The 2018 Telstra Premiership season will open with Ben Hunt taking on his former club as the St George Illawarra Dragons host Brisbane at Jubilee Oval.
Broncos coach Wayne Bennett confirmed at a press conference on Wednesday that Sam Thaiday will start at hooker despite naming him in the front row on Tuesday, with Andrew McCullough to come off the bench as he returns from knee surgery.
Meanwhile Corey Oates has been named on the wing for the Broncos after spending time in the second row during the pre-season.
The Dragons have been given special permission by the NRL to retire the No.1 jersey for the match following the death of Graeme Langlands. Matt Dufty will play fullback and will wear the number 18 jersey.
Tariq Sims gets the nod in the back-row after both he and Luciano Leilua were battling for the vacant spot during the pre-season. After Kurt Mann was considered as an outside chance to play in the centres, it is team-mate Euan Aitken who has been given the green light to start for the Dragons. Mann will instead play from the bench in number 16.
Dragons fullback Matthew Dufty has shown promising potential and has gathered plenty of hype coming into the season. Facing up against the experience of Brisbane Broncos Darius Boyd in the first round will raise an early challenge for the 22-year-old. For Dufty, this head-to-head contest between youth and experience will determine how he compares to one of the best in the game.
For Broncos to win: The Broncos rely heavily on catching teams on the back foot. If the Dragons are able to shut down Andrew McCullough’s kicking game and Anthony Milford and Kodi Nikorima’s running game it will decrease their opportunity of putting points on the board.
For Dragons to win: With the arrival of James Graham adding to an already solid Dragons forward pack, the Broncos will have to be strong up front to match their aggressive running attack.
Dragons stats attack: The Dragons averaged the most metres per game last season with 1,706m. The addition of James Graham will surely add to positive contribution to the sides running metres this season. The question will be if they can capitalise from that and convert it into points.
Broncos stats attack: Last season the Broncos finished 2nd in the competition for most points scored with 597 points, 24.9 per game. If their forwards are able to get them in good field position in attack then there will be easy opportunity for Milford and Nikorima to put some points on the board early.
And another thing: Everyone is talking about the Dragons halfback Ben Hunt facing up against his former club in the Broncos, where he spent the last 10 years coming through their junior ranks into the NRL and achieving representative honours. If he can become the long term halfback that St George Illawarra have craved, his lucrative contract will be worthwhile.
Match: Dragons v Broncos
Round 1 -
Venue: Jubilee Oval
The Prediction: Broncos by 12
Jubilee Oval, Thursday March 8, 8.05pm
Head-to-head: Played 37, Broncos 23 wins, Dragons 14 wins.
Last five games:
- Round 24, 2017; Brisbane Broncos def. St George Illawarra Dragons 24-12.
- Round 22, 2016; Brisbane Broncos def. St George Illawarra Dragons 12-8.
- Round 6, 2016; Brisbane Broncos v St George Illawarra Dragons 26-0.
- Round 23, 2015; Brisbane Broncos v St George Illawarra Dragons 32-6.
- Round 7, 2015; St George Illawarra Dragons v Brisbane Broncos 12-10.
2017 points per game: Dragons 22.2; Broncos 24.9
2017 points conceded per game: Dragons 18.8; Broncos 18.0
Televised: Live on Nine, Fox League
Dragons: 18 Matthew Dufty, 2 Nene Macdonald, 3 Euan Aitken, 4 Tim Lafai, 5 Jason Nightingale, 6 Gareth Widdop (c), 7 Ben Hunt, 8 James Graham, 9 Cameron McInnes, 10 Paul Vaughan, 11 Tyson Frizell, 12 Tariq Sims, 13 Jack De Belin
Interchange: 14 Luciano Leilua, 15 Kurt Mann, 16 Leeson Ah Mau, 17 Hame Sele
Reserves: 19 Jeremy Latimore, 20 Zac Lomax, 21 Blake Lawrie, 22 Joshua Kerr
Broncos: 1 Darius Boyd (c), 2 Corey Oates, 3 James Roberts, 4 Jordan Kahu, 5 Jamayne Isaako, 6 Anthony Milford, 7 Kodi Nikorima, 8 Matthew Lodge, 9 Andrew McCullough, 10 Sam Thaiday, 11 Alex Glenn, 12 Matt Gillett, 13 Josh McGuire
Interchange: 14 Tevita Pangai Jnr, 15 Joe Ofahengaue, 16 Korbin Sims, 17 Jaydn Su'a
Reserves: 18 Tom Opacic, 19 Sam Tagataese, 20 Jonus Pearson, 21 George Fai
Match officials: Main referee: Matt Cecchin, Assistant referee: Alan Shortall, Sideline officials: Nick Beashel and David Munro.