The NRL will stage a record number of double headers and regional matches in 2018 as well as more Sunday blockbusters in a new look season schedule.
There will also be a stand-alone weekend for State of Origin II, while no club will have more than three five-day turnarounds as part of a drive to protect player welfare.
The premiership will open with a clash between St George Illawarra and Brisbane Broncos at UOW Jubilee Stadium on Thursday, March 8.
Round one will also feature a Sunday afternoon clash between Penrith Panthers and Parramatta Eels at Panthers Stadium. There will be 28 Sunday matches in Sydney - in 22 of the 25 rounds.
NRL CEO Todd Greenberg announced the 2018 season would feature:
- Four doubleheaders – Perth Stadium, Sydney’s ANZ Stadium, Auckland’s Mt Smart Stadium and Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium;
- Five matches in regional NSW (Bathurst, Tamworth, Mudgee and two in Gosford), and three in regional Queensland (Gladstone, Cairns and Toowoomba);
- A more even distribution of free to air matches on Channel Nine. Eleven teams will play in at least 10 matches on free-to-air TV next year – compared with only five teams in 2017;
- A stand-alone weekend for a Sunday night State of Origin II, which means only two rounds will be directly affected by State of Origin;
- The introduction of a Thursday night game in the Easter Round (North Queensland Cowboys against Penrith Panthers). This means games will be played on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday over the Easter break;
- Some of the game’s greats rivalries being played out twice during the season, including: Broncos v Cowboys, Bulldogs v Eels, Rabbitohs v Roosters, Dragons v Sharks and Panthers v Eels;
- Games staged in every mainland Australia capital as well as both the north and south Islands of New Zealand.
Greenberg said the NRL had worked with the broadcasters to ensure a new-look draw aimed at benefitting fans, clubs and players.
“We have more control of the schedule for 2018 and we believe we have been able to deliver some wins for the everyone, but particularly the fans,” he said.
“There are more blockbusters in family-friendly timeslots.
“We have introduced a Thursday night match before Good Friday because that’s what our supporters told us they want.
“And there will be at least one Sydney match for fans to attend nearly every Sunday during the season.
“We have also worked with the clubs to ensure that their requested priority match-ups were delivered.
“Additionally, for the first time the NRL will stage four double headers in one season – across two countries, as well as matches in seven different locations across regional NSW and Queensland.
“Having more control of the draw has allowed us to not only release the schedule earlier, but it has also allowed us to analyse the structure of the draw in greater detail.
“It has also allowed more equity in the broadcast of all 16 teams.
“I’d like to thank both the broadcasters and the Clubs for ensuring the process has resulted in a great draw for all our key stakeholders.”
Greenberg also said there would be a reduction in five-day turnarounds, while no club would have more than three five-day turnarounds.
“Two years ago there were 43 five-day turnarounds … next year that will drop to 24,” he said.
“We would like to thank the RLPA for working closely with us during this process.”
All 25 rounds were announced today at ANZ Stadium, allowing supporters the chance to plan the entire season in advance.
The finals will begin on September 7 and culminate in the grand final on September 30.