs Canterbury Bulldogs – Saturday afternoon – Mt Smart Stadium
The Warriors often start a season slowly, hit their groove in the middle of the year, and then fade away as the competition gets serious. Last season was better, but the pattern was much the same. This year their first game of the year is at Mt Smart Stadium, and this could prove the difference this time around. Their trial form has been promising, and while they haven't quite worked out how they are going to replace Shaun Johnson, they at least have two options to choose from. It looks like Adam Keighran gets the first opportunity, but we'll see Chanel (not the perfume) Harris-Tevita sooner or later. I'm sure the Warriors fans won't be shy about reminding Dylan Napa of his recent (not recent to be fair) indiscretions. How he responds will create plenty of interest. The Warriors at home for me – even without Johnson their backline looks too strong here. Imagine being the Mum and Dad who decided to name their son Chanel. Bold. Very Bold.
Verdict – Warriors by 8
Result – Warriors 40 defeated Bulldogs 6
Wests Tigers vs Manly Sea Eagles – Saturday afternoon – Leichhardt Oval
Two teams with new coaches, and with all the huff n puff that's being going on off the field I had all but forgotten that Des Hasler was back in charge at the Sea Eagles. Welcome back Des you old master. Why would you name your child Chanel when you could name them Des? Pah! The Tigers were the surprise packet early last year, and with the Sea Eagles missing one Trbojevic I'm with the big cats at home.
Verdict – Tigers by 4
Result – Tigers 20 defeated Sea Eagles 6
North Queensland Cowboys vs St George Illawarra Dragons – Saturday night – 1300SMILES Stadium
It's the big question everyone is asking – how will the Cowboys go without Ben Barba? :-)
Jordan Kahu is a late inclusion in the Cowboys squad this year, and that answers my question about the goal-kicking duties. He's under-rated and gets a chance in a key position. If the Cowboys pack isn't the best in the NRL it's certainly on the podium, and they could be the forgotten contender in season 2019. It's still pretty warm (a little bit too warm if you ask me) in the Sunshine State and the Dragons might find the weather, and this opponent, a tough ask.
Verdict – Cowboys by 8
Result – Cowboys 24 defeated Dragons 12
Penrith Panthers vs Parramatta Eels – Sunday afternoon – Panthers Stadium
Usually it's the Parramatta Eels with a bucketful of off-field issues to manage, but they find themselves in rare air here – a squeaky clean off-season.
Peni Terepo: "Hold my beer"
Despite all the off-field madness the western derby should have the bleachers bulging on Sunday afternoon. Team Cleary are united in matching jerseys and I think the home side will put on a bit of a show this weekend. Hopefully it's enough to lift Gus Gould out of his funk. And here's a bit of advice from a hopeless old footballer to all the brilliant young footballers out there – put down your phones and pick up your standards. Seriously.
Verdict – Panthers by 14
Result – Eels 20 defeated Panthers 12
Gold Coast Titans vs Canberra Raiders – Sunday night – Cbus Super Stadium
I've been at this caper for quite a few years now, and I'm about to say something I doubt I've ever said before – the Titans are deadset, lock-it-in, rolled-gold certainties on Sunday night. This game is a toin coss according to the bookies but I must have my titan-tainted glasses on or something. The Gold Coast pack looks the goods and the backs are good enough to keep AJ Brimson on the bench. The Raiders have named Jack Wighton in the halves, and I expect the Titans to throw a lot of very big humans at him to test him in defence. Shannon Boyd plays his first game for the Gold Coast and gets to show his old team he didn't move north because of the weather. Specials.
Verdict – Titans by 8
Result – Raiders 21 defeated Titans 0
Wally Lewis - round one selections (in bold)
Note: tips from Wally will be published on Wednesday night or early Thursday morning.
- STORM vs Broncos
- KNIGHTS vs Sharks
- ROOSTERS vs Rabbitohs
- WARRIORS vs Bulldogs
- TIGERS vs Sea Eagles
- COWBOYS vs Dragons
- PANTHERS vs Eels
- TITANS vs Raiders