The Footy Show's Erin Molan gives her take on the week to come in a new weekly column on NRL.com.
Channel Nine's Pete Overton diverted from his word perfectly polished and articulate delivery of a 6pm news bulletin this week to say to the equally eloquent Ken Sutcliffe at the conclusion of the sports report: "The NRL… I can't wait Kenny!"
Pete's not alone. I can't remember a season's opening where the excitement has been quite so palpable, where the frenzied contemplations and predictions of the commentators are matched in droves by the enthusiastic anticipation of the fans, and where the contests hold such spectacular promise.
On Thursday night at ANZ Stadium we witnessed a season-opening clash featuring two foundation clubs, a celebrated traditional rivalry, skilled playmakers, passionate supporters and two great legends of our game playing their last seasons in the NRL. We shall undoubtedly miss Sam Burgess and Sonny Bill Williams, but let's celebrate and support their performances this year, acknowledging the magnitude of their influence, mentoring and commitment to their respective clubs, junior rugby league and our wider league community.
Friday night's fixture between the Broncos and Bulldogs, also at ANZ, is no less exciting. Edgy Broncos fans will be clinging to the promise of their appearance in the Auckland Nines final, and the reputation of their new signings Ben Barba and Martin Kennedy. These illustrious reputations aren't likely to save both players from the sentiments of a hostile crowd, which should provide the Bulldogs – still carrying significant injuries – with a well-needed home ground advantage. Des Hasler is right not to get too caught up in the war of words, and also right to have confidence that his crucial picks of Sam Perrett in the No.1 guernsey and Josh Reynolds as Home Ground Ambassador will see both players enhancing pretty impressive reputations of their own as the season progresses.
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The passionate Panthers fans only have to wait until Saturday to get their first footy fix for 2014, heading to Sportingbet Stadium to see how the equally patchy Knights are faring. Given that the Penrith faithful could just about hear the snapping of Jarrod Mullen's hamstring in Auckland, they will be a little more confident about the outcome of this opener than they otherwise might have been, though they are smart enough to realise, of course, that there is no better master of the wily move in league than Wayne Bennett, so watch this space.
Tantalising also is the Sea Eagles vs Storm clash at Brookvale Oval on Saturday night. Whilst both 'glamour' teams are missing key playmakers, both will also be desperate to kick off their season with a win over an opponent they traditionally regard with especially wary caution. Ricky Stuart's Raiders will be feeling more than wary caution as they head to Townsville to face the Cowboys at 1300 Smiles Stadium on Saturday night. Nor will they consider the prospect of penetrating the North Queenslanders' defence as tantalising….buoyed by their Nines win and stunning summer results, the Cowboys at home are likely to be planning, and would be favoured to deliver, a baptism of fire for the new Raiders coach.
Back at ANZ Stadium on Sunday afternoon the Dragons and Tigers will play out a gritty encounter, with both sides drawing on lacklustre form in the preseason, and both missing 'indispensable' contributors. The Tigers will surely consider they've had a win if they come off the ground with no additional injury worries. Pirtek Stadium Parramatta will host the Eels up against the Warriors on Sunday evening. This season it's optimism that is a bit more palpable at Parramatta, and I'm sure it's not just the Parra tragics who are willing the Eels to dodge the bullet of their third consecutive wooden spoon.
On Monday night at Remondis Stadium in Woolooware the Sharks will meet the Titans. Neither side has shown convincing form during the preseason, and both have significant off field distractions. Supporters of both teams will be confident that they have players who can overcome those obstacles to emerge victorious in this encounter, and who can successfully shift the focus of their 2014 campaigns to on-field performance. Let's hope that optimism is well founded.
This year, the NRL assures us, it's all about us, the fans. We're happy to be acknowledged as important, delighted to take the free trains to ANZ Stadium and proud to be promoting strong community values. But we're also mighty grateful that March is here, and footy is back - our clubs, our heroes, our game – bring it on.
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