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Welcome back League fans. You may now refrain from cupping your hand towards your forehead and screaming ?C?mon!??yes, the season has arrived. And not before time either! Whilst I was going to impart some wise and philosophical thoughts on the eve of a new season, we've all been waiting so long that I thought it might be better to wipe the foam from our collective mouths and just to get stuck in straight away.
Tigers v Dragons
For Dragons fans 2006 begins with the same team that ended their 2005 title aspirations. The reigning premiers take on the pride of Kogarah, and Wollongong, in the first match of the year which promises to be a real ripsnorter.
A healthy rivalry is developing between these two joint venture clubs and this game should crystalise its? credentials as a grudge match. The Tigers are missing a few players from their all-conquering Premiership team, namely Pat Richards, Mark O?Neill and Shane Elford, who have either left the club or are injured. In Elford?s case, he tried to leave, then came back and is now injured. The backline has been boosted with the acquisition of Jamaal Lolesi and the earlier than expected return of Benji Marshall reuniting with Scott Prince in the halves.
The Tigers forward pack has never looked so good. Last year all the talk was on their smallish stature but that won?t be a problem for them in ?06. My only concern is they may lose a little mobility, which was one of their best assets. In contrast, the Dragons pack is pretty much the same except for the omission of club stalwart Lance Thompson (Sharks) and the injury to Shaun Timmins. Newcomer Andrew Price finds himself locking the scrum containing two Australian props and a couple of other handy forwards in Young, Payne and Simms.
The backline is also much the same, with regulars in Gasnier, Cooper, Naiqama with Greenshields taking the field. Reece Simmonds finds himself on the other wing after being given a chance by coach Brown. He appears to be the only weak link in the backs, with Captain Barrett leading the charge at five-eighth and Hornby subbing for the injured Head.
This game is a hard one for punters to start with as the Tigers have been good starters over the past few years and the Dragons notoriously slow. Strangely, I think all the pressure is on the Dragons, who are favourites to win the comp, whereas the Tigers are the longest priced Premiers in history. I give it to the Tigers by a few.
Knights v Eels
A truly bizarre set of circumstances waits to unfold before us at the opener of Super Saturday for 2006. With Smith and Hagan set to complete the unprecedented coach swap at the end of the year, it got me thinking about what might happen at halftime. Will Smith get a bit edgy and try to find his way to the home team?s locker room at the break just to find out what it will be like? Maybe Hagan will see something in a player at Parramatta he doesn?t like and sneak in to the away side?s change room to correct it? Whatever the case, it couldn?t be more ironic or well-timed that these two teams take the field.
Thaiday for Newcastle is under a bit of a fitness cloud, but otherwise both teams should take the field as announced. Once again neither team has gone through any drastic makeovers during the off-season and they are sporting pretty much their strongest outfits. Newcastle?s strength lies in their halfback (obviously) and also their back-row. Big, mobile and skilful, they?ll be looking to exploit Parra on the fringe of the rucks and get a roll-on for Johns to take advantage of. If they succeed they will be hard to stop in front of a home crowd that love their team.
Parra are a little different. Whilst they have Hindmarsh to counter Newcastle?s back-row, it?s their three-quarters that will have the edge on their opponents. Burt, Smith, Tahu and Grothe are frenzied attackers and McKinnon is superb in bringing the ball back. Along with the boisterous nature of Smith at half, they could really cause Newcastle some headaches.
It?s a tough one to pick, but I?m going to take the home side. Johns will have to dust off a few cobwebs, but I think he can get them home. Their transient winger from Ireland should be an interesting one to watch as well.
Bulldogs v Panthers
The 2004 Premiers meet the 2003 Premiers after both of them failed to even make the semi?s last year. Each of these sides have undergone some upheaval in their player ranks with the ?Dogs losing long-time five-eighth Braith Anasta to the Chooks backline mainstay Lolesi to the Tigers. For Penrith, it might be easier to name who?s still there.
Galuvao, Ross, Rogers, Pomeroy, Crossman, Donato and Franze have all moved on with the only notable purchases being Hookey, Youngquest, Norrie and Stapleton, none of which saw regular first grade in the NRL last year. I?d be a bit worried if I were a Panthers fan and the Gower issue hasn?t exactly helped their off season preparation. It could take this team a few weeks to gel and in the meantime they need some of the senior players to stand up.
The Bulldogs are probably a happier camp though with the only off field dramas being the injury to wonderboy Sonny Bill Williams. It?s a bit of a mystery what?s going on with his knee, but they?ve got to take the field without him on Saturday night and looking at their forward pack, they certainly have some grunt. Asotasi and Mason starting with O?Meley set to continue his impersonation of a wrecking ball from the bench. Andrew Ryan, as captain, needs to put in a lot more this season and the new combination of Sherwin and Holdsworth with provide some interesting viewing.
I?m backing the Bulldogs here.
Sea Eagles v Raiders
A great stoush to finish off the weekend awaits us at Fortress Brookvale where the Raiders will travel north to do battle with the folk from the peninsula.
Manly have a pretty new-look about them with Storm players Orford and Bell joining the team. These guys will have a big impact upon proceedings on Saturday night with Bell scooping the centre spot vacated by Terry Hill and Orford pushing former halfback and captain Monaghan to the five-eighth role. I?m glad they?ve stuck him there instead of hooker though as I prefer Shane Dunley in the no.9 uniform. The Sea Eagles back-row is terrific and if Kennedy, Menzies and Watmough can get the upper hand in the forwards, then Manly will dominate.
For the Raiders, well I?m not getting caught in this trap again. For the past two years I?ve feared for their safety on the football field and they seem to come up with gutsy victories when you least expect it. But this week you?ve really got to wonder. No Schifcofske is the big factor, but injuries throughout the forwards and backs have decimated their line-up. Jason Smith is going to need one hell of a game if he?s to pull off a victory here.
I can?t see it happening though, Manly by plenty.
Warriors v Storm
Sunday?s first game sees us travel across the ditch to New Zealand where the Warriors take on the Storm in a must win game for the home team. The beginning of a new season is hard enough without having four points stripped from you before a ball is even kicked in anger. But that?s the situation the Warriors find themselves in and they need to get back to square as soon as possible. When you look at it, they?re effectively being stripped of their byes, so when their first week off comes around they won?t be able to slouch about.
The Storm have some new blood in their side with the inclusion of Cooper Cronk at halfback and hothead Michael Crocker. He?s got a bit of mongrel in him though and they could use a bit of it. The backline looks sensational, with current, former and future State of Origin reps popping out everywhere. They?ll be very hard to contain over in Auckland and have the size to match it with some of the bigger Kiwi guys.
But both these teams have some new combinations to work out after losing their established halfbacks at the close of ?05. Jones will be sorely missed at New Zealand and it remains to be seen if Cronk can fill Orford?s boots sufficiently. All this points to a potentially scrappy affair, especially if there?s bad weather.
I?m going to take the Storm as they tend to get out of the block pretty quick each year thanks to their coach?s tough fitness standards.
Broncos v Cowboys
Next we move on to our all Queensland affair, with last year?s runners-up facing off against a Broncos outfit with a few question marks floating around it.
Big Gordie doesn?t seem to need an invitation to bag his old club these days and one must wonder what sort of an effect that might have on his former team mates. It?s funny though how players can?t say anything about the NRL without a neat $10,000 fine, but it?s perfectly acceptable for a current NRL director to give his thoughts on the coaching situation and specific players whenever he has a microphone stuck under his nose.
Anyway, back to the footy. The Cowboys lost the big one last year and I bet it?s still stinging. I?m sure they want to get in there and erase the memory of their last game pretty quickly. They?ve lost Rauhihi from the engine room and dropped Webb and Hannay, but the side they put on the field is still a very good looking one.
I?m backing the Cowboys in this one as I think they enjoy playing at Suncorp and I really don?t think it poses much of a threat to visiting teams. I think the Broncos will take a little while to get into the swing of things this year.
Rabbitohs v Roosters
Our third game this week at Telstra Stadium sees the Roosters travel to their next-door neighbours new home ground. The Rabbits have taken up residence in Homebush and will be keen to notch their second victory there after taking home the Charity Shield in their first trial game.
Anasta and Harrison both turn out in their new clubs colours for the first time but the unfortunate injury to Joel Monaghan weakens the backline somewhat. In the forwards it will be interesting to see how Fitzgibbon goes at prop. Morley and Tupou will pitch in where needed but they are far from imposing.
The Bunnies look like they have the forwards to match them in this one. Geddes and Cusack up front with Fa?alogo and Stuart in the back-row are tradesmen and will get the job done. Their backs look a little skinny though. Mad Dog is in the mix with Hegarty, but I?m not sure why Buddy Gordon got the brush. Merritt on the wing could pose a risk in defense being so small.
Although I think the Bunnies will have a bright year, my money?s on the Roosters this week.