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3rd Mar 2013 12:42pm | By Michael Gadd
The off-field drama arrived like clockwork – namely the best player in the 2012 comp, Ben Barba, stepping away from the game indefinitely to combat his gambling and alcohol problems – signalling the return of the rugby league’s top competition.
A new CEO, a big money TV deal to swell the coffers, a change to the referees’ hierarchy and the return of one of the code’s most controversial figures preceded this week’s kick-off.
But the beauty of any season is that until the first hit-up, they’re all on a level pegging.
Here’s some big questions we look forward to seeing answered on the field.
Could this be the year of JT?
Johnathan Thurston (main image) is a superstar, but 2013 is shaping up as the year he goes into the stratosphere.
The North Queensland halfback is now undisputed numero uno for Queensland and Australia in the most important position on the park.
The way he handled himself when stepping in at the season launch for mate Ben Barba also showed a new level of maturity: ”I am proud to play in the toughest competition in the world, where the skills, power and courage of the players amaze fans each and every week.”
Can anyone stop the raging Storm?
The salary cap scandal was a bigger issue for everyone outside the Melbourne side, who followed the stripping of three minor premierships and having to play a season for no points, plus whopping fines and the loss of some key players, with a grand final win.
Coach Craig Bellamy said two days after the penalties were imposed that “we will fight our way back from here, and that fight starts today”.
He kept the spine of Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith together and has now committed to the club as well.
They deserved the victory over the minor premier Bulldogs last year and already have a trophy in the cabinet after beating Leeds Rhinos in the World Club Challenge.Will black sheep Barba hurt Doggies?
Beware the bitten Dogs. While it’s devastating that such a prodigious talent as Ben Barba won’t play until he gets his life in order, the siege mentality coach Des Hasler has built around his team is his element – and he has experience dealing with similar issues at Manly, where he won a premiership.
“He is not just a great rugby league coach, he has outstanding people skills and he will put Benny and his problems ahead of the football,” former Manly official Peter Peters said of the gruff coach. They’ll be there at the end.
Will the Bunnies finally live up to the hype?
The bookies think so, with the South Sydney Rabbitohs third favourites to win the title behind Bulldogs and Storm.
Greg Inglis is looking like the Incredible Hulk and already showing, if he can stay fit, that he’ll terrorise defences this year.
But it’s easy to forget that last year, when the side made it to the second last weekend, was their most successful season since 1989.
They’ve lost dynamic but inconsistent giant David Taylor to the Gold Coast, but his replacement is impressive in Ben Te’o from Brisbane.
A year under rookie of the year playmaker Adam Reynolds’s belt will also do the world of good to Michael Maguire’s men, while the absence of Russell Crowe from the dressing room may save them a distraction.
Can the Shire really challenge for the ring?
Cronulla’s line-up is impressive and it would be a surprise if they don’t follow up their first finals appearance since 2008 with another appearance at the business end of the season.
It hurt them badly when they lost Todd Carney to injury in the elimination final, but he’s back on deck behind the epic Paul Gallen.
He has some classy support from new recruits Chris Heighington, Beau Ryan and Luke Lewis as well. Coach Stuart Flanagan has every right to be confident, but results come on the field, not on paper.