SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 01: Players from all clubs pose during the 2018 NRL season launch at First Fleet Park on March 1, 2018 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Hello, and welcome to the first instalment of Blythy’s Round Rev Up.

It’s Christmas time for rugby league fans across the country, Thursday’s clash between St George Illawarra and Brisbane signalling the end of a painfully long five months since the 2017 season drew to a close.

A number of high profile players have made the jump to a rival club, closing the gap between teams, and signalling one of the closest NRL seasons to date.

For full team lists, click here.

St George Illawarra Dragons vs. Brisbane Broncos

Jubilee Oval, 8:05pm, Thursday March 8

Team News: Tariq Sims has scored himself the vacant back-row position, while Luciano Leilua is set to play his first NRL game since 2016 off the bench.

Controversial figure Matt Lodge will start the game for Brisbane in the front-row, whilst Jamayne Isaako slots into the backline to deputise for the injured Jack Bird.

Injury Watch: St. George Illawarra have come through the pre-season unscathed, while Brisbane’s high profile recruit in Bird is targeting a Round 4 return from a shoulder reconstruction.

Prediction: On paper, the Dragons have a very strong line-up, but their combinations still have a long way to go. A lot hinges on the Widdop-Hunt combination, but this early in the season, it’s hard to see them toppling a Brisbane outfit with so much big game experience. Broncos by 8.

Newcastle Knights vs. Manly Sea Eagles

McDonald Jones Stadium, 6:00pm, Friday March 9 

Team News: Nine players in Newcastle’s squad will make their first appearance for the club, unveiling an entirely new spine in the form of Ponga, Watson, Pearce and Griffin. Brock Lamb has beaten Kiwi’s hooker Danny Levi for a bench utility role.

Lachlan Croker has snared Manly’s five-eighth role, despite only having 40 minutes of NRL experience. Addin Fonua-Blake starts for the injured Darcy Lussick, while Joel Thompson will make his first appearance for the club.

Injury Watch: Darcy Lussick is expected to miss the first month with an ankle injury, while the Knights have enjoyed a relatively disruption free pre-season.

Prediction: Manly look discernibly weaker on paper without Blake Green, while Newcastle has strengthened their roster out of sight. While their combinations will be underdone, a large crowd down in the Hunter will see Mitchell Pearce and co. shine in their first outing. Newcastle by 6. 

North Queensland Cowboys vs. Cronulla Sharks

1300SMILES Stadium, 8:05pm, Friday March 9

Team News: Jonathan Thurston returns to play his 300th NRL game, though he’ll do so without Lachlan Coote, who misses the match through injury. The fullback’s absence sees Ben Hampton step into the custodian role, with Te Maire Martin nabbing a bench spot. Javid Bowen will fill in for Kane Linnett for a few months while he recovers from a pec tear.

Sione Katoa will debut for Cronulla on the wing, beating out Aaron Gray. Josh Dugan and Matt Moylan make their club debuts, with Trent Hodkinson named outside the 17.

Injury Watch: Josh Dugan has pulled through despite injuring his jaw in the last trial. Coote and Linnett are absent for North Queensland.

Prediction: Both teams have been tipped for top four berths this year, shaping this game to be one of the better matches of the round. However, JT returning to play his 300th game in front of a home crowd adds plenty of motivation for the Cowboys and should be enough to edge the Sharks in this one. Cowboys by 10. 

Wests Tigers vs. Sydney Roosters

ANZ Stadium, 4:30pm, Saturday March 10 

Team News: There’s a host of surprises in the Tigers outfit. Esan Masters starts at centre, while David Nofoaluma has missed out on a spot in the 17. Pita Godinet has emerged to take the starting hooker role, with Benji Marshall named to return off the interchange. Recruits Russel Packer, Ben Matulino and Robbie Rochow have nabbed starting spots, though Chris McQueen has missed selection altogether.

Mitchell Cornish has been named at five-eighth, with Luke Keary named on an extended bench. Sio Siua Taukeiaho has beaten Dylan Napa for a starting spot, while Victor Radley has been named as a bench utility.

Injury Watch: Luke Keary is under an injury cloud after breaking his jaw a few weeks ago. It’s unknown whether McQueen missed selection through an ongoing neck injury or poor form.

Prediction: New recruits James Tedesco and Cooper Cronk will be out to snare wins in the first match as Roosters, especially Tedesco against his former club. Wests team has a host of new combinations to manage and will struggle against a fit-and-firing Tricolours team. Roosters by 16.

South Sydney Rabbitohs vs. New Zealand Warriors

Perth Stadium, 7pm, Saturday March 10

Team News: Greg Inglis makes his long-awaited return from an ACL tear at left centre, with Rob Jennings and Richie Kennar claiming the wing spots. Damien Cook has beaten Robbie Farah for the hooker role, with Farah named outside the 17. Junior Tatola will debut off the bench.

Internationals Adam Blair, Peta Hiku and Tohu Harris make their Warriors debut alongside Blake Green, while Ligi Sao starts in place of the injured Simon Mannering. Sam Cook makes his debut from the interchange.

Injury Watch: Adam Reynolds has been named despite missing both trials for the Rabbitohs, while  Robbie Farah required injections to play in his Charity Shield to help his injured back. Simon Mannering will miss 2-4 weeks with an ankle injury.

Prediction: South Sydney seem reinvigorated with a new attacking style of play under Anthony Seibold, and with Greg Inglis leading the side out for the first time in a year, expect them to make light work of a Warriors outfit fatigued from travel and missing their best forward. South Sydney by 14. 

Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs vs. Melbourne Storm

Perth Stadium, 9:05pm, Saturday March 10 

Team News: Moses Mbye makes the move to fullback, with Matt Frawley and Kieran Foran forming a new-look halves combo. Aaron Woods and Dave Klemmer start up front, while Jeremy Marshall-King earns a bench spot.

Cameron Munster shifts to fullback to cover injured fullback Billy Slater, with Ryley Jacks and Brodie Croft starting in the halves. Nelson Asofa-Solomona has beaten Tim Glasby for the starting prop position, while Ryan Hoffman returns to the club, slotting in on the left edge. Sam Kasiano has been named on an extended bench.

Injury Watch: Billy Slater is out with a shoulder injury, but is aiming to making a return next week. Canterbury field a full-strength outfit

Prediction: The loss of Billy Slater is a big one for the premiers, but Melbourne is such a well-oiled machine, hence why they haven’t lost a Round 1 match in over a decade. Dean Pay will reignite the Dogs, but the Storm will take the points on offer here in a tight contest. Storm by 4.

Penrith Panthers vs. Parramatta Eels

Panthers Stadium, 4:10pm, Sunday March 11

Team News: James Maloney debuts for the club alongside Nathan Cleary in the halves. Villiame Kikau has grabbed a starting back-row spot after a strong World Cup for Fiji, while Dean Whare misses selection entirely. Sam McKendry will make a long-awaited return to the NRL from the bench.

Jarryd Hayne returns to Parramatta in the centres, shifting Brad Takarangi to a bench back-row role. Cameron King has beaten Kaysa Pritchard for the hooker role, with Kane Evans set make his blue and gold debut from the interchange.

Injury Watch: Dallin Watene-Zelezniak returns early from injury, initially scheduled to miss the first few games of the season. Clint Gutherson is still a month away.

Prediction: This should be the game of the round. The recruitment of Maloney has lifted Penrith to premiership heavyweights, but rumours of disharmony in the camp won’t go away. Parramatta disappointed in the Finals last year and will be out to make amends here. Parramatta by 8.

Gold Coast Titans vs. Canberra Raiders

Cbus Super Stadium, 6:30pm, Sunday March 11

Team News: Phillip Sami has earnt a wing spot following a strong pre-season. Michael Gordon will start at fullback, while recruits Leilani Latu and Jai Arrow start at prop, with captain Ryan James shifting to the back-row and Bryce Cartwright playing lock. Mitch Rein and Will Matthews join the bench.

In a shock move, Blake Austin has been demoted to the bench, with Aidan Sezer and Sam Williams the starting halves. Siliva Havili has won the race for the starting hooker role, but will share his minutes with Austin. Recruit Charlie Gubb is 18th man.

Injury Watch: Josh Hodgson is out of action until June for the Green Machine. Brendan Elliot misses selection for the Gold Coast with a knee injury.

Prediction: Neither club has been tipped to excel in 2018, meaning any opportunity for points is one they must take with both hands. A lot hinges on whether Sam Williams can justify Ricky Stuart demoting Blake Austin, but expect Ash Taylor to start the season with a bang. Titans by 1.

Point To Prove

James Tedesco. The New South Welshman comes up against his former club and will certainly have a point to prove as he looks to start his tricolour’s career with a victory. 

Struggle Street

Josh Reynolds. Another recruit turning a new leaf this season, Reynolds is a passionate competitor, but he’s not known for his ability to control a match. Lining up with a halves pairing with a similar flaw, Reynolds will be under the pump early after this week. 

Rookie Watch

Sione Katoa has already been labelled one of the fastest wingers coming through and will have his chance to prove it with a debut. Marking Antonio Winterstein, Katoa’s agility and blinding speed will see him lock down his position early. 

Photo of the Week

Quote of the Week

“The Roosters have got the favourites tag this year. There’s a lot of pressure on them now” – Mitchell Pearce, speaking about his former club.

Best Bet

Sydney Roosters 13+. The Roosters have recruited quality, where Wests have bought quantity. Expect the Bondi boys to make light work of the Tigers on Saturday afternoon. 

Rumour Mill

Canberra Raiders coach has been making regular contact with South Sydney hooker Robbie Farah regarding an immediate release. The pair has a good relationship following their time together in Origin camps during Stuart’s tenure, and with Josh Hodgson out for the majority of the year, it’s certainly one to watch.

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