NRL 2020: Who has the Easiest/Hardest Start to the Season?

The 2020 NRL season is close to kickoff.

It's the most optimistic time of year for every club as all 16 find ways to talk themselves into being a Top-8 team or potential premiers.

While the first month of an NRL season won't win a premiership, it can make or break a club's chances.

Six of the eight clubs in the Top-8 after Round 5 last season were there at the end of Round 25. 

Early-season strugglers in the Newcastle Knights and Penrith Panthers accumulated too many losses for winning streaks later in the season to overcome. 

Meanwhile, as much as "it's only Round 3" can be used to brush off poor performances with so much of the season to play, it can be the difference between September footy and Bali as it was for the Wests Tigers last year.

The opening rounds matter and some clubs have it better than others to start the 2020 season. 

Here, we take a look at the opening five rounds for each club and rank them from easiest to hardest.

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PARRAMATTA EELS

Draw: Bulldogs, @ Titans, @ Cowboys, Dragons, @ Tigers

We're going to know if the premiership hype is real for the Parramatta Eels reasonably early. 

They're a popular pick to be there on Grand Final day, and have an excellent platform to get their season off to a flier.

The Stats Insider NRL model gives Parra the easiest draw across the first five rounds of the season. Looking a little further, the only Top 8 team the Eels face in the first eight rounds is the Brisbane Broncos. Nobody needs to be reminded of what happened the last time those two teams met.

Playing the North Queensland Cowboys at the new Queensland Country Bank Stadium in Townsville looks to be the biggest threat to the Eels early on. 

Still, with a favourable draw and no significant injuries, anything worse than a 4-1 start will be disappointing.

CANBERRA RAIDERS

Draw: Titans, @ Warriors, Dragons, Sea Eagles, @ Panthers

With John Bateman missing the first quarter of the season, a new halfback joining the club and new partnerships being formed, the Canberra Raiders have a friendly draw to work things out.

Bateman is a massive loss, while Curtis Scott is also likely to miss the opening weeks. That makes George Williams' integration into a key play-making position in a new competition even more difficult. He's not been able to develop the combinations on the right side he would have liked over the summer. With Jordan Rapana and Joseph Leilua both moving on to new opportunities, Williams doesn't have the luxury of simply shovelling the ball on as he finds his feet either.

Lucky for Williams and the Raiders, they play 2019's worst left-edge defence in Round 1.

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WESTS TIGERS

Draw: @ Dragons, Knights, Bulldogs, @ Warriors, Eels

"This year and in all proceeding years, this club will not be endeavouring to make the Top 8 of the top four. We have one unified purpose and one purpose only and that is to win premierships."

New Wests Tigers chairman, Lee Hagipantelis, has put the pressure on his team already. Still trying to end the NRL's longest finals-less streak (eight seasons), the Tigers have their sights set higher than the Top 8 in 2020.

If the Tigers are to come close to achieving their goals, winning early is crucial. Winning three in a row needs to be the goal. Wests have recorded just one three-game winning streak since the middle of the 2016 season. 

Against a dodgy Dragons side before hosting the Knights and Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, Wests can put themselves inside the Top 8 from the start.

NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS

Draw: Warriors, @ Tigers, @ Sharks, Cowboys, @ Sea Eagles

Gifted four home games in the opening five rounds of the 2019 season, the Knights blew it, winning just one. They were always chasing the Top-8 from that point with a mid-season six-game winning streak not enough to get them there.

While only playing two of their first five at home this time around, the Knights have another chance to start the season strong. Adam O'Brien won't want to dig himself the hole Nathan Brown did 12 months ago. 

He's not tinkering with positions and testing things. O'Brien is a defensive-minded coach looking to send a squad out for Round 1 that is ready to perform. Relatively healthy and with most positions filled already, the first month is crucial for the Knights. 

BRISBANE BRONCOS

Draw: @ Cowboys, Rabbitohs, @ Titans, Panthers, Cowboys

The Brisbane Broncos won just one of their first six games in 2019. The pressure is on Anthony Seibold to get this impressive young group firing from Round 1.

The talent is there despite Joe Ofahangaue missing the opening weeks, and Matt Lodge out indefinitely. The draw is a friendly one too. Only leaving the State of Queensland once in the opening five rounds, the Broncos play two games in their favourite Friday night time slot, while also travelling to Cbus Super Stadium where they haven't lost since 2014.

They lacked leadership and consistency in 2019. With two derby games against the Cowboys and South Sydney Rabbitohs to open the season, we're going to learn a lot about where the Broncos are at.

Three wins in the opening five rounds should be considered the worst-case scenario for Seibold to start his second season in charge.

MELBOURNE STORM

Draw: @ Sea Eagles, @ Sharks, Panthers, Rabbitohs, Titans

The Melbourne Storm always starts the season well, banking up wins ahead of the State of Origin break. They've been given a chance to do so again in 2020 with an appealing draw.

Once getting past a tough trip to Brookvale, the Storm face a Cronulla Sharks side already battling injuries, before hosting three games at AAMI Park in Melbourne.

After losing just one game away from home in 2019 and with a 74% winning rate at AAMI Park overall, expect Melbourne to be towards the top of the ladder from the opening month.

NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS

Draw: Broncos, @ Bulldogs, Eels, Knights, Broncos

Nobody quite knows what the NQ Cowboys will be in 2020.

Their list has the big names you associate with a Top 8 spot, but scattered amongst them is unproven talent led by a coach that hasn't had much recent success when it comes to development. 

In playing the Broncos twice in five rounds, the Cowboys will be thrown straight into high-pressure situations. We're going to learn a lot about this squad and whether or not Paul Green has made the necessary adjustments to compete for a finals spot. 

If the Cowboys can't pick up two wins before the end of Round 5, they'll be in for another long season.

SYDNEY ROOSTERS

Draw: @ Panthers, Sea Eagles, @ Rabbitohs, Titans, @ Sharks

The defending premiers come into Round 1 with the added advantage of a hitout in the World Club Challenge. They might need it with just two of their first seven games played at home. The Sydney Cricket Ground is where the Roosters did most of their damage last season.

After losing their first game at the SCG in 2019, the Roosters peeled off 10 wins in a row scoring 35 points per game while conceding just 7.8 points per game.

With a new halves pairing - and no Latrell Mitchell in the centres - the Roosters may take a little while to take off. However, as we saw last season, Trent Robinson is a master of getting his team to peak at the right time. Provided they don't lose all five, we won't be reading too much into the Roosters' opening rounds.

NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS

Draw: @ Knights, Raiders, @ Sea Eagles, Tigers, @ Dragons

If any team needs to start the season well, it's the New Zealand Warriors.

They have just a 29.1% winning rate across the last nine rounds of the season since 2012. A slow start will put them in the hot seat for the wooden spoon if they're not sitting in it already.

Seeing two of their first four games at home is encouraging until you notice Round 2 against the Raiders is at Eden Park - a ground the Warriors have won only once at in seven matches.

The 2018 season started with the Warriors talked about as potential spooners only for them to win five on the bounce. They'll want at least three across the first five rounds in 2020 to put some distance between themselves and the unwanted culinary tool.

ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA DRAGONS

Draw: Tigers, Panthers, @ Raiders, @ Eels, Warriors

Another team placed in the pre-season wooden spoon drawer, the St George Dragons have back-to-back home games against 2019 bottom eight opposition to get their season underway. 

The kind opening fortnight gives the Red V a chance to iron out a few creases.

With Cameron McInnes out, and Zac Lomax expected to line up at fullback for just the second time in his first-grade career, the Dragons spine is lacking cohesion. Issac Luke brings plenty of experience in place of McInnes, but Lomax only has 20 first-grade games to his name. Meanwhile, along with Jack de Belin's continued absence, James Graham, Korbin Sims and Josh Kerr are either in doubt for Round 1 or coming in underdone.

With the Raiders and Eels on the road in Round 3 and 4, the Dragons can't afford to drop both games in the first fortnight of the season.

CANTERBURY-BANKSTOWN BULLDOGS

Draw: @ Eels, Cowboys, @ Tigers, Sharks, @ Rabbitohs

The Canterbury Bulldogs have built a reputation as spoilers towards the end of an NRL season. 

That has led to inflated expectations for Round 1 the following year. However, they've not been able to carry their form over from Round 25 in one season to Round 1 in the next:

"The Bulldogs won their last three games of the 2017 season before winning just two of their first nine in 2018. Finishing that 2018 season winning four of their last six games, 2019 also started with just two wins in their first nine games."

Against premiership hopefuls in the Parramatta Eels, a reinvigorated Cowboys squad, a Tigers outfit desperate to end their finals drought, and a Cronulla Sharks team that should be somewhat healthy by Round 4, the Bulldogs are in for a tough opening month.

CRONULLA SHARKS

Draw: @ Rabbitohs, Storm, Knights, @ Bulldogs, Roosters

The Cronulla Sharks might be the most difficult team in the NRL to pick heading into Round 1. 

If healthy, their roster is one that can finish inside the top four.

If their injury bug remains - and their 2019 form continues through to 2020 - it's not difficult to imagine the Sharks missing the Top 8, and missing it by some margin at that. 

Cronulla's Top 8 chances will look a lot clearer after Round 5.

After opening the season against Wayne Bennett and his new-look Bunnies, the Sharks host the Storm and play the defending-premier Roosters all inside the first five rounds. If they can win three of their first five while waiting for Matt Moylan and Bronson Xerri to get fit, we can talk about the NRL Finals. 

Until then, tipping the Sharks 2020 season is a lottery.

SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS

Draw: Sharks, @ Broncos, Roosters, Storm, Bulldogs

This new-look South Sydney Rabbitohs team has a nightmare schedule to start the season.

Up first, Latrell Mitchell has the boot of Shaun Johnson to deal with in his first meaningful game at fullback for the Bunnies.

In Round 2, the Wayne Bennett vs Broncos/Anthony Seibold rivalry reignites in Brisbane. 

With the 2019 premiership winners and minor premiers in the following fortnight, the Rabbitohs will be happy to split their first month while adjusting to a reshuffle of players in key positions.

Mitchell's arrival at fullback and Cameron Murray's move to the left edge could end up combining for the NRL's best attack on that side of the field, but it will take a few weeks to build the cohesion.

MANLY SEA EAGLES

Draw: Storm, @ Roosters, Warriors, @ Raiders, Knights

The Manly Sea Eagles surprised everybody to finish the 2019 season 6th on the ladder.

While touted as premiership contenders for 2020 themselves, the Sea Eagles will line up against the 2019 defending premiers, minor premiers, and beaten grand finalists all inside the first month of the season.

As was the case in 2019, injuries will play a massive part in Manly's season. Jake Trobjevic and Addin Fonua-Blake are expected to miss the early rounds. However, Tom Trbojevic is fit and ready to recapture the incredible form he managed in limited opportunities in 2020.

The Sea Eagles are a good enough side to bounce-back from a slow month. Unlike others, early losses aren't likely to make or break their finals hopes. Managing three wins across the first four rounds would propel them into the list of premiership favourites, though.

PENRITH PANTHERS

Draw: Roosters, @ Dragons, @ Storm, Broncos, Raiders

Don't let a soft six-game winning streak fool you; the Penrith Panthers were awful in 2019. They're in for a rough start in 2020, too. 

With James Maloney out of the building, Api Koroisau returning, and Dylan Edwards out injured until Round 7, the Panthers spine is a mess. Who fills the number six jersey is still up in the air, while Caleb Aekins - and his four games of first-grade experience - has been tipped to start at fullback.

As if he wasn't under enough pressure already this season, any early-season Panthers success rests on the shoulders of Nathan Cleary. He has looked better when considered the primary half while Maloney missed time last season. The 22-year-old needs to take control from the first minute of the season if the Panthers are to give themselves a shot at the Top 8.

GOLD COAST TITANS

Draw: @ Raiders, Eels, Broncos, @ Roosters, @ Storm

Bad teams tend to be at the bottom of schedule difficulty rankings because they don't have the luxury of playing themselves. The opening weeks of the season for the Gold Coast Titans is a horror-show for any team, though.

The Raiders will be up for it in Round 1 after losing in last seasons grand final, the Eels will be eager to live up to the hype, the Broncos haven't lost at Cbus Super Stadium since 2014, the Roosters are premiers - and favourites for a three-peat - and the Storm won 20 games in 2019.

The Titans then have the Sea Eagles at Lottoland after all of that.

Justin Holbrook is an excellent appointment, and the squad does look improved on last season, however, two wins in the opening six weeks would be considered a success.

VIEW STATS INSIDER'S NRL 2020 SEASON SCHEDULE DIFFICULTY

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Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

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