Melbourne Storm has been handed a tough opening to the 2014 season – an away game against 2013 runner-up Manly on Saturday, March 8.
The match will also pit Storm star Cooper Cronk, the reigning Dally M medallist, against the man breathing over his shoulder for the half-back job with Queensland and Australia, Daly Cherry-Evans – the young Sea Eagle who was named man-of–the-match in the 2013 grand final despite Manly's loss to the Roosters.
Storm will host Penrith at AAMI Park in round two in a game where Cameron Smith and Billy Slater could reach milestones. Smith is in line to break Matt Geyer's club games record and Slater is scheduled for his 250th first-grade game.
The Storm will play six home games in the first 10 rounds, but has a brutal finish to the season with five matches away before finishing with a home game against the Broncos.
Meanwhile, according to Bulldogs supporters, Ben Barba should expect to get booed onto ANZ Stadium when he runs out against his former club for the first time.
The NRL draw confirmed the season will open with three blockbusters, highlighted by Barba's first appearance for Brisbane.
South Sydney will take on the Roosters in the opening match on Thursday, March 6, followed by the Bulldogs-Broncos encounter in Sydney on Friday night and the Manly-Melbourne fixture the following day.
Bulldogs Army co-ordinator Marie Finianos predicted a hostile reception for Barba.
"The majority of fans aren't going to be very happy he was allowed to go, just because we invested so much in him and don't have a replacement as a full-back," she said.
"I would say there would be a large amount who would boo him just because of the situation, just because of how much we put into him, now that he's gone."
Other features of the NRL draw include:
- Eels recruit William Hopoate taking on former club Manly at Brookvale Oval on a Sunday in round three.
- The grand final rematch between the Roosters and Manly on a Friday night in round four.
- Ricky Stuart won't have to face the music at Pirtek Stadium, with Canberra's clashes against the Eels in Darwin in round 22 and at home in round 26.
The other big talking point will be the return of the Saturday 3pm timeslot, a change that fans have been agitating for. Fox Sports pushed for the move after its audiences were cannibalised by broadcasting two games at the same time.
"It's a good outcome" said Fox Sports chief executive Patrick Delany. "I remember Saturday afternoons as a kid and they have that in Melbourne [in the AFL]."