The 2008 NRL season has already been spiced up with plenty of coaching talk and the merry-go-round has been set in place for several end of season departures. Bulldogs coach Steve Folkes and the Dragons Nathan Brown start the year under pressure immediately, and will need a positive beginning to the year. It’s common knowledge that their performance will be scrutinized heavily and in the past the Saints have been fast starters.
South Sydney Rabbitohs v Sydney Roosters
A hard one to pick. The Rosters have obviously improved their squad a since 2007, with Mark O’Meley and Willie Mason as their two big-name players â€“ and the Rabbitohs have secured Craig Wing.
There’s been plenty of talk in the lead up to this match and it should be as enthralling a contest on the field as it has been off it. The Rabbitohs were big improvers in 2007. Can they continue their winning ways? Getting their key signing back from last year – David Kidwell, they should be in even better shape.
The Roosters have gone from a team who were going to win the wooden spoon halfway through last year to almost making the top eight by season’s end. Now people are saying that they’re a top four hope, so expectations have changed for them enormously. From what we saw last year, you’d just have to favour the Bunnies.
Gold Coast Titans v North Queensland Cowboys
It will be very interesting to see how the Titans fire up at home. You’d expect a full house and plenty of local support to give them a bit of an edge in this game. I favour them slightly, simply because the Cowboys are going to be without Johnathan Thurston for at least the first month of the season. I’m just not sure how many points Travis Burns and Justin Smith can create. At home, in front of a big crowd, I think the Titans will get the points.
Parramatta Eels v Bulldogs
The question is how much have the Eels been distracted by all the off-field dramas of the past two weeks? I think theyâ€™ll be pretty happy to focus on the football. Itâ€™s cost Jarryd Hayne, Weller Hauraki and Junior Paulo their places in the team but theyâ€™ve got some really good local kids coming through, like Taulima Tautai. And having gone within a place of the grand final last year, theyâ€™ll be heavy favourites to win this game.
The Dogs can surprise when theyâ€™re least expected to win. That may be the case again this weekend, although Iâ€™m not sure about Daniel Holdsworth at halfback, because he played in reserve grade for most of the second half of last season. Their best hope seems to be Michael Sullivan, who sparked them in the trial game against the Panthers. But I think the Eels will win.
Manly Sea Eagles v Cronulla Sharks
Manly will start favourites. Although the Sharks lost a lot of games byÂ four points or less in 2007, theyâ€™ve got a pretty good forward pack, and people will think they can win some of those games in 2008 and be a top eight team. Certainly having re-signed Ricky Stuart for a longer deal theyâ€™d like to see some improvement.
There are question marks over Brett Kimmorley and Brett Seymour as a halves combination, and thereâ€™s no Adam Dykes anymore. I think Manly will be too strong for the Sharks.
Newcastle Knights v Canberra Raiders
The only way is up for both these clubs. Itâ€™s a hard game to line up because there are new players for both. The big bonus for the Raiders is Todd Carney at half-back, a fairly quiet off-season compared to the dramas of 2007, and by game-time he may have decided if heâ€™s going to stay with the Raiders or move to another club. Heâ€™s got a point to prove, either way.
At home, though, the Knights will look to Jarrod Mullen. If heâ€™s fit from a shoulder injury, his combination with Chris Bailey could be a productive one. Again, Iâ€™m going to go with the home team, especially with Kurt Gidley at full-back who was sensational in 2007 before getting injured.
Brisbane Broncos v Penrith Panthers
The Panthers could cause some trouble for the Broncos, as theyâ€™ve got some real fliers in their backline; the likes of Michael Jennings, Brad Tighe andÂ Rhys Wesser. Jo Williams, on his day, can be as good as any half-back but itâ€™s a bit like catching lightning in a bottle. Petero Civoniceva, playing against his old club, will be fired up to show they should have kept him and offered him more money.
The Broncos will be favourite for this game, the big question mark is on Darren LockyerÂ – how has he come back from a knee reconstruction? Depending on who you believe, heâ€™s either training the house down or still recovering. I can see an upset but Iâ€™m going to stick with the home team and say the Broncos.
Wests Tigers v St George Illawarra Dragons
Both teams have a lot to prove to their fans after what they showed in 2007. The Tigers looked like a top-four team with about a month to go of the regular season. They werenâ€™t helped by injuries, of course. Once again they have a light forward pack and havenâ€™t been helped byÂ the loss of Ryan Oâ€™Hara and Bryce Gibbs, who were injured in preseason.
Again the only way is up for the Dragons. Jamie Soward gets a chance in the half-back position, and the return of Dean Young is a massive boost for them. Mark Gasnier looks to be in sensational form. If they can hold their own in the forward pack or dominate the Tigers and open it up for their backs, they could win it.
Melbourne Storm v Warriors
The Warriors are actually the last team to beat Melbourne in Melbourne. The big bonus for the Storm is Cameron Smith being back at hooker. With him back, Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater, and with the forward pack they got, theyâ€™ve got such a deep talent pool.
The Warriors are a talented side but the loss of Wade McKinnon at fullback is huge. He was fantastic out of the backfield last year. Despite his loss, they should still be a top-eight team or thereabouts but the jury is still out. Away from home against the defending premiers, I think theyâ€™ll be on the losing side.