NRL Stick with tried and true

Next year's National Rugby League (NRL) season will again run for 30 weeks, with NRL chief executive David Gallop saying clubs can't afford to play a shorter season, despite complaints of player burnout.

The NRL yesterday unveiled its fixture list for 2005, and in a repeat of this year, clubs will play 24 games in a 26-round regular season, followed by a four-week finals series.

The season will kick off with blockbusters in both Queensland and NSW on March 11, with the Bulldogs' premiership defence starting against St George Illawarra at Telstra Stadium in the opening Friday night clash.

North of the border, Brisbane will get the chance for some revenge against the team that knocked it out of this season's final series, North Queensland.

The New Zealand Warriors will kick off season at home.

They meet the Manly Sea Eagles at the redeveloped Ericsson Stadium on the weekend of March 11-13.

Then they travel to Brisbane the following weekend to play the Brisbane Broncos.

Two home games follow, against the North Queensland Cowboys and the South Sydney Rabbitohs, while the next match against Wests Tigers will be played in Christchurch.

In the draw released today, all teams play 12 home matches, 12 away matches and have two byes.

The Warriors' first bye coincides with the Anzac league test against Australia on April 22, while their second is in the last round of matches.

Gallop says the NRL is looking to make a big impact with its opening round schedule, but says cutting the season back is not financially viable for the clubs.

"They simply can't afford it at this stage," Gallop said.

"I think we all accept that it's very hard on our players, particularly our elite players, with the impact of rep footy, but it's too big a price to pay.

"It's dropping a home game, and that's a big drop in revenue for them.

"If you're talking about a game at Suncorp Stadium for the Broncos against a title contender ... you're talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars."

One game sure to draw a big crowd is the grand final replay between the Bulldogs and the Sydney Roosters, set down for round six at Telstra Stadium.

"We targeted it for early in the season, but after players have had some time to run into some form," NRL chief operation officer Graham Annesley said.

Every team will play the other once, while the remaining 10 matches have been determined by a pool system based on where clubs finished at the end of the 2004 regular season.

The Roosters, Melbourne, Manly, Parramatta and the Cowboys are in pool A, the Bulldogs, Dragons, Canberra, Cronulla and the Warriors in pool B, while the Broncos, Penrith, West Tigers, Newcastle and South Sydney form group C.

All teams play sides in the other two groups twice, and teams in their own group only once.

The NRL has avoided scheduling any of its "showpiece" games during the State of Origin series, saying it does not want to rob teams of their star players for the big clashes.

There will be a three-week break between each of the interstate matches, with the Roosters (twice), Cowboys, Broncos, Bulldogs, Dragons and the Panthers all receiving byes in the lead-up to the games in the three-match series.

Gallop said the NRL was in full support of clubs taking games out of traditional venues, with some clubs already flagging games at venues like the Central Coast, Gold Coast, Perth and Adelaide.

Other NRL initiatives include the "Easter in Sydney" festival in round three, which will see all Sydney-based clubs playing in the harbour city, and 70s week in round 24, which will pit traditional rivals against one another.

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