Top 10 Round 1 Talking Points
Streaks go on the line, rookie coaches get their chance to shine and friends will become foes in a mouth-watering weekend of football to kick off the 2018 NRL Telstra Premiership season.
10. Warriors' western worries
It's the longest road trip in the NRL and it's one that has haunted the Warriors for more than two decades. No matter the opponent or the venue, the men from across the ditch simply cannot get it done in Perth. They are winless from nine matches in Western Australia, and while several of those have been in heartbreaking fashion there's no escaping their woeful record. Fatigue won't be a factor when they travel west next year to open the new Perth Stadium in an historic double-header against the Rabbitohs, but history suggests they'll start as outsiders given they are 0-3 against the Bunnies in WA.
9. Storm put their streak on the line
Premierships aren't won in March but a winning start can do wonders for a team's confidence. Melbourne have made a habit of notching a 'W' in Round 1 and while there's no correlation between a week-one win and a deep finals run, it certainly helps. Incredibly, the Storm haven't lost a season-opener since they went down 14-10 to the Bulldogs in 2001. Fittingly they'll take on the blue and whites in next season's first-round showdown, just like they did to kick-off their campaign this year. Early-season rust is always going to be a factor, no matter how many stars you have in your side, but winning in Round 1 is all about finding a way to get it in done. The Storm are an ideal example given 10 of their Round 1 wins during the streak have been by six points or less.
8. 'Garth-Vaiders': a new hope
The search for a new coach on the Gold Coast has received as much hype as the new Star Wars trailer. OK that might be a slight exaggeration, but speculation is over with the heavily-fancied Garth Brennan set to join the Titans after several successful stints in the lower grades. Brennan will become the first 'Garth' to lead a side in the NRL and he will have his work cut out with the Titans in need of a drastic turnaround following a tumultuous year on and off the field in 2017. They face a tricky assignment in Round 1 against a Raiders outfit that underperformed last season and will be desperate to make a statement against a team they'll be expected to beat.
7. Will Souths head north?
Relax, this has nothing to do with possible relocation. Instead, it's a query as to whether the Rabbitohs are on the improve after missing out on the finals for the second year in a row. The Bunnies have overhauled their roster with plenty of experienced talent shown the door while they've brought in talented outside back Dane Gagai to add strike on the edge. Greg Inglis will return having missed all but one game after tearing his ACL and fans will be praying the rest of the spine stays intact with injuries and positional changes wreaking havoc in 2017. Throw in the addition of rookie coach Anthony Seibold and odds are the Rabbitohs should significantly improve next season.
6. Battle for the west rages on
There was plenty of backlash from fans last year when they found out that the Panthers and Eels would not meet in Penrith, and it hasn't taken long for the NRL to respond with the fierce western-Sydney rivals set to square off at Panthers Stadium in Round 1, 2018. The western foes have met in seven season-openers (1969, 1990, 1993, 1995, 1998, 2001 and 2002) with the Eels dominating the ledger 6-1. Their two Round 1 meetings at the start of the millennium saw the men in blue and gold claim respective 40-4 and 64-6 victories. After their slow start to the 2017 campaign, expect Penrith to come out firing against an Eels side that will be keen to build on last season's top-four finish.
5. Will Canterbury's changes 'Pay' off?
The Bulldogs got the culture change they wanted when former hard-man Dean Pay signed on to take the reins at Belmore, but the proof will be in the eating as the rookie coach looks to turn things around after Canterbury missed the finals for the first time since 2011. Pay is well-credentialed having steered the Blues to success in the under-20s and will fittingly have his first game in charge against the Melbourne Storm who he coached in the NYC from 2010-12. There will be plenty of pressure on the Bulldogs to perform after a disappointing 11th-place finish last season while they also moved on fan-favourites James Graham, Josh Reynolds and Sam Kasiano. The loss of the star trio has been tempered by the recruitment of Kieran Foran and Aaron Woods, but the jury is still out on whether that will be enough to see the 'family club' return to finals footy.
4. Milestone men set to join exclusive club
The 300 club is set to welcome two new members with Queensland legends Johnathan Thurston and Billy Slater to reach the milestone in Round 1. There are still a few question marks surrounding Thurston's fitness after he missed the second half of the season with a shoulder injury, but the stage is set for the outrageously talented halfback to play his 300th game in front of home fans against the Sharks. There were fears Slater might have retired one game short of the triple century, but the Storm fullback has signed on for a further season to ensure he reaches 300 games; an incredible achievement given he was sidelined for the best part of two years with a serious shoulder injury. The Storm always rise for milestone matches so you can expect them to come out firing against the Bulldogs when they meet in Perth.
3. Ben's hunt for Red V October
In truth this pun doesn't quite work given the grand final will be on September 30 next year, but I'm sure you get the drift. It was the first strike that was meant to start a domino effect on the transfer market, but as it stands this remains the biggest move in terms of playmakers. After nine seasons with the Broncos Ben Hunt is set to join the Dragons on a long-term deal to partner Gareth Widdop in an all-star halves combination. Fittingly, Hunt won't have to wait long to face his friends-turned-foes with the Red V drawn against Brisbane to kick-off the 2018 Telstra Premiership. It'll be the fourth year in a row the Broncos have played in the season-opener, but all eyes will be on how Hunt goes in new surroundings. Just quietly, you should keep one eye on Jordan Kahu who scored the first try in both 2016 and 2017 and is a chance to complete an improbable hat-trick should he touch down first at Kogarah.
2. Teddy Eastside
No, this isn't a story about How I Met Your Mother. For the second year in a row, the Wests Tigers will go toe-to-toe with a favourite son in Round 1. In 2017, Robbie Farah and the Rabbitohs were belted by the Tigers in a season-opener that gave fans plenty of reason to hope. Next year it's James Tedesco's turn to take on his former teammates when the Roosters travel to ANZ Stadium – probably by bus – to do battle with Jason Taylor's revamped roster. The Tricolours will start as pre-season favourites, and with a new Italian Stallion in the garage they'll be keen to make an early statement. Tedesco will also be out to continue his hot streak that has seen him a score at least one try in each of the past four Round 1 fixtures.
1. New-look Knights to take flight
Nathan Brown has put the 'new' in Newcastle with an almost unrecognisable Knights side set to take the park in Round 1. On the back of three wooden spoons, the Knights have overhauled their roster with young stars Kalyn Ponga and Connor Watson joining the club alongside seasoned veterans Jacob Lillyman, Aidan Guerra and Chris Heighington, with competition for spots set to push players to new heights. While they've had to release a stack of players to make way for the new recruits, Knights fans should be excited heading into the new season with early estimates suggesting they will comfortably avoid the bottom rung of the ladder. The Newcastle faithful will be out in force in Round 1 when their heroes look to snap a seven-game losing streak against the Sea Eagles.