South Sydney and the Sydney Roosters kick off the 2014 NRL season when they meet on Thursday – in what could be a grand final rehearsal.
With the NRL this week announcing record profits of almost $50 million and claiming the game’s never been in better shape, the gloves finally come off on Thursday when the 2014 season gets underway at ANZ Stadium.
Reigning premiers the Sydney Roosters take on bitter rivals South Sydney to kick-start the new campaign.
The two sides had looked on course to meet in last year’s grand final until the Rabbitohs’ alarming collapse in the preliminary final against Manly.
Leading 14-0 after 11 minutes, Michael Maguire’s side conceded 30 unanswered points, eventually going down 30-20 – extending their premiership drought to a 43rd year.
The Roosters and Manly played out a thriller in the decider with Trent Robinson’s side coming out on top 26-18.
Sonny Bill Williams was a pivotal figure for the Roosters in 2013 and will be so once again in his final season in the NRL before a return to rugby in New Zealand.
It would take a brave man to bet against him walking away with third premiership ring to go with the one he won with Canterbury in 2004, with the Roosters looking hugely impressive in their World Club Challenge win over Wigan.
Question marks will hang over Souths and how well they can recover from last year’s meltdown against Manly and they won’t be helped by a disruptive pre-season surrounding Sam Burgess’ decision to quit the club.
Like Williams, Burgess is heading to the 15-man game with English giants Bath – with one eye on playing in next year’s Rugby World Cup.
Injuries to young five-eighth Luke Keary and halfback Adam Reynolds kept them out of the Charity Shield, but it didn’t prevent them from brushing aside St George Illawarra 38-20 last Saturday.
Former Souths great Mario Fenech believes Michael Maguire’s side will be better for the experience of the last two seasons where they have fallen at the preliminary final hurdle.
“I am from the school of thought that to win a premiership you need to lose one first,” Fenech told AAP.
“We have a smart coach and strong squad – I really believe we can go one better this year and I reckon Sammy Burgess will have a massive year and go out with a bang.”
The Roosters are aiming to become the first team since Brisbane in 1997-98 to win back to back premierships but Robinson must plot a defence without a valuable member of his backroom staff in Paul Green who’s taken over as North Queensland coach.
Green is one of three new coaches who’ll start the season with Brad Arthur taking the Parramatta job vacated by Ricky Stuart’s decision to join Canberra.
Robinson has tipped former Queensland halfback Green to succeed in Townsville and he’s already shown some promise by guiding the Cowboys to victory in the Auckland Nines – the first piece of silverware in the club’s history.
“Paul is a very smart guy and did a great job for us here with our under-20s and we’ll miss him,” Robinson told AAP.
“He has a good roster up there at the Cowboys and it’ll interesting to see how he goes.”
Former Manly assistant Arthur takes on one of the toughest jobs in Australian sport at Parramatta where the Eels are aiming to avoid becoming the first team since the Gold Coast Chargers in 1993 to claim three successive wooden spoons.
The Eels’ roster looks stronger this year with NSW star Will Hopoate joining and former Souths utility Nathan Peats an excellent addition.
However, Arthur must deal with a dysfunctional boardroom that’s often more entertaining than the football team.