The NRL’s showcase opener in Las Vegas of the 2024 season is ambitious, but also comes with risks, a top sports pundit has warned.

The NRL kicks off this Sunday in Las Vegas, when the Manly Sea Eagles take on the South Sydney Rabbitohs at 1.30pm (AEDT).

The Super Bowl City will host two matches before the game returns to Australia, where over 27 rounds and four finals weeks, 17 teams will fight for the NRL Premiership and $1 million grand final prize.

There have been numerous changes to the league since Nathan Cleary’s efforts at the 2023 NRL Grand Final, which saw the Penrith Panthers edge the Brisbane Broncos 26-24, one of which is the showcase across the Pacific.

Channel Nine presenter James Bracey said the “ambitious” experiment will be different to Magic Round, where Brisbane plays host and every team in the competition competes at Suncorp Stadium over a weekend.

“The difference between Magic Round and Vegas is that Magic Round is set at a rugby league hub, and you can’t go wrong,” he added.

“It’s a destination footy fans come to en masse. They are probably taking aspects of Magic Round to Vegas.”

NRL in Vegas

Bracey said the NRL’s expansion into ‘Sin City,’ would be an interesting experiment.

“It’s ambitious, I admire that ambition,” he told Central News.

“I don’t think it’s doomed for failure as they’ve invested in it. I think it’s going to go on for five years; that’s what they are talking about.

“They’re taking the right teams over, and they’re going to learn a lot about how to do it properly. I know things haven’t been as good as they would like, but from a PR perspective, they are getting some coverage.”

Las Vegas will host the opening two season fixtures, the Roosters vs Broncos and Rabbitohs vs Sea Eagles, four teams Bracey said have a chance of making the top eight.

The US has always been a place in which the NRL has wanted to invest.  

In the late 1920s, Rugby League administrator Harry Sunderland tried to take the Kangaroos to California but was unsuccessful. 

The NRL has marketed itself this time round as the ‘unleashed’ and ‘blood-shedding’ sport, setting itself apart from the American NFL.

The event has sold 35,000 tickets, but whether this number reflects the travelling Australian and Kiwi contingent and expats or US locals coming to watch the games remains unknown.

There have been some concerns over the expansion, with clubs complaining of issues with training facilities, visas, funding and travel insurance for the players and management.

Movement in the League 

Over the summer, some teams experienced shifts to their rosters and administration, and Bracey said he thinks it could create a more significant gap between teams this season.

“I’ve got a feeling there is a bit of a gap growing between the best and the rest,” he added. “The top four are set, and then the next couple of teams are a chunk down within range.

“There’s going to be a few teams that drop off quickly.”

He also shared his top eight predictions.

“First the Broncos, [then] Roosters, Storm, Panthers, Manly, Warriors, Sharks and then either Knights and Souths [in eighth place],” he said.

There’s also been gossip over the summer about where Wayne Bennett will go after he departs the Dolphins at the end of the season.

Whether the seven-time premiership-winning coach would move to the Eels to be their football director or coach the New Zealand national team is in question. 

Bracey, however, was sceptical that he would make the move away from Queensland.

“Money talks with Wayne,” he said. “I think he’s going to have better offers, and I know he’s keen to stay up north.”

In nine years, Bennett has moved around the NRL sphere, jumping from coaching the England National Team, Rabbitohs, Broncos and Dolphins. 

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This summer, Stephen Crichton departed his two-time premiership-winning club, the Panthers, staging a move to the Bulldogs for $3.3 million, while Roger Tuivasa-Sheck returned to the NRL to join the Warriors with Shaun Johnson.

“The loss of Stephen Crichton [for the Panthers] is enormous, and it’s a massive gain for the Bulldogs, and to have him as captain says a lot about how they feel about him,” said Bracey

“The Warriors with RTS (Roger Tuviska Sheck) back. They could do anything. Shaun Johnson played out of his skin last season. [The Warriors are] definitely a top-four threat. They need to make sure that last year it wasn’t wasted, so they should give it a red hot crack.” 

Herbie Farnworth, Luke Brooks and Jack Wighton have also changed colours this season, and the Tigers announced that Blues star Jarome Luai will come to the club in 2025. 

Fans can watch the NRL season on Channel 9, Kayo Sports and Fox Sports.

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