City v Country gone? Have no fear, the NRL is here. Regional fixtures in country Queensland and New South Wales steal the show in road trips to ponder for 2018.
Raise your glass to Mudgee
The first taste of rugby league on our television screens has always been the charity shield in February and even if you're not a Dragons or Rabbitohs fan, at that point you've had enough of the cricket and will watch anything and anyone with a footy in hand. The good news for country rugby league fans is the move of the annual hit-out in 2018 from ANZ Stadium to Mudgee – a ripper of a town three hours west of Sydney and known largely for its fantastic scenery and spectacular wineries. The footy action will return in May with St George Illawarra's clash against the Raiders pencilled for Sunday in Round 11 at Glen Willow Stadium. With no games in Sydney scheduled on the Saturday, it looms as the perfect weekend getaway!
When: Round 11 – St George Illawarra Dragons v Canberra Raiders
Where: Glen Willow Stadium, Mudgee
Date: Sunday, May 20.
Worldwide music sensation Ed Sheeran might be in town a week earlier to warm up Perth Stadium but the real action kicks off on March 10 at the venue. South Sydney under new coach Anthony Seibold will tackle the Warriors first-up, followed by a Bulldogs side at the start of a new era with key signings Aaron Woods and Kieran Foran taking on defending premiers Melbourne to open their campaign. The NRL's double-header scheduling gives footy fans enough time to travel across to the other side of Australia and back in the space of a weekend. But why the rush to leave? It never rains and it's always 30 degrees, making it the place to be. Check out the Bell Tower and war memorial for good measure, you won't regret it.
When: Round 1 – Rabbitohs v Warriors and Bulldogs v Storm
Where: Perth Stadium
Date: Saturday, March 10.
Beat the winter blues
Speaking of weather, the Rabbitohs' annual trip north to Cairns has been the perfect excuse to skip the cold of Sydney and the Bunnies' agreement to keep going there is only more enticing for fans to give it a go if they haven't already. South Sydney host the Cowboys on July 1 at Barlow Park for the third straight season and the players give the trip nothing but rave reviews each year. Australia's Great Barrier Reef is a bucket list experience so take the opportunity to explore it a day earlier while you're at it.
When: Round 16 – South Sydney Rabbitohs v North Queensland Cowboys
Where: Barlow Park, Cairns
Date: Saturday, July 1.
Tamworth Festivals meets NRL
The New South Wales regional city of Tamworth was the first place in Australia to use electric streetlights and they're now set to host their first ever NRL fixture at Scully Park. The Wests Tigers' agreement with the NRL to schedule two games in rural areas will see them host the Newcastle Knights in Round 7. Known for its famous country music roots, Tamworth's festivals are ranked in the top 10 globally and rugby league fans can do the double on that weekend by visiting the Taste Tamworth Festival during the day before heading to the game for the evening.
When: Round 7 – Wests Tigers v Knights
Where: Scully Park, Tamworth.
Date: Saturday, April 21.
Toowoomba to host Hayne plane and co
Queensland's rural rugby league fans can catch a glimpse of some of the biggest stars in the NRL when the Gold Coast Titans travel to Toowoomba for their clash with the St George Illawarra Dragons in Round 3. A two-hour trip from the Gold Coast and 120 kilometres west of Brisbane, Toowoomba is the second most popular inland city in Australia behind Canberra and is highly respected for its well-served cafes and restaurants. Clive Berghofer Stadium will too play host to its first ever NRL fixture.
When: Round 3 – Gold Coast Titans v St George Illawarra Dragons
Where: Clive Berghofer Stadium, Toowoomba
Date: Sunday, March 25.
Gladstone next as Titans go back-to-back
The Titans will skip the chance to play back on the coast for a third week and shift their attention to Gladstone for a clash with the Manly Sea Eagles at Marley Brown Oval in Round 5. A seven-hour drive north of the Gold Coast, cheap flights can get you to the Queensland city in an hour from Coolangatta Airport. Pack your thongs and shorts for a balmy average of 28 degrees in April with cruise ships a regular feature docking in and out of the area.
When: Round 5 – Gold Coast Titans v Manly Sea Eagles
Where: Marley Brown Oval, Gladstone
Date: Sunday, April 8.
Queen Elizabeth conquers in Christchurch
Rugby league action returns to AMI Stadium in Christchurch with the Sea Eagles moving their home game across the Tasman for the encounter – and who could blame them? They've beaten the Warriors on 12 of 15 occasions in New Zealand since 1995. The city of Christchurch has been rocked by earthquakes in the past but is in the middle of a positive rebuild with spectacular sculptures and cathedrals to explore throughout the day. Did we mention it's the Queen's birthday long weekend for you Sea Eagles fans, too? You're welcome.
When: Round 14 – Manly Sea Eagles v NZ Warriors
Where: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Date: Saturday, June 9.
Panthers back in Bathurst
If you're a Raiders fan you must feel relieved at the thought of no Bathurst fixture this year, but the good news for the locals is the Panthers can't get enough of the place. The next most exciting thing behind the Bathurst 1000 on the sporting calendar, Penrith will host Johnathan Thurston and the North Queensland Cowboys in Round 9.
A 90-minute trip from the foot of the mountains, Bathurst is a pot of gold waiting to be explored. Drive around Mount Panorama to get a feel of what it's like racing at 10 times the speed, or catch the train from Sydney's Central station earlier in the day and experience the sights along the way.
When: Round 9 – Penrith Panthers v North Queensland Cowboys
Where: Carrington Park, Bathurst
Date: Friday, May 4.
Origin returns to the MCG
We all watch on during a packed out Boxing Day Test match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and hear the crowd roar through our television screens, but nothing matches the experience of the atmosphere at the ground itself.
The famous ground will again play host to State of Origin next year with Game One kicking off on June 6. The fixture attracted over 90,000 rugby league fans in 2015 and not only does Melbourne have the famous venue at their disposal, but a pretty decent precinct to go with it. Labelled the sporting capital of the world, take a 15-minute walk from the CBD and you'll find Rod Laver Arena and the Storm's home ground AAMI Park nearby, or take a guided tour around the MCG museum in the ultimate sporting experience.
With the NSW Blues winning Game One in 2017 and dominating all but two minutes in Origin II, they will be desperate to get off to another strong start next season and head to Sydney for a chance to make amends.
When: State of Origin Game One – Queensland Maroons v NSW Blues
Where: Melbourne Cricket Ground
Date: Wednesday, June 6.
Eels meet the Cowboys in Darwin
We're heading back to Darwin for the seventh consecutive year and a fixture that is showing no signs of slowing down. Parramatta fans begged their bosses to leave work early during the 2017 season but should have no issues this time around with the Queen's birthday long weekend in Sydney scheduled in for the same weekend as the trip north.
Cowboys clashes in Darwin rank in the top two for crowd numbers at TIO Stadium so it's no surprise Paul Green's side have been pencilled in to play Parramatta for a second straight season. The Johnathan Thurston master class in the corresponding game last season is enough to encourage any league tragic to travel from far and wide.
When: Round 11 – Parramatta Eels v North Queensland Cowboys
Where: TIO Stadium Darwin
Date: Saturday, June 9.
This article first appeared on nrl.com