Andrew Pelechaty has analysed the draw for the opening month of the 2024 NRL season. Here’s his top picks of must-watch games to start the season.
Related: 2024 Full NRL Draw
LAS VEGAS DOUBLE HEADER: SEA EAGLES VS RABBITOHS AND ROOSTERS VS BRONCOS, ALLEGIANT STADIUM, SUNDAY MARCH 2 (ROUND 1)
After a couple of years of planning (and almost weekly coverage on Roy & HG’s Bludging on the Blindside radio show/podcast), the Vegas games are nearly here. While it’s easy to be cynical about the excursion’s true motivations, hopefully the five-year deal will give rugby league a foothold in the USA.
In the only games in the opening weekend of the season, Manly play Souths and the Sydney Roosters play Brisbane at Allegiant Stadium. The Broncos will be motivated after their heartbreaking Grand Final loss to Penrith: they led 24-8 in the second half before a Nathan Cleary masterclass inspired Penrith to their third straight premiership.
By comparison, Souths and the Roosters had mixed seasons. Souths missed the eight after losing seven from their last 10 games and the Roosters rode a five-game winning streak to make the finals. They then beat Cronulla in the elimination final before Melbourne ended their season in the semi-final. While Manly also missed the finals, they did better than 2022, when they spectacularly collapsed after the Pride jersey drama.
Australians fans can watch the Vegas games live on the Sunday afternoon: Manly-Souths at 1:30pm and Roosters-Brisbane at 3:30pm (Australian Eastern Daylight Savings Time). And playing for premiership points means the games have stakes, rather than just glorified exhibition matches. Though, with Allegiant Stadium the home of the Las Vegas Raiders, the NRL could have included Canberra for the “Raiders” name recognition. Locals could have adopted their NRL namesake for the night. It may be an option for future seasons?Embed from Getty Images
STORM VS PANTHERS, AAMI PARK, FRIDAY MARCH 8 (ROUND 1)
This should be another blockbuster between two heavyweights. While the Storm have lost their aura of a few years ago, they’ve shown they’ll always be a contender – returning to the top four in 2023 after a disappointing 2022 (by their high standards). Penrith destroyed Melbourne in last year’s preliminary final, so the Storm will both want some revenge and to keep their amazing first round streak alive: they haven’t lost a round 1 game since 2001 (they lost their opening game in 2004, but the had a round 1 bye).
How will Penrith approach this game? Will they want to bank early wins before another busy Origin period, or are they happy to work their way into a long season?Embed from Getty Images
STORM VS WARRIORS, AAMI PARK, SATURDAY MARCH 16 (ROUND 2)
Usually the Anzac Day evening game, the Storm-Warriors clash has been moved to round 2 (with an Anzac Day triple header instead: Warriors vs Gold Coast, St George Illawarra vs Sydney Roosters, Melbourne vs Souths).
The Warriors will want to prove their amazing 2023 wasn’t a fluke (when “The Wahs” became every neutral fan’s second favourite team), and this is the perfect early test. The Warriors haven’t won in Melbourne since 2014, and haven’t beaten the Storm since 2015 (14 straight wins for the Storm). The Storm have four of their first five games in Melbourne, so they’ll want to make the most of that early advantage.Embed from Getty Images
PANTHERS VS BRONCOS, BLUEBET STADIUM, THURSDAY MARCH 21 (ROUND 3)
An early 2023 Grand Final replay. While you would think a packed out BlueBet Stadium would be intimidating for Brisbane, the Broncos shocked Penrith in round 1 2023, so this trip won’t bother them. No doubt Brisbane will be stewing over the grand final loss: no better place to get revenge than beating Penrith again on their home field.
And, as mentioned earlier, how intense will Penrith be in the opening rounds? This could work in Brisbane’s favour. Hopefully this is another ripping game that ignites the Penrith-Brisbane rivalry for the next few years.Embed from Getty Images
ROOSTERS VS RABBITOHS, ALLIANZ STADIUM, FRIDAY MARCH 22 (ROUND 3)
Another chapter in the spicy foundation rivalry. While it’s a little surprising they didn’t play each other in Vegas, perhaps the NRL wanted to keep the two Easts vs Souths games in Sydney, as they’re the biggest NRL games for attendance and hype outside of the finals and Anzac Day?
The Roosters won both clashes last year: 20-18 (round 3) and 26-12 (round 27). It was the first time Easts have won two games in a season against Souths since 2018. Souths won seven out of 10 from 2019 to 2022.
Expect another heated game here, with Souths desperate to prove last year’s late fadeout was an aberration. Will we get a repeat of the famous “seven sin bins” 2022 elimination final?Embed from Getty Images
BRONCOS VS COWBOYS, SUNCORP STADIUM, FRIDAY MARCH 29 (ROUND 4)
Another XXXX Derby, back at Lang Park on a Friday night (which Channel 9 will love). While Brisbane were close to a premiership in 2023, the Cowboys missed the finals (after nearly making the 2022 Grand Final). Though they won seven of their last 12 games to stay in contention, a final round flogging against Penrith was a disappointing finish to their season.
This is the Broncos’ first Friday night home game for the season (a total of eight Friday night and four Thursday night games), so expect a bumper crowd at Milton. There’s also the “Queensland Premiership” at stake: The Dolphins should improve, so North Queensland will want to stay ahead of them and the Titans, and show they deserve to be up with the Broncos as the best team in Queensland.Embed from Getty Images