Crikey Sports introduces Ant “Choc” Halstead, the newest member to the Crikey Sports stable. Ant will preview the week’s NRL matches starting today and help out all the rugby league tipsters out there . Take it away Ant…

The first round of the NRL competition is much like a night on the piss with Brad Fittler — anything can and probably will happen.

With coaching changes, player departures and signings, trial form, injuries, and of course off-field dramas to contend with, results in Round 1 are as unpredictable as they come. Take last year for example; regardless of Manly’s season launch fiasco, not even a die hard Doggies fan would have thought that the defending Premiers and World Cup Challenge winners would go down to the cellar dwelling Bulldogs.

But that’s Round 1 for you.

While the unpredictability of this week’s footy presents its challenges, Crikey Sports views Round 1 as an opportunity to out tip the ill-informed (or fail miserably trying), but more importantly, make a nice return on some attractive odds at the tote.

Don’t be afraid to tip an upset.

Round 1 Tips

Eels v Dragons, 7.35pm Friday 12 March, Parramatta Stadium

While the Eels are at home, and they have the freak that is Jared Hayne, I just can’t ignore their dismal pre-season form. The losses did not cost them any silverware, but they will have gone a long way towards destroying any confidence that remained in the Parramatta squad after going down to Melbourne in the GF. The Eels played some flawless (and fluky) footy to get them into the final last year, but I have serious doubts about they can back it up. Wayne Bennett will have the Dragons primed for revenge after they were sent packing by the Eels in week one of the finals last year.

Dragons to win by 12.

Broncos v Cowboys, 7.35pm Friday 12 March, Suncorp Stadium

Various commentators (including Crikey Sports’ most hated personality, Gus Gould) are picking the Broncos to miss the finals for the first time in 18 years. I’ll reserve my judgment on that one. While their playing roster is a bit lean compared to previous years, they always seem to pull it together enough to piss me off and cause trouble at the business end of the season.

You can’t discount the parochial Brisbane crowds and the depth of Queensland rugby league.

That being said, the Cowboys should be strides ahead of their big brothers from Brisbane provided Thurston plays to potential. Sure, the star can be inconsistent, and Willie Mason will probably ruin much of his good work, but I still feel the Cowboys have the strength across the park to take out the local derby.

With the crowd behind them the Broncos should remain in the contest, but the Cowboys will win a tight one by 4.

Bulldogs v Knights, 5.30pm Saturday 13 March, ANZ Stadium

From Robbie O’Davis to Andrew Johns and now Chris Houston, it is clear that Newcastle have had their fare share of drug related incidents. Scandals like this can cause a team to go one of two ways; solidarity or capitulation. I’m leaning on the latter.

While the Bulldogs (with a fit Kimmorley) will give the premiership a good nudge this year, I don’t think the opposition makes any difference in this one. The Knights will play with all the gusto and fervour of adolescent Emos mourning their existence, and the result will follow. It will be a long season for the Newcastle faithful.

I hope they have a ready supply of painkillers … Bulldogs by 20.

Panthers v Raiders, 7.30pm Saturday 13 March, CUA Stadium

I like Michael Jennings. The boy can play. The Panthers have been seriously hot in the pre-season and should run away with this one. The season outlook is bright for the men from the west. The Raiders on the other hand have been travelling under the radar (and out of contention) for the last few seasons, and I don’t expect that to change for the Green Machine, touted by many as having one hand on the wooden spoon. Get your hand off it.

Canberra’s recruitment policy must be addressed if they want to stop being a team of mediocre players that achieves mediocre results. The icy home ground advantage of the Nation’s Capital is the only thing that will save them from the timber utensil. Campese has his work cut out for him. Alan Tongue seems like a nice guy if nothing else.

Panthers by 16.

Sharks v Storm, 7.30pm Saturday 13 March, Toyota Stadium

I certainly wouldn’t be upset if the Storm were beaten, but it’s not going to happen this week. Fresh from their victory over Leeds in the World Cup Challenge, the Storm will have little trouble disposing of the Sharks that were lucky to survive as a club to face the season in 2010. Melbourne are too well trained, too confident and too skilled. For the Sharks, Barrett has a bit of charm but Ricky Stuart still hasn’t worked out how to get the best out of the Cronulla players.

Storm by 18.

Titans v Warriors, 1pm Sunday 14 March, Skilled Park

The Warriors are an unpredictable bunch. They hang around at the bottom of the table, then finally decide to turn it on and knock off the top team. Great for an upset, upsetting to support. With a dubious record this side of the ditch, the Titans should win comfortably up at Skilled Park. Scott Prince will show his class and send the Kiwis packing. Surely old man Steve Price should give the game away, and Tate should need a licence for that chin (let along his artificial back).

Titans by 12.

Rabbitohs v Roosters, 3pm 14 March, ANZ Stadium

Ahhhh, the battle of the whingers. Wah wah let us back in the comp, wah wah we let one of our players shit in a hotel hallway. That’s quality rugby league. The Rabbits have recruited well, buoyed by the fact that they were the only Sydney club to turn a profit last year! They keep talking about their massive forwards, but oration skills rarely translate into footy prowess. In this case the walk will follow the talk.

The Roosters are channelling the phoenix within, but I’m yet to be convinced of their return to competitiveness. As Chris Anderson said “There are a lot of distractions at Bondi Junction”. My bet is Carney will crack under the pressure at fullback and go on a massive bender. The tri colours’ time will come this season, but not this week.

Rabbits by 16.

Tigers v Sea Eagles, 7pm Monday 15 March, Sydney Football Stadium

So Lote, what did you do? While Tuqiri’s return to rugby league will bring some added interest to the SFS on Monday night, don’t get your hopes up that he’ll play entertaining footy.

Lote hasn’t played a good game of rugby union in 5 years, let alone rugby league! Tuqiri aside, this has to be the toughest pick of the week. The Tigers have star quality in Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah, while Manly hold the upper hand in the forwards. The Tigers are weak in the centres while Manly lack the experience at 5/8th with Kieran Foran taking over from the Ox.

The Sea Eagles’ back three are solid performers and should excel. The contest out wide will lack some spark as the Tiger’s pocket rocket, Taniela Tuiaki is currently injured – he can score tries and a lot of them. Both teams’ pre-season form has left a lot to be desired. While I bleed a certain shade of rouge, I can’t deny this one will be close.

Manly by 2.

Multi-Magic … My long shot bets for the punter within…

  • Eels v Dragons – Dragons by 1-12
  • Broncos v Cowboys – Cowboys to win
  • Bulldogs v Knights – Bulldogs to win with the margin (-12)
  • Panthers v Raiders – Panthers to win 13+
  • Sharks v Storm – Storm to win with the margin (-5.5)
  • Titans v Warriors – Titans to win with the margin (-9.5)
  • Rabbitohs v Roosters – Rabbits to win 13+
  • Tigers v Sea Eagles – Sea Eagles to win

That being said, the Cowboys should be strides ahead of their big brothers from Brisbane provided Thurston plays to potential. Sure, the star can be inconsistent, and Willie Mason will probably ruin much of his good work, but I still feel the Cowboys have the strength across the park to take out the local derby.