It is around this time of year where one has had enough of the flies, enough of the heat, enough of cricket (and Christmas leftovers) The appetite becomes hungry for something that hasn’t been seen since late September. Rugby League. It is close. You can smell it in the air. The anticipation of a new year, a new season, one that promises to be even better than the last one that just concluded what seems like eternity ago. So as the countdown continues to tick down towards Round 1, what will be different? What will be so exciting? What is there to look forward too? Why will be 2014 be the best year yet?
It sounds rather cliché, but there is multiple reasons as to why Season 2014 will be the best in the codes 106 year history. Coming off what was a ground breaking and in some respects, pioneering Rugby League World Cup tournament which was almost the feel good, shot in the arm the code needed, there is an element of hope and undeniable eagerness for that whistle to hurry up and sound in March.
NRL 9’s – The inaugural NRL Nine’s tournament is the first time in nine years (a coincidence?) that there has been a different format of the game played pre-season before the Premiership competition proper. The last being the World Sevens back in 2004. The Nine’s however is no stranger to the game. The Nine’s format first came to prominence in 1997 which was News Limited’s (News Corp) Super League’s take on the ARL’s World Sevens tournament. The NRL 9’s will be staged over the weekend of February 15th and 16th with a prize pool worth over $2 Million to the winner. A nice financial carrot being dangled at NRL club’s who must play 2 of their top 5 players.
Rep Weekend – Not for the supposed one off ANZAC Test match between Australia and New Zealand, but to see the City-Country fixture take Rugby League to a rural area, as the bush lives and breathes the Game. Parramatta Eels took a fixture to Mudgee last year and it was a resounding success. News that Penrith are also now taking a home game to Bathurst over the next few years is another great move. All NRL Club’s should be following suit. And let’s not forget to Pacific Island Test match between Tonga and Samoa. Both nations will be wanting to capitalize upon the international experience they gained at the Rugby League World Cup 2013.
ASADA – Because not only do Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks fans want it to end, all true blue Rugby League fans want it resolved. As we get closer to Round 1, we also hope that the whole peptide-growth hormone saga is coming to an end. There will be pain for some, but the game will bounce back as it has done, time and time again (it survived the Super League war did it not? What other sport could have done that?) and it will be stronger from going through this turbulent period.
Origin – I can hear many groaning already, but the challenge is there for both NSW and for QLD respectively. The challenge and pressure is actually no more than ever on QLD to go for a record 9th straight Origin series win in a row. And whilst many NSW and Rugby League fans in general want to see the streak end, I am one fan who loves and admires an amazing football team triumph and achieve milestone and break records. The famous St.George Dragons of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s set a world record that has never been beaten or rivaled; winning an unprecedented 11 Premierships in a row. The QLD Maroons are now etching towards such a record and I am one fan, who is wondering can they continue their amazing run of success? With the emergence of Daly Cherry-Evans, Josh Papalli and the likes of Milford, Barba, Gagai and Chambers waiting in the wings, one can’t help but think that the Maroons machine will continue to roll on.
The Premiership itself – 26 Rounds of entertaining, enterprising, athleticism and gladiatorial contests. The hope and renewed faith that teams that failed to fire or deliever on expectation will see 2014 as a chance to atone. The likes of the NZ Warriors, Penrith, St.George Illawarra, Brisbane and Nth QLD should be primed for a big year ahead. All have improved their rosters better than any of their rivals, recruiting smartly and strategically to plug holes and rectify weaknesses. Then there’s the Eels. Will Parramatta be able to climb the ladder from the cellar? It goes without saying that they will rely heavily upon Jarryd Hayne in order to do so, but with the likes of Corey Norman, Will Hopoate strengthening the backline, their young forwards a year older, and enthusiastic coach who hails from the District, they may just surprise a few critics and even their own loyal fans.
Expansion – When the ARL Commission published its strategic plan, it identitfied mid 2014 as a deadline it wanted to make a decision surrounding future expansion. With many a consortium bidding to become the next and news\est NRL franchise, the ARLC will have to think, long and hard, assess the pros and cons, the strengths and weaknesses and the opportunities that present themselves for the game to benefit and prosper from expansion. Perth and Western Australia has been knocking on the door for some years now and its case continues to grow stronger. A new upgraded nib Stadium built purposely for football, the time difference would allow broadcasting to televise a live Friday, Saturday or Sunday evening game live into the eastern states which would help raitngs in a big way. There has also been calls for another team to be added to Queensland. But where? A second team in Brisbane to destroy the Broncos monopoly? A Central QLD team which would service Macaky, Gladstone, Rockhampton, shoring up a strong national top tier presence from Townsville to the Gold Coast. Whilst I believe it will be Perth and a QLD Team, I fear that the Central Coast, Wellington Orcas will not be considered. The Warriors are the New Zealand representative in the NRL and are starting to live up to their name sake, taking home games to new areas and markets across NZ, rather than being based solely in Auckland. Whilst the Bears campaign is not as strong as its rivals. 9 teams in Sydney and another up the M1 at Newcastle does not help their cause in what is already a saturated market. Interesting times ahead as this issue will no doubt cause debate and robust discussion in pubs, clubs and grounds around the country.
Will he or won’t he? – Leave the Melbourne juggernaut and return home to Brisbane? That is the $4.2 Million dollar question plaguing Cameron Smith. Making his debut with the Victorian based NRL Club in 2002, Smith has been a one club man, a one club player and in 2014 will surpass Matt Geyer as Melbourne’s most capped player. He currently sits on 261 Games for the Storm, and is 39 games away from playing an elusive 300 NRL Games. Will the game’s best leader be achieving this record in Purple? His Melbourne teammates, coach, management and members hope that is the case. And just quietly, I think he’ll stick solid and finish his illustrious career in Melbourne.
Generation Next – 2014 will see yet another wave of amazing talent gracing ovals and stadiums around the country. Whilst we got a taste of the Burgess twins, Milford, Oats, Harris, Mylon, Nofaluma et al. The upcoming season will only see the rise on another crop of amazing footballers. The likes of Luke Brooks, Ben Hampton, Paul Vaughn, Kane Evans etc. The Rugby League production line continues to pump out some unique specimens that continue to take Rugby League forward, improving the standard and making us marvel at their brilliance, as we sit back and watch their careers unfold over the next coming decade.
Four Nations – The more rep football, the better. Rugby League must capitalise upon the momentum of the Rugby League World Cup 2013. If the tournament showed us anything, it’s that the only way the game can continue to develop and grow stronger is by exposing more nations, more players to top level Rugby League more often. The likes of Fiji, Scotland, Italy and the USA surprised many at last year’s World Cup, whilst other minnow nations showed competitive brilliance in respective games. So the opportunity to see all affiliated members of the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) playing more scheduled Test matches and tournaments in 2014 can only benefit the game Internationally. Fiji is said to be taking on Samoa for the right to be be the fourth nation in this years Four Nations Tournament. But there is also strong word that the Four Nations concept could be expanded to Six, again, exposing more nations to International Rugby League.
Season 2014. It presents us all with the air of excitment; a new challenge for clubs, players, coaches, administrators and its fans. A clean slate, a fresh start. It won’t be long before we’ll be hearing the golden commentary of Ray Warren bellowing out through our televisions, evening sport shows filled with Rugby League content, walking into grounds and participating in the banter amongst rival fans, taking in the wiff and aroma of hotdogs, enjoying customary pie and sauce. Riding the wave of emotion as our teams do battle through 26 long testing weeks of the hardest, toughest contest in world sport. This will all unfold in around 64 days, 9 hours, 41 mins 13 seconds (But who’s counting?) How good is Rugby League? The off-season serves its purpose well. It makes us long for the game we love so much. That being, “The Greatest Game of All”