For the first time in 51 seasons, the Penrith Panthers enter round one as premiership favourites.
It is an enormous burden to carry, and as anyone who has followed rugby league long enough knows, being given the favouritism tag in February generally means very little come September.
With the Dragons tipped by many to miss the top eight this year, it is no surprise that the Panthers are considered close to sure things in this Saturday’s encounter at Kogarah Oval.
But rugby league is very rarely won on paper and a number of factors will ensure this game is closer than the betting markets may suggest.
The first is the weather. Kogarah has copped a drenching this week and there’s a 90 per cent chance of rain on game day – far different conditions to those the Panthers faced in their pre-season trials.
Holding onto the footy will be at a premium and neither side is likely to want to throw the ball around, so you can expect a dour game with the effort of the forwards to come into focus.
And despite what the pre-season predictions may suggest, the Dragons don’t have a bad forward pack. Paul Vaughan, Russell Packer, Tyson Frizell and Joel Thompson are no slouches, and when you throw Jack de Belin and new recruit Tariq Sims into the mix, you can see that Paul McGregor’s problems don’t exist up front.
Of course there are significant question marks over St George-Illawarra’s attack but the rain will ensure things are levelled out a little there on Saturday.
The other factor that plays a part in this encounter is the venue.
Round one always provides an upset or two and it’s often because a home team, sometimes under-rated, puts in an enormous effort to kick off the season in front of their own fans.
The game may still be worth two points no matter what the round but there’s something about the first home game of the season that gives a side an added push.
Penrith fans should also not fall victim to expecting too much too early from their highly fancied squad.
Te Maire Martin and Nathan Cleary may be the most exciting young halves partnership in the competition but they’ve actually played very little footy together and will take time to gel.
The new forward pack dynamic will also take a little time to work itself out with James Tamou now leading the way and Trent Merrin a year older and wiser, and seemingly very keen to take on a leadership role this season.
Ever since the draw come out late last year I’ve looked at these two opening games of the season on the road as 50/50 propositions.
Nothing should surprise anyone in round one – teams are still working on combinations and implementing what they’ve worked on at training in a real game environment.
Expect Peter Wallace to calm things down especially in the wet conditions.
I’m tipping Penrith this weekend but whatever the result, let’s remember – premierships aren’t won in March. Win or lose, take the positives and do better next week – it’s as a simple as that.
Tip: Panthers by 8
The Panthers and Dragons play at Kogarah Oval at 4.30pm on Saturday, March 4. The game is live on Fox Sports and ABC Radio.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Senior Writer. He has more than 15 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations.