Queensland's quest for a ninth Origin Series victory will be a major focus in the middle of season 2014.
N is for... Nines Alive
What at first appeared to be something of a gimmick that coaches worried would disrupt their pre-season has now developed significant momentum with both players and fans expressing their excitement at what the Dick Smith NRL Auckland Nines will bring. To be played over the weekend of February 15-16, organisers have already sold 36,000 tickets and are on course to have a 44,000 sell-out at Eden Park for both days of the tournament. Players big and small have expressed their enthusiasm for the concept and the make-up of each of the 16 squads will be of great interest as we count down to kick-off. No-one is really sure what to expect from games of nine-minute halves, which is why the anticipation will only continue to build.
O is for... Origin Overload?
It's become the most difficult juggling act in the game: How do you continue to build on the phenomenon that is State of Origin without sacrificing the quality of weekly NRL fixtures? If you shorten the period between Origin matches will the spectacle suffer due to player fatigue? Do you shift Origin to Monday night – as Queensland skipper Cameron Smith suggested earlier this year – to help increase recovery times? How do you maintain fans' interest in the NRL when all anyone wants to talk about is how much they hate New South Wales/Queensland? NRL head of football Todd Greenberg hinted that the Origin schedule may be tightened up but concerns over player welfare meant that the Series will again be played over a eight-week period in 2014 (with six weeks between Game One and Game Three).
P is for... Papua New Guinea
The only country on the planet whose national sport is rugby league now has a team in an elite Australian competition, and the ramifications are likely to be widespread. The Queensland Rugby League's admission of a team from PNG into the Intrust Super Cup in 2014 has the potential to revitalise the Kumuls as an international force and bring an exciting new flavour to the premier competition in Queensland. Eleven members of the recent World Cup team were in line to join the PNG squad and they're home base in Kokopo will likely be a daunting proposition for visiting teams to the rugby league-mad nation. QRL officials are confident they will be competitive from the outset and if they can do the unthinkable and win the Intrust Super Cup at their first attempt, they will take on the NSW Cup champions on NRL Grand Final day. This is a critical first step in PNG once again becoming relevant on the international stage.
Q is for... Queensland's Quest
A decade of dominance: It's the grim reality facing New South Wales Origin players and fans if Queensland's undeniable run of success continues in 2014. In the history of State of Origin no team had ever won more than three Series in a row before this current menace of Maroons won the 2006 Series and have refused to lose one since and if they extend the streak then the number '10' will loom large on a blue horizon. Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston were at the peak of their powers at the World Cup and with the continued development of Josh Papalii, Daly Cherry-Evans and Will Chambers, Mal Meninga's succession plan appears to be on a steady course.
R is for... Ricky and the Raiders
Players who have been part of the furniture in the nation's capital have spoken of the new vibe emanating out of the newly renamed GIO Stadium but unless the wins start adding up early pressure will mount on the new coach. The resolution of the Anthony Milford saga is a major boost to not only their finals chances but also morale and a Terry Campese with a full pre-season under his belt will be a welcome sight. In addition to Stuart, there's a new high performance director, new video facilities and refurbished gym but a playing roster that remains largely unchanged from the side that finished the 2013 season in 13th position. Many are suggesting that following his controversial exit from Parramatta that this is Stuart's final shot at proving he is a coach of the highest order and reuniting the playing group after a disastrous year of off-field dramas will be the key that puts the 'Green Machine' into top gear.
S is for... SBW Farewell Tour
It probably won't quite match the hype of the lead-up to Darren Lockyer's final game but, barring a major back-flip from the walking sporting headline, there will be an influx of farewells for the code-hopping king. Especially if the defending premiers get anywhere near achieving elusive back-to-back premierships; if that's the case then SBW will be the ultimate drawcard for any venue hosting the exit circus.
T is for... Trial Form
Considering the multitude of World Cup representatives who might not have returned until December, the threadbare squads that began in November, and then the $2 million carrot on offer in Auckland in February, it will have been quite the chaotic summer for all 16 NRL head coaches. Perhaps now more than ever how each one balances the workload of their roster against the need to get some playing time and cohesion on the field during the trials will be key to success in 2014.
U is for... Under-Age Competition
Could 2014 be the last year that the under-20s serve as the main curtain-raiser? Will reserve grade reclaim its place as the number two competition in rugby league? Which should have more weighting to it? The questions continue, with debate sure to figure in 2014 with a number of NSW Cup matches to be played prior to the main game next season.
V is for... Venues
At least 27 cities will host top level rugby league next season, including games in Perth, Hobart, Darwin, Cairns, Wellington (NZ) and Waikato (NZ). Add the in-demand Sunday afternoon games at Leichhardt, the romance of the Sydney Cricket Ground and the annual Country versus City game in Dubbo and the language of rugby league has never spread so far. At the very least, it makes for one hell of a road trip for the diehards.
W is for... World Game
We've just had arguably the best, most successful and most competitive World Cup ever but when it came down to it there were only three teams that were a chance of winning – and two of those were well behind the victor. With PNG joining the Intrust Super Cup, USA emerging, potentially more games for the likes of Samoa, Tonga and Fiji – will we see rugby league truly become an international game in 2014 and beyond?
X is for... X-Factor
The usual suspects like Jarryd Hayne, Todd Carney, Johnathan Thurston and Greg Inglis are sure to set alight their teams in 2014. But a new wave of magic men including Ben Barba, Anthony Milford, Sam Tomkins and Albert Kelly have emerged as other players who can win games off their own bat. The NRL has always been spoilt for jaw-dropping talent; season 2014 won't be any different.
Y is for... Yow Yeh
Will he, or won't he? It's heartbreaking that given all of supremely talented Jharal Yow Yeh's achievements early on in his career, our most recent memory is sickening vision of him lying on the Suncorp turf. His return to park footy last April didn't get far and with his NRL absence almost hitting a two-year mark, the jury is still out on whether the former Kangaroo can return for the Broncos. The latest reports have him moving well during the pre-season, but coach Anthony Griffin is still using the words 'hope' instead of 'expect'.
Z is for... Zero Tolerance
No-nonsense CEO Dave Smith set the bar high during last year's Origin fighting fiasco. Then he took out his marker and drew the line after Blake Ferguson and Russell Packer's off-field indiscretions. Not to mention the strong hand in dealing with Cronulla's governance issues. The game will never be without its challenges but by the same token, under Smith its course has rarely been clearer.