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Game on for 2018!
Another long off-season over and another season is beginning! This one opens on a relatively low-key note at suburban Kogarah, where the Dragons will host Brisbane in what's a very interesting clash.
There are a few big talking points out of this one. The Dragons lost Josh Dugan and a raft of fringe players but picked up a quality half in former Bronco Ben Hunt and a toiling front-rower in James Graham, who comes from the UK via a six-year stint at the Bulldogs, the last several as captain. By contrast, the Broncos lost Hunt, Kiwi enforcer Adam Blair, back-up halves option Benji Marshall, and their only major acquisition Jack Bird, will miss the opening game through injury.
You'd be forgiven for thinking this is an easy Dragons win based on the case presented above, but there's a couple of key ingredients forgotten from Brisbane's late-2017 fizzle-out. Andrew McCullough returns as hooker after snapping his ACL in July last year. While he may end up spending a bit of time on the pine this weekend (reports are that Sam Thaiday will start at rake instead), he will be an important cog for the Broncos this season.
Elsewhere on the park the Broncos will need big performances from their halves, with Kodi Nikorima stepping up to fill the halves role alongside five-eighth Anthony Milford.
The Red V lineup is strong from the halves down to the back row, but the questions remain around their outside backs. Euan Aitken and Tim Lafai have the jump as centre pairing for the opener, while Nene Macdonald and evergreen Jason Nightingale maintain their wing spots. Matt Dufty plays fullback - but will wear jumper 18 after the Dragons announcement that the #1 jersey would be retired for this match in honour of Graeme Langlands, who passed away recently.
All told, the subplots for this one are almost as interesting as the main fare -and the war of words has already begun.
Last meeting: Round 24 2017 - Broncos 24 Dragons 12
This pair have met 37 times since the Dragons' joint venture took effect in 1999, with the Broncos victors on 23 occasions to the Saints' 14. In home games (all venues) the Dragons have a far better record with 8 wins from 15 games.
Who to watch: While all eyes will rightly be on Ben Hunt and his defection from the Broncos, the Red V number eight will be an interesting watch this round. James Graham comes to the Dragons off a couple of fairly quiet, dour seasons at Canterbury under former coach Des Hasler. What changes - if any - Graham brings to his forward game after being stimied in the blue-and-white will be interesting to watch. At the very least Dragons fans will be hoping his handling improves from a fairly rusty pre-season.
There's been plenty of talk about one of the Brisbane forwards but our focus is on one of the outside backs - Corey Oates. Having expressed a desire to move into an edge-running role as a back-rower, Oates' wishes have not been granted by coach Wayne Bennett, with the tall winger will stay on the left flank for this round at least, while Jamayne Isaako gets the right wing role. Whether Oates stays on the wing all night will be of interest.
The favourite: The Dragons are just ahead in betting a day out from season kickoff.
My tip: This is a tough one but the acquisitions of Hunt and Graham just edge the Red V ahead in this one for mine. Don't expect a blockbuster - expect a rusty, error-riddled contest - and a Dragons win by 4.
18. Matthew Dufty 2. Nene Macdonald 3. Euan Aitken 4. Timoteo Lafai 5. Jason Nightingale 6. Gareth Widdop 7. Ben Hunt 8. James Graham 9. Cameron McInnes 10. Paul Vaughan 11. Tyson Frizell 12. Tariq Sims 13. Jack de Belin 14. Luciano Leilua 15. Kurt Mann 16. Leeson Ah Mau 19. Jeremy Latimore
1. Darius Boyd 2. Corey Oates 3. James Roberts 4. Jordan Kahu 5. Jamayne Isaako 6. Anthony Milford 7. Kodi Nikorima 8. Matthew Lodge 10. Sam Thaiday 14. Tevita Pangai Junior 11. Alex Glenn 12. Matt Gillett 13. Josh Mcguire 9. Andrew McCullough 15. Joe Ofahengaue 16. Korbin Sims 17. Jaydn Su'a
Referees: Matt Cecchin, Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials: Nick Beashel, Dave Munro; Video Referees: Ashley Klein, Ben Galea;