Can you believe it? Project Apollo has lift off, and rugby league is BACK baby!

It's been two and a half months since we watched Parramatta demolish the Titans, and just as we had a taste of the NRL after a long off-season, it disappears once more.

We've had social distancing ignorers, dangerous Tik Toks, an ASADA drama, but finally, a ball will be kicked as the NRL become the first Australian sport to resume, and one of the first globally. A wonderful chance to promote the game internationally, and what a first round for them to see.

Old rivalries, form teams pitted against each other, this opening round has it all. So, no more wait, let's dive into this round, and take joy in the fact that the next NRL-free weekend won't come until November

Brisbane Broncos vs. Parramatta Eels

Suncorp Stadium, 7:50pm, Thursday May 28

Team News: Captain Alex Glenn returns for injured star David Fifita, while Joe Ofahengaue returns on the bench in place of Andrew McCullough. Matt Lodge is on the extended bench but expected to join the bench. Nathan Brown's suspension sees Marata Niukore start at lock with Ray Stone on the bench, while Reed Mahoney is a guaranteed starter after breaking his foot in Round 2.

Prediction: Absolutely mouth watering clash. Arguably the form teams of the opening rounds, Parramatta have a slight advantage in troops, with David Fifita and Tevita Pangai Jnr both missing the match. A lot of mouth watering clashes, two future Maroons in Jake Turpin and Reed Mahoney at dummy half, while the organisers in Brodie Croft and Mitchell Moses will be going at each other. Glenn, Ofahengaue and likely Lodge are all huge inclusions, and a fit Croft really allows Milford to play his natural game. They should have enough brain and brawn to sneak past the Eels. Brisbane by 2.

North Queensland Cowboys vs. Gold Coast Titans

Queensland Country Bank Stadium, 6:00pm, Friday May 29

Team News: Jake Clifford starts at halfback in place of Michael Morgan, while Gavin Cooper's calf injury means Mitchell Dunn will start in the back-row with Shane Wright on the bench. Gold Coast have made bulk changes, with Tyrone Roberts at fullback, Tyrone Peachey replaces Kallum Watkins at centre, Ash Taylor has moved to five-eighth so Jamal Fogarty can start at seven. Fotuaika, Peats, Hipgrave and Proctor will all elevate to the starting side, while Erin Clark and Shannon Boyd join the bench.

Prediction: Don't you love it when a coach kicks it and completely restructures the team? Well, it might work. Moving Ash Taylor to five-eighth takes some pressure off the star, and bring out his running game, with Fogarty a vocal half. Michael Morgan will miss the first few weeks through injury, setting up an intriguing internal battle between Scott Drinkwater and Jake Clifford to decide who partners Morgan on his return. The biggest problem, however - who in the Gold Coast squad will stop Taumalolo? Jai Arrow is one of the game's best forwards but he can't do it alone. North Queensland should roll through the middle to earn their first win at their new home. Cowboys by 16.

Sydney Roosters vs. South Sydney Rabbitohs

Bankwest Stadium, 7:55pm, Friday May 29

Team News: Mitch Aubusson will miss the match due to a family tragedy, with Boyd Cordner's return softening the blow. Josh Morris' arrival sees Brett return to the wing with Matt Ikuvalu dropping out. Sitili Tupouniua and Nat Butcher join the 17 in place of Poasa Faamausili AND Siosiua Taukeiaho. James Roberts has been named on an extended bench, meaning Campbell Graham shifts to right centre, Alex Johnston starts on the wing with Patrick Mago taking his bench spot. Troy Dargan debuts at five-eighth in place of the suspended Cody Walker.

Prediction: The oldest rivalry in rugby league resumes with a new chapter in the infamous Book of Feuds, with Latrell Mitchell, playing NRL game 99, faces the club he just won back-to-back titles with. Both teams have significant outs, though Cody Walker is the biggest of the lot. There's wraps on young Dargan, but facing Luke Keary on debut is a scary task. Patrick Mago adds starch to a fairly weak South Sydney bench. Cordner will be at 100% fitness, though he'll be expected to hit the ground running without Aubusson or potentially Taukeiaho on game day. This'll be closer than the odds suggest, though back-to-back premiers don't start seasons 0-3. Walker is a huge loss, and the Chooks will capitalise. Roosters by 8.

 

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 28: Boyd Cordner of the Roosters runs the ball during the round 19 NRL match between the Bulldogs and Roosters at ANZ Stadium on July 28, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

 

New Zealand Warriors vs. St. George Illawarra Dragons

Central Coast Stadium, 3:00pm, Saturday May 30

Team News: Patrick Herbert, Peta Hiku, Gerard Beale and Kodi Nikorima start in place of David Fusitu'a, Adam Pompey, Adam Keighran and Chanel Harris-Tavita. Lachlan Burr, Jamayne Taunoa-Brown and Isaiah Papali'i start with Karl Lawton and Agnatiius Paasi on the bench. Cam McInnes, Tariq and Korbin Sims and Mikele Ravalawa all return from injury with Lomax to centre, Lawrie and Fuimaono dropping to the bench and Lafai and Luke dropped.

Prediction: St. George Illawarra snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against Penrith, and despite the break, will be eager to put that game behind them. New Zealand, you have to feel sorry for them. The players have been dropping like flies, with three squad members injured just last week. Their only points of the season have come via a Kodi Nikorima penalty try, and they just don't look likely. The Dragons have got some big names back on board, most notably new captain Cam McInnes, and a lot more firepower than the Warriors. While New Zealand is everyone's second team, it'll be a long season for them. Dragons by 20.

Cronulla Sharks vs. Wests Tigers

Bankwest Stadium, 5:30pm, Saturday May 30

Team News: Bronson Xerri has been suspended by ASADA, while Josh Dugan returns at centre in place of the departed Josh Morris. Briton Nikora's return sees Scott Sorensen on the bench, and Billy Magoulias out of the side. Harry Grant will debut at hooker for Wests, with fellow debutant Alex Seyfarth on the bench. Adam Doueihi starts at fullback, Moses Mbye starts at centre with Corey Thompson a mysterious exclusion. Elijah Taylor has been dropped, with Alex Twal moving to lock and Thomas Mikaele starting. Billy Walters has beat out Josh Reynolds for a bench spot.

Prediction: How will the Cronulla squad react after Xerri's multi-year suspension? The return of Josh Dugan is massive at centre, with a chance of Matt Moylan making his long awaited return, named on the extended bench. Wests have a new looking side after the shocking loss to Newcastle, debuting the much-anticipated Harry Grant along with junior Alex Seyfarth, though the Tigers bench is looking very light. Corey Thompson's absence from the 21 is mysterious as well. While I think Alex Twal will be huge at lock, Cronulla have too much punch in their pack, and should snatch their first win of the season. Enjoy the battle between Benji Marshall and Shaun Johnson. Cronulla by 10. 

Melbourne Storm vs. Canberra Raiders

AAMI Park, 7:35pm, Saturday May 30

Team News: Tui Kamikamica and Tom Eisenhuth are out, with rep stars Brandon Smith and Christian Welch returning from injury. Canberra are 1-17 from their Round 2 squad, with Jordan Rapana on an extended bench.

Prediction: There'd be a lot of noise around the Canberra camp with John Bateman's contract status, while Melbourne have quietly snuck the Kiwi hooker and Maroon's prop onto their bench without much fanfare. Jordan Rapana looks set to miss the clash, though don't be surprised to see him snatch Michael Oldfield's bench spot. The clubs had some great clashes last year, but back at virtual full strength, the Storm look strong after their clinical opening two rounds, conceding a single try. Expect a low scoring affair. Melbourne by 4.

Penrith Panthers vs. Newcastle Knights

Campbelltown Stadium, 4:05pm, Sunday May 31st

Team News: Matt Burton slots into the halves with Nathan Cleary suspended, while Kurt Capewell makes his Penrith debut in the back-row. Kalyn Ponga's suspension and Jayden Brailey's injury means Tex Hoy debuts at fullback, with Connor Watson's elevation to starting hooker means Chris Randall will debut via the interchange. Sione Mata'utia returns and slots straight into the back-row for the injured Mitch Barnett.

Prediction: Two clubs rocked by suspension, with Nathan Cleary and Tyrone May suspended for two games, while Kalyn Ponga misses one for a shoulder charge. Jayden Brailey is a huge out for the Knights, and replacement signing Andrew McCullough hasn't been named for the clash. Tex Hoy will step into the fullback role with local hooker Chris Randall on the bench. Both teams are undefeated, and it's simply a question of who fills the voids better - and the answer is Penrith. Matt Burton has a great kicking game and Api Koroisau is electric, they'll win in Dean Whare's 150th game. Penrith by 7.

Manly Warringah Sea Eagles vs. Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs

Central Coast Stadium, 6:30pm, Central Coast Stadium

Team News: In Manly's only change, Corey Waddell and Taniela Paseka return in place of Morgan Boyle and Haumole Olakau'atu on the bench. Jack Cogger replaces Brandon Wakeham in the halves, while Suaso Sue and Dean Britt start in place of the dropped Aiden Tolman and injured Joe Stimson, with Ofahiki Ogden on the bench.

Prediction: Why, oh why, has Brandon Wakeham been dropped for Jack Cogger? In what seems a puzzling move by Dean Pay, dynamic Fijian Wakeham will miss the clash, with Kieran Foran still missing. Manly seem a settled line-up, and you can guarantee the Trbojevic brother and DCE haven't taken a backwards step in fitness during iso. Danny Levi could be in for a big one, sniffing around a fairly laterally-poor middle third for Canterbury. Manly love the Central Coast and will win this in second gear. Manly by 18.

Point To Prove: Latrell Mitchell. The youngster has made headlines for the wrong reasons as of late, and will face his former club in his first match back. He's only averaged about 80 metres, the least of any fullback over the first two rounds, and is yet to play 80 minutes at fullback. He'll have the fire in the belly this week, and judging off training images, he looks fit.

Struggle Street: Joseph Leilua. That right edge for Wests were defensively dreadful against Newcastle, and with four missed tackles and three errors to his name, Leilua stands out. He'll have to be on song this week with a strong ball-runner in Josh Dugan coming at him all day. There seems to be little chat between Leilua and Nofoaluma on the edge, and if they want to stop Cronulla from running in multiple four-pointers down their left edge.

Rookie Watch: Troy Dargan. He's spent time in the Parramatta and Brisbane system, and with an impressive highlight package, Dargan looks ready to make the leap into the NRL. A natural runner of the footy, he has a similar style to Walker which will ease the transition. Though, is there a bigger task, than coming in for two games, and facing the Roosters and then Melbourne? It's a baptism of fire for the half, but if reports are anything to go by, he'll handle the challenge.

Best Bet: Manly/Roosters 1-12 to win. The Roosters are shorter than an 0-2 side should be, and Manly just look to have way too many points in them, regardless of the Bulldogs' 'grit'. The Chooks won't blow Souths away like pundits predict, with a highly underrated forward pack with blokes like Liam Knight and Junior Tatola (who's averaging over 120m a game). But with Tedesco and Manu, they'll blow them out wide, but not by much.

Rumour of the Week: Parramatta surprisingly released upcoming star Ethan Parry this week, and following the Bronson Xerri suspension and the release of Josh Morris to the Roosters, don't be surprised to see Parry in Cronulla colours within the next week or two. They still have a strong centre pairing in Ramien and Dugan, though following his injury history and tumultuous off-season, Parry is a strong prospect at centre, and they're thinking sooner rather than later.