Ah, Autumn… Your arrival means many things to many people. You bring with you cooler weather, less daylight, buckets upon buckets of rain, and brown leaves to replace the beautiful green ones to which we’ve all grown accustomed over the summer months.
However, I choose to look past your shortcomings. I look at the silver lining of your arrival. That is, the fact that with you, you bring the greatest game of all, Rugby League!
That’s right! NRL is back baby! And with the season opener tonight, I have decided to compile a list of 10 matches that you ABSOLUTELY CANNOT MISS!
Dragons vs Broncos – Round 1
The perfect way to start this list is with the season opener itself. This game will be an absolute cracker!
There are many different subplots to this game. Wayne Bennett and Darius Boyd up against the club they led to a premiership in 2010. The return to the NRL of serial bad-boy Matthew Lodge. The continuation of the rise of Dragons’ prodigy Matt Dufty.
But perhaps the most intriguing subplot will be Ben Hunt’s first game for his new club, which happens to be against the only club he’s ever known. Ben Hunt enjoyed moderate success at Brisbane. While he had a Grand Final to forget in 2015, there’s no doubt that his side wouldn’t have even been there if it wasn’t for him.
Hunt has been impressive in the trials for the Dragons. He will be looking to take his game to a new level this year. If he and Gareth Widdop can strike up an effective partnership quickly, I can see him making a push for the vacant QLD number 7 jersey this year.
Broncos vs Cowboys – Round 2
Whenever they face each other, these two teams find a way to create classic matches. Since the Cowboys’ inception in 1995, these two have always had an intense Big Brother/Little Brother rivalry. That rivalry has intensified exponentially since the 2015 Grand Final.
Every encounter since has been an instant classic. They played thrice in 2016. The Broncos pipped them 21-20 in their first encounter since the Grand Final. This was followed by a 19-18 win over the Cowboys in May. They didn’t meet again until the semi-finals, where the Cowboys again won 26-20.
2017 began with another 21-20 scoreline, this time in North Queensland’s favour. Last time they played was September 2017, when Brisbane beat a depleted Cowboys 20-10.
With the scoreline 4-2 in the Cowboys favour (since and including the 2015 Grand Final), one could argue that the Broncos are due. But really, who knows with these two?
The one thing I do know is that this match will not disappoint. And if you do miss this one, don’t worry. They play each other again in round 22, and they’ll probably find a way to cross each other’s paths at some point in the finals too.
Storm vs Cowboys – Round 3
Grand Final rematches are always intense encounters. The Storm has had the wood over the Cowboys in their last four games, including the 2016 Preliminary Final, 2 regular season games last year and the Grand Final. This means North Queensland will have an extra large point to prove in this match.
The Cowboys will also want to send their retiring skipper Jonathan Thurston out a winner over his long-time rival and representative teammate Cameron Smith. These two are master game-managers, and it’ll be amazing to see what one has to do to get the win over the other.
Aside from the Smith vs Thurston battle, I expect an absolute war in the forwards, with Jason Taumalolo and Jesse Bromwich spearheading their respective packs. This match will also see new Cowboys recruit Jordan McLean up against his old club for the first time. The battle of the forward packs is absolutely mouth-watering.
Luckily for us fans, we’ll get to see these two teams go at it again in round 12, and likely in the finals too.
Knights vs Roosters – Round 3
I have no doubt that Mitchell Pearce circled this match in his calendar as soon as he left the Roosters. On a professional note, Pearce will be looking at this game as a chance to prove his rep credentials with a victory over Cooper Cronk.
On a more personal note, Pearce would love nothing more than to get one over that same man Cronk, who has inflicted upon him loss after loss after loss at Origin level, and shamelessly took his spot at the Roosters whilst publicly stating that he “wanted to play with Pearce”.
From a team perspective, this will be the new-look Knights’ first chance to test themselves against one of the NRL’s true heavyweights. While every game is a test in the NRL, the Sea Eagles and the Raiders, whom the Knights play in the first two rounds will not test them in the same way that the Roosters will.
Eels vs Panthers – Round 5
The Battle of the West has delivered us some classics over the years. This year I could see it being a real Champagne Rugby League affair given the fact that James Maloney, Nathan Cleary, Mitchell Moses and Corey Norman will all be on the field at the same time.
All four of these men will be pushing their case for State of Origin selection, and the best way to do that is to beat others in State of Origin contention. I get the feeling that having these four players on the field will allow the match to descend into a game of one-upmanship not seen since Jarryd Hayne’s Eels and Benji Marshall’s Tigers went head to head in round 24 2009.
Given some of the backline players that will be on show during this game – particularly Bevan French, Clint Gutherson (should he return from injury in time) and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, I expect to see some amazing feats of speed, strength and skill during this game.
Dragons vs Sharks – Round 6
Matches between these two local rivals are usually scrappy affairs and full of niggle. With the likes of Paul Gallen, Andrew Fifita, James Graham and Jack de Belin all playing, expect this to be a fiery encounter.
Although these two sides play each other in round 2 as well, I have chosen to highlight their round 6 clash instead for one reason: the return of Josh Dugan to Wollongong.
There are many at the Dragons, fans included, who were unhappy with the way Dugan handled himself when he was on the way out at the back end of 2017. He was injury-prone and couldn’t buy a try assist in his last season with the club. But it was his attitude, particularly the incident involving him missing the team bus from Wollongong to Penrith that ticked a lot of people right off.
Expect him to cop some special treatment from Dragons fans, and perhaps from some of the more spiteful players.
Roosters vs Rabbitohs – Round 6
This is the oldest rivalry in the game, dating back to 1908. The fans absolutely lap it up every year when this one rolls around. Who can forget round 1 2012, when the Roosters were down 20-12 with 2 and a half minutes to go and came back to win through a barge-over by Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, followed by a length-of-the-field effort finished off by Anthony Minichiello.
And what about round 19 of the same year, when the Rabbitohs returned the favour, coming back from 22-12 to win 24-22, with Warren Smith screaming “You can take me now, I’ve seen it all!”
This year, the rivalry heats up even more with Rabbitohs tearaway Angus Crichton having signed for the Roosters in 2019, while still under contract at Souths. Knowing him, he’ll want to make a big impression against his future teammates and coach in this game.
Dragons vs Roosters – Round 8 Anzac Day
This one is another of rugby league’s most ancient rivalries, dating all the way back to 1921 when the Dragons entered the competition. Since 2002, the Roosters and Dragons have played for the Anzac Day Cup in what has become one of rugby league’s great contemporary traditions.
This clash has had its share of blowouts, but the Anzac Game is traditionally close, with 8 of the 16 contests being decided by less than a converted try. In fact, the last 3 clashes have been decided by 2 points or less, with the difference in 2017 being a Mitchell Pearce field goal in extra time.
The forward battle in this game intrigues me greatly. Up against Boyd Cordner, the likes of Paul Vaughan and Jack de Belin, who has been on the fringes of the Origin team for a number of years, will be out to impress the Blues’ skipper. Look for them to put some big shots on in order to make him take notice, and catapult their names into the selection frame.
Tigers vs Bulldogs – Round 12
This game marks the first time former skipper Aaron Woods will come up against the Tigers, and the first time former local hero Josh Reynolds comes up against his beloved Bulldogs.
While I don’t expect this match to have big ramifications on the make-up of the top 8 (it’s more likely to set in motion events that determine who wins the wooden spoon), it will be an intriguing contest with plenty of spite and niggle.
And it’ll just be plain old weird to see Reynolds in a Tigers jersey and Woods in a Bulldogs jersey at the same time. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to see them swap jerseys after the game? Perhaps they can discuss plans for their two clubs to stage a pre-season match next year for say, the Moses Suli Cup? (Too soon?)
Roosters vs Storm – Round 16
Preliminary final rematches from the previous season are always good fun. It’s a shame that we have to wait until round 16 to see these two heavyweights go at it. It’s an even greater shame that we only get to see this game once in 2018 unless they meet each other in the finals.
The preliminary final rematch angle is likely to be overshadowed, however, by the fanfare surrounding Cooper Cronk lining up against his old mates Cam, Billy and Bellyache. Add in the fullback battle between James Tedesco and Billy Slater, and this game is going to be an absolute ripper.
All these subplots make you forget about the vitality of the two competition points on offer in this game. With the squads that these two teams have, there is every chance that this could be a 1v2 clash, with the winner going a long way to securing the minor premiership.