One of Joseph Suaalii's first games in the NRL could be against the Roosters' bitter rivals the Rabbitohs after the grudge match was scheduled as part of a blockbuster round in the early weeks of next season - and 24 hours after the grand final rematch.
The most hyped teenager in Australian sport will need an exemption from the Australian Rugby League Commission to be allowed to debut at the age of 17, but the NRL has scheduled one of its marquee matches as part of round three.
South Sydney have finally agreed to a release for Suaalii, who was under contract with the Rabbitohs for 2021, potentially paving the way for a new chapter in the book of feuds to be written in the first few weeks of next season.
The Rabbitohs-Roosters match will be played on a Friday - the first time they've met since South Sydney humiliated the two-time defending premiers 60-8 in September - and will remarkably battle for top billing over the weekend.
It will be pitted against grand final combatants Penrith and Melbourne clashing for the first time since last month's decider. The Storm, who are almost certain to be without Cameron Smith, will travel to the foot of the mountains to begin round three.
As the NRL announced on Wednesday it would take six matches to regional NSW next season, the Herald has been told other highlights include:
- Craig Bellamy and Wayne Bennett locking horns for one of the last times when the Storm host the Rabbitohs in the season opener in Melbourne, with the first round also including Kevin Walters' Broncos against the Eels and finishing with St George Illawarra entertaining Cronulla at Kogarah in a Sunday evening fixture.
- The highest profile recruit in Gold Coast's history, David Fifita, playing his old club Brisbane in round two.
- Tyson Frizell only waiting until round four to turn out for Newcastle against the Dragons.
- the Wests Tigers and Manly being added to the Anzac Day program with an early Sunday afternoon kick-off, potentially Josh Aloiai's first time against the joint venture after a war of words erupted with Tigers officials. The Roosters and Dragons will play at the SCG at 4pm before the Storm and Warriors do battle at AAMI Park.
- Canterbury coach Trent Barrett returning to Penrith in round 12 having already poached Matt Burton (for 2022) and Jack Hetherington to Belmore.
- Kyle Flanagan's first time in a Bulldogs jumper against the Roosters, the club which cut him with a year left on his deal, being scheduled for round 17.
- new Dragons coach Anthony Griffin waiting until round 22 for a Penrith reunion when St George Illawarra host the grand finalists.
- the Warriors being scheduled to play all home matches at Auckland's Mt Smart Stadium pending a travel bubble being established between Australia and New Zealand.
The NRL will officially unveil the season draw on Thursday morning. But Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V'landys has already confirmed State of Origin will return to its traditional mid-season timeslot having consulted broadcasters. This year's series was played in November due to the pandemic.
The ratings were down on previous years, leaving the code with no other alternative but to weave the interstate series back into the middle of the NRL season.
"When I say it didn’t work, of the available TV audience we still had [a lot of] people watching State of Origin," V'landys said.
"To give you an example - and I am not being critical of rugby union - the second game of the Bledisloe Cup after the fist one was a draw, they got 500,000 people for the second game and we got 2.9 million. Even though I say it didn’t work, it was still very successful."
V'landys joined NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo, Deputy Premier John Barilaro and chair of the NSW government’s NRL regional taskforce, Dugald Saunders, to announce a flood of matches in the bush next season.
Bathurst (Panthers), Wagga Wagga (Raiders), Tamworth (Tigers), Mudgee (Sea Eagles), Coffs Harbour (Sharks) and Dubbo (Rabbitohs) will all host NRL regular season matches in 2021.
V'landys said he wanted to increase on the six games in 2022.
"I made a promise to regional NSW that we would take games back to the bush as soon as the competition returned to normality," he said. "The infection rate is now zero so we will deliver on that promise and schedule NRL games in six different towns.
"Nowhere is rugby league stronger than in our regions. This year COVID meant we were only able to take one game to regional NSW, so we will make good on that with six games next year."
Sports news, results and expert commentary delivered straight to your inbox each weekday. Sign up here.