North Queensland will open their NRL premiership defence next year against a Cronulla side hungry for a measure of revenge.
The blockbuster match at Townsville’s 1300 Smiles Stadium, which will serve as James Maloney’s first in Sharks colours, was revealed on Friday afternoon when the NRL released its 2016 draw.
The Sharks will be out for a modicum of revenge after being bundled out of the 2015 finals by the Cowboys on their way to their grand final win.
The 2016 competition has undergone a shake-up with the expansion of the Thursday night timeslot to 18 games.
The competition will kick off on Thursday, March 3 with this year’s runners up Brisbane taking on Parramatta, who will unveil new playmaker Kieran Foran.
While the premiers traditionally open the season, the Cowboys requested that their first game of the year be a Saturday night, due to their fanbase being spread across a wide area.
Many Cowboys fans drive more than an hour to get to Townsville and the Saturday night timeslot gives them the whole day to travel to attend games.
“Historically, we would always kick off with the premiers but we’ve listened strongly to (the Cowboys’) concerns about playing an opener on Thursday night in a regional market like theirs,” NRL head of football Todd Greenberg said.
“We’ve taken into account their feedback, we’ve listened carefully and worked with the broadcasters and happy to see them get what they needed which was a Saturday night.”
Grand final rivals Brisbane and North Queensland will also be part of a unique double-header on May 14 at Suncorp Stadium. The Cowboys will play Melbourne followed by a clash between the Broncos and Manly.
They are home games for the Sea Eagles and Storm, who both agreed to shift the fixtures to Brisbane in exchange for monetary compensation and the NRL is confident of a sellout crowd.
The Broncos and Cowboys will clash in a grand-final replay in Brisbane as part of a monster Good Friday line-up in round four.
Earlier in the day, South Sydney will take on Canterbury at ANZ Stadium in a replay of the controversial ‘Bad Friday’ clash.
The NRL has scheduled 10 Sunday afternoon games in Sydney over the first 10 weeks which it hopes will attract big crowds.
The Bulldogs will take two matches back to their traditional home of Belmore – against Canberra in round five and hosting the Cowboys in round 25.
The Broncos continue to dominate the free-to-air timeslot with eight Friday night and three Thursday night games in the first 20 rounds.
The fact the Broncos are seemingly favoured for the prime television spot has long been a bone of contention with other clubs but Greenberg was unapologetic.
“(Brisbane) will still be heavily favoured on Friday night, as you would expect,” Greenberg said.
“They’ll also be in some Thursday night slots and the reality of that is we do broadcast deals that are commercial and clearly in Brisbane they are an important part for Channel 9.
“We don’t run away from that; we don’t hide from that – that’s the reality of the situation.”