Melbourne Storm vs South Sydney Rabbitohs
Storm: 1. Ryan Papenhuyzen 2. George Jennings 3. Reimis Smith 4. Justin Olam 5. Josh Addo-Carr 6. Cameron Munster 7. Jahrome Hughes 8. Jesse Bromwich 9. Brandon Smith 10. Christian Welch 11. Felise Kaufusi 12. Kenneath Bromwich 13. Nelson Asofa-Solomona 14. Chris Lewis 15. Tui Kamikamica 16. Tom Eisenhuth 17. Nicholas Hynes 18. Darryn Schonig 19. Cooper Johns 20. Trent Loiero 21. Tyson Smoothy
The reigning premiers begin their title defence against the South Sydney Rabbitohs, whom many regard as the premiership favourites for this upcoming season. This will be the Storm’s first game at AAMI Park since September 2019 and they will be desperate to give their long awaiting fans a good performance. It will also be the first time since 2002 that the Melbourne Storm have named a round one 17 without Cameron Smith. Their first choice backup dummy-half, Queensland representative Harry Grant, will miss the first few rounds to injury, but he will be replaced by the New Zealand test dummy-half, Brandon Smith. I expect Munster and Papenhuyzen to step up in the post-Smith era and extend coach Bellamy’s opening round winning streak to 19 straight.
Rabbitohs: 1. Latrell Mitchell 2. Alex Johnston 3. Dane Gagai 4. Campbell Graham 5. Josh Mansour 6. Cody Walker 7. Adam Reynolds 8. Thomas Burgess 9. Damien Cook 10. Tevita Tatola 11. Jacob Host 12. Jaydn Su’A 13. Cameron Murray 14. Benji Marshall 15. Mark Nicholls 16. Keaon Koloamatangi 17. Jai Arrow 18. Patrick Mago 19. Jaxson Paulo 20. Tautau Moga 21. Troy Dargan
The Rabbitohs are running hot after a strong finish to last season and blowing the hapless Dragons off the park in the preseason Charity Shield match. Many pundits have them in this years grand final, but the odds are stacked against them getting off to a flyer against the Storm, having never won a single match in Melbourne, and against a team who has not lost an opening round match since 2003. It sets up yet another intriguing chapter to the Bennett vs Bellamy rivalry, but it will be interesting to see how they go with the weight of expectation on them. I will be surprised if they can knock of the reigning premiers with those records stacked against them.
Storm by 4
Newcastle Knights vs Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs
Knights: 1. Tex Hoy 2. Starford To’a 3. Enari Tuala 4. Bradman Best 5. Gehamat Shibasaki 6. Kurt Mann 7. Mitchell Pearce 8. David Klemmer 9. Jayden Brailey 10. Daniel Saifiti 11. Tyson Frizell 12. Mitchell Barnett 13. Connor Watson 14. Sauaso Sue 15. Jacob Saifiti 16. Josh King 17. Brodie Jones 18. Hymel Hunt 19. Pasami Saulo 20. Jack Johns 21. Simi Sasagi
I thought the Knights defence, discipline and attitude during the backend of last season was horrible and the question is, did they fix it during a short off-season? Off field dramas which included Mitchell Pearce stripped of the captaincy would have been an unwanted distraction, and injuries to star fullback Kalyn Ponga and veteran five-eighth Blake Green has me doubting whether the Knights can get off to a good start and improve this year. Tyson Frizell is a huge inclusion but I think they may struggle against a Bulldogs team looking to rebuild strongly.
Bulldogs: 1. Corey Allan 2. Nick Meaney 3. Will Hopoate 4. Nick Cotric 5. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak 6. Jake Averillo 7. Kyle Flanagan 8. Ofahiki Ogden 9. Sione Katoa 10. Jack Hetherington 11. Adam Elliott 12. Corey Waddell 13. Josh Jackson 14. Bradley Deitz 15. Renouf Atoni 16. Raymond Faitala-Mariner 17. Dylan Napa 19. Tuipulotu Katoa 20. Chris Smith 21. Brandon Wakeham 22. Ava Seumanufagai
The Bulldogs have recruited well with Kyle Flanagan, Nick Cotric, Corey Allan and Jack Hetherington, and they begin their rebuild year under new coach Trent Barrett. I call it a rebuild year because they still have big name recruits who will not arrive until 2022, but this is the season where they build a new identity and culture. I do not expect them to play finals as they are still missing a few pieces to the puzzle, but I do believe they will compete well with some of the top sides and cause a few upsets, starting this weekend against the Newcastle.
Bulldogs by 6
Brisbane Broncos vs Parramatta Eels
Broncos: 1. Jamayne Isaako 2. Xavier Coates 3. Herbie Farnworth 4. Tesi Niu 5. David Mead 6. Anthony Milford 7. Brodie Croft 8. Tevita Pangai Junior 9. Jake Turpin 10. Matthew Lodge 11. Alex Glenn 12. Jordan Riki 13. Patrick Carrigan 14. John Asiata 15. Thomas Flegler 16. Ethan Bullemor 17. Ben Te’o 18. Tom Dearden 19. Rhys Kennedy 20. Richard Kennar 21. Cory Paix
The one thing new Broncos coach Kevin Walters needs, is time. I do think the Broncos will improve this season and lift themselves off the bottom of the ladder, but it will not happen over night. I think there may be some tough lessons to learn, starting this Friday night against Parramatta, a club that has put cricket scores on them in recent times. They are a young team without much experience around them, but I am confident Walters will get the best out of them. The concern is their halves. Croft gets first crack at halfback and Milford, you would think is playing for his career this season.
Eels: 1. Clinton Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo 3. Tom Opacic 4. Waqa Blake 5. Blake Ferguson 6. Dylan Brown 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 9. Reed Mahoney 10. Junior Paulo 11. Shaun Lane 12. Ryan Matterson 13. Nathan Brown 14. Oregon Kaufusi 15. Isaiah Papali’i 16. Keegan Hipgrave 17. Will Smith 18. Haze Dunster 19. Joey Lussick 20. Jordan Rankin 21. David Hollis
I expect the Eels to get off to another fast start this season and I am sure they will be hungry to make amends for their late season fade out in 2020. Like Milford, I feel it may be a do-or-die season for halfback Mitchell Moses. He is under the tutelage of Andrew Johns, but it is time for him to deliver a grand final birth for long suffering Eels fans. The Broncos are the perfect opponent for him to build confidence and get into his groove for the season.
Eels by 18
New Zealand Warriors vs Gold Coast Titans
Warriors: 1. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck 2. David Fusitu’a 3. Euan Aitken 4. Peta Hiku 5. Ken Maumalo 6. Kodi Nikorima 7. Chanel Harris-Tavita 8. Addin Fonua-Blake 9. Wayde Egan 10. Jamayne Taunoa-Brown 11. Eliesa Katoa 12. Bayley Sironen 13. Tohu Harris 14. Jazz Tevaga 15. Ben Murdoch-Masila 16. Leeson Ah Mau 17. Bunty Afoa 18. Adam Pompey 20. Sean O’Sullivan 21. Tom Ale 22. Josh Curran
This is arguably the highiest anticipated match of the opening round, with two sides who are coming off a rebuild season and have recruited well. Fonua-Blake is a huge inclusion, he brings that grit and a bit of mongrel they have lacked in recent seasons. Tuivasa-Sheck will be desperate to finish his rugby league career on the highest possible note and there is no doubt the Warriors will be aiming for a finals birth under new coach Nathan Brown.
Titans: 1. AJ Brimson 2. Corey Thompson 3. Brian Kelly 4. Patrick Herbert 5. Anthony Don 6. Ashley Taylor 7. Jamal Fogarty 8. Jarrod Wallace 9. Mitch Rein 10. Moeaki Fotuaika 11. Kevin Proctor 12. David Fifita 13. Tino Fa’asuamaleaui 14. Tyrone Peachey 15. Sam Lisone 16. Jaimin Jolliffe 17. Erin Clark 18. Phillip Sami 19. Beau Fermor 20. Herman Ese’ese 21. Sam McIntyre
Like the Warriors, the Titans have recruited well with David Fifita and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and many feel are poised to take the next step to finals football. Ash Taylor is another half playing for his future this year but I have a feeling we will finally see him reach his full potential playing alongside new co-captain Jamal Fogarty. I also have AJ Brimson as a smokey for the Dally M medal, and expect him to reach that upper echelon of fullbacks alongside Tedesco, Ponga, Latrell and Tom Trbojevic. This game is a toss of the coin, but I on paper, I think the Titans have more strike power across the park.
Titans by 2
Sydney Roosters vs Manly Warringah Sea Eagles
Roosters: 1. James Tedesco 2. Daniel Tupou 3. Josh Morris 4. Joseph Manu 5. Brett Morris 6. Lachlan Lam 7. Luke Keary 8. Lindsay Collins 9. Jake Friend 10. Siosiua Taukeiaho 11. Angus Crichton 12. Sitili Tupouniua 13. Isaac Liu 14. Adam Keighran 15. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves 16. Nat Butcher 17. Daniel Suluka-Fifita 18. Matt Ikuvalu 19. Fletcher Baker 20. Freddy Lussick 21. Sam Walker
I was surprised coach Robinson did not shift Keary to halfback last season after playing alongside and learning from Cooper Cronk, but I think he has got it right this year. Keary is key to managing the side and I expect Tedesco to be a good as ever in 2021. Several of their experienced players are getting on with age, but you cannot deny the pure class they have right across the park. They will be contenders again and should get their season underway by cruising past Manly.
Sea Eagles: 1. Dylan Walker 2. Jason Saab 3. Brad Parker 4. Moses Suli 5. Reuben Garrick 6. Kieran Foran 7. Daly Cherry-Evans 8. Josh Aloiai 9. Lachlan Croker 10. Martin Taupau 11. Jack Gosiewski 12. Curtis Sironen 13. Jake Trbojevic 14. Tevita Funa 15. Andrew Davey 16. Morgan Boyle 17. Taniela Paseka 18. Josh Schuster 19. Sean Keppie 20. Toafofoa Sipley 21. Morgan Harper
The loss of Tom Trbojevic to yet another injury is a huge blow for the luckless Sea Eagles. Walker replaces him at fullback, a position he has not played since 2016. Daly Cherry-Evans is reunited with his 2011 premiership winning halves partner, Kieran Foran. Josh Aloiai has huge boots to fill up front after Addin Fonua-Blake walked out on the club. They still lack a quality dummy-half. But the worry for the Sea Eagles is not just their lack of quality depth, but their defence at the backend of last season was almost non-existent. It will be a tough start against the powerhouse Roosters.
Roosters by 14
Penrith Panthers vs North Queensland Cowboys
Panthers: 1. Dylan Edwards 2. Charlie Staines 3. Paul Momirovski 4. Stephen Crichton 5. Brian To’o 6. Jarome Luai 7. Nathan Cleary 8. Moses Leota 9. Apisai Koroisau 10. James Fisher-Harris 11. Viliame Kikau 12. Kurt Capewell 13. Isaah Yeo 14. Tyrone May 15. Spencer Leniu 16. Matthew Eisenhuth 17. Liam Martin 18. J’maine Hopgood 19. Matt Burton 20. Robert Jennings 21. Mitch Kenny
Last years grand finalists have lost some experience after captain James Tamou and Josh Mansour were moved on. But despite being a young side, they are stacked with talent and have developed a winning culture within the club. The challenge for them is whether they can keep themselves up mentally and emotionally for another full season after a 17-game winning streak, falling agonizingly short of last years premiership and knowing this year, they will have a huge target on their backs. It is a challenge I think they will handle easily, led by Nathan Cleary who will continue to get better. I think they will get by the Cowboys rather comfortably.
Cowboys: 1. Scott Drinkwater 2. Kyle Feldt 3. Esan Marsters 4. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow 5. Valentine Holmes 6. Michael Morgan 7. Jake Clifford 8. Francis Molo 9. Reece Robson 10. Jordan McLean 11. Mitchell Dunn 12. Coen Hess 13. Jason Taumalolo 14. Jake Granville 15. Josh Mcguire 16. Corey Jensen 17. Lachlan Burr 18. Shane Wright 19. Reuben Cotter 20. Murray Taulagi 21. Ben Hampton
When you look at the Cowboys side on paper, they certainty look like a top eight side. But they are coming off the back of three straight bottom four finishes over the past three seasons and they have a few big money players under pressure to perform. New coach Todd Payten has completely refreshed and rejuvenated their attacking structures after becoming stale and predictable under the previous coach. A short preseason means it may take time for them to get used to the Payten game plan, and I expect them to show some fight against the Panthers. I do not think scoring points will be their issue, it will be their leaky defence that will be tested.
Panthers by 10
Canberra Raiders vs Wests Tigers
Raiders: 1. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad 2. Bailey Simonsson 3. Sebastian Kris 4. Curtis Scott 5. Jordan Rapana 6. Jack Wighton 7. George Williams 8. Josh Papalii 9. Josh Hodgson 10. Dunamis Lui 11. Hudson Young 12. Elliott Whitehead 13. Joseph Tapine 14. Siliva Havili 15. Ryan Sutton 16. Iosia Soliola 17. Ryan James 18. Sam Williams 19. Tom Starling 20. Emre Guler 21. Harley Smith-Shields
I feel like Canberra will fly under the radar this season, with most of the talk centred around the Souths, Easts and Melbourne. Inspirational dummy-half Josh Hodgson returns to the side and I expect him to combine nicely with Williams and Dally M medalist Jack Wighton, which will no doubt cause most teams a few headaches in defence. The Raiders are a well balanced team with quality right across the park, led by hulking prop Josh Papalii. I expect them to make a strong statement against the Tigers.
Tigers: 1. Daine Laurie 2. David Nofoaluma 3. James Roberts 4. Joseph Leilua 5. AJ Kepaoa 6. Moses Mbye 7. Luke Brooks 8. James Tamou 9. Jacob Liddle 10. Joe Ofahengaue 11. Luke Garner 12. Luciano Leilua 13. Alex Twal 14. Tommy Talau 15. Thomas Mikaele 16. Stefano Utoikamanu 17. Russell Packer 18. Jock Madden 19. Michael Chee Kam 20. Tuki Simpkins 21. Alex Seyfarth
The Tigers impressed during the trials but when I look at their team on paper, I think they have an inferior side from last season after losing Benji Marshall and Harry Grant. James Tamou and Joe Ofahengaue add some experience up front, but their spine is a real concern. They do however, have some real quality in their outside backs and if Brooks and Moses can create some space for them, they might put on a few points, but I do not believe they have the class to match it with the Raiders.
Raiders by 14
St George Illawarra Dragons vs Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks
Dragons: 1. Matthew Dufty 2. Cody Ramsey 3. Jack Bird 4. Zac Lomax 5. Mikaele Ravalawa 6. Adam Clune 7. Ben Hunt 8. Blake Lawrie 9. Andrew McCullough 10. Paul Vaughan 11. Josh Kerr 12. Tariq Sims 13. Tyrell Fuimaono 14. Poasa Faamausili 15. Trent Merrin 16. Daniel Alvaro 17. Brayden Wiliame 18. Jackson Ford 19. Kaide Ellis 20. Jordan Pereira 21. Max Feagai
Many have tipped the Dragons to finish last this season after losing a few key players. Their roster management has been perplexing and one must wonder if the club has made the right decision in appointing Anthony Griffin as head coach. Time will tell, but the challenge for him is getting the best out of million dollar man Ben Hunt. I still believe his best position is hooker, but with Corey Norman suspended, they are a thin on quality halves options. They do not have much going for them but I can only hope they show some fight for their supporters, especially after being trounced in their Charity Shield game against Souths.
Sharks: 1. Will Kennedy 2. Sione Katoa 3. Josh Dugan 4. Jesse Ramien 5. Ronaldo Mulitalo 6. Matt Moylan 7. Chad Townsend 8. Braden Hamlin-Uele 9. Blayke Brailey 10. Aaron Woods 11. Briton Nikora 12. Wade Graham 13. Toby Rudolf 14. Connor Tracey 15. Aiden Tolman 16. Jack Williams 17. Billy Magoulias 18. Mawene Hiroti 19. Teig Wilton 20. Andrew Fifita 21. Braydon Trindall
The Sharks are another side who have several big money players who need to step up this season. Matt Moylan returns to the halves with their most dangerous player, Shaun Johnson who is not expected to return for several weeks. Their coach, John Morris is under pressure despite leading the side to the finals last year. The Sharks should have enough to get by the Dragons, but I do not see how they will improve from last season.
Sharks by 8