Eels are out to slay Dragons and steal Storm's thunder

The NRL season begins today with the Parramatta Eels tipped to finish ahead of the defending champions, Melbourne Storm, and Canterbury Bulldogs.

The National Rugby League season begins today with the Parramatta Eels tipped to finish ahead of the defending champions, the Melbourne Storm, and the Canterbury Bulldogs. The Storm, who beat the Eels 23-16 in last year's NRL Grand Final, became the first Australian side to win the World Club Challenge twice when they beat Leeds Rhinos 18-10 in England last month.

The Parramatta full-back, Jarryd Hayne, who had a stunning second half to last season capped by winning the Dally M Medal as the league's best player, will face the St George Illawarra Dragons today despite a damaged sternum. "It's an injury that's going to be around for a while, and I've just got to get used to playing with it," he said. The Eels have been strengthened by the acquisitions of the centre Timana Tahu, who returns from rugby union, and the State of Origin forward Justin Poore from the Dragons.

Melbourne begin their campaign tomorrow against the Cronulla Sharks. "We know we're going to be in those first couple of rounds playing against fired-up teams ready to go out there and make a statement, so we need to prepare for that," said Craig Bellamy, the Storm coach. Bellamy also has the problem that his key players, Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Greg Inglis, had a short off-season break after they played in last year's Four Nations tournament and in the World Club Challenge.

Meanwhile the Bulldogs, the perennial title challengers, are looking to finish better this season than their disappointing fade-out to Parramatta in last year's semi-final. They play the New Queensland Cowboys tomorrow. Today's other match sees the Brisbane Broncos, led by the Australian captain Darren Lockyer, take on the North Queensland Cowboys. However, the Broncos will be without the injured Karmichael Hunt and the long-term absentee Justin Hodges.

South Sydney have high expectations that they can win their first title since 1971 after signing the English Test forward Sam Burgess and the young Brisbane forward Dave Taylor. Burgess, signed from the Bradford Bulls, goes into Sunday's derby with Sydney touted as the best English forward ever to play in Australia based on his huge potential. In Europe, there are three games in the Super League, with leaders Wigan hosting third-placed Hull with the teams level on eight points.

The visitors will once gain turn to player of the month Craig Fitzgibbon, the 32-year-old loose forward, to lead their attack. "Craig has been in super form over the opening rounds of the season and his influence on the club has made a huge impact," said the Hull coach, Richard Agar.