To many fans who’ve endured a long off-season, Round 1 each year provides just as much excitement as the finals – and to some even more so.
If a week is a long time in rugby league, then a three-month hiatus is a lifetime. By the time kick-off comes around fans are champing at the bit to see their teams play. There are so many questions they want answered and so many unknowns heading in: will the big-name signing live up to all the hype? Will the break-out star from last season suffer the dreaded second-year syndrome? Is the 18-year-old gun with all the raps in under-20s going to cut it in first grade? The anticipation is almost as exciting as the revelation.
So here we are on the eve of Round 2 and what have we experienced in 2013 already? A bit of the hype, undoubtedly; a signing for a magnificently high, record-breaking figure (most would say deservedly so); a roughly written home-made Elastoplast armband (on Paul Gallen) sending a very personal and emotional message, unquestionably.
But more than this, more than the fringe issues and the sensational, what are tens of thousands of fans talking about today? You've got it – the games. What a truly sensational, fantastically stylish and earnestly fought Round 1! And what excitement lies ahead this weekend, kicking off tonight.
I have stood around many water coolers in my time and, like all good reporters, I have contacts standing around water coolers in schools, workplaces and footy clubs all over the country (okay, maybe there is a bit of poetic licence and hype in that!) and what people have talked about all this week is the play, and the results.
We all feel for the Sharks; united we wait with interest and huge hope for the next development in this complex story. But while fans of the game obviously have an interest in the unfolding of events in the Shire, they are positively salivating at the prospect of heading to 1300SMILES Stadium in steamy Townsville, or turning on the television to witness the duel between the Storm and Cowboys on Saturday evening.
What a corker that's going to be – the world champions playing like world champions, and recently re-signed champion Johnathan Thurston leading a team that looked for all the world like this year's NRL champions last Saturday night. And an interesting snippet to throw into the mix – the heat won't be a factor, given that the Storm ran onto AAMI Park last week in 35-degree heat.
Speaking of this year's NRL champions… last year's runners up, the mighty Bulldogs, have had their fair share of off-season sensation – but can we focus on nothing else this week but the drama of Barba and wishing him well? No way – this week we are single-mindedly drooling at the thought of another opportunity to witness the Lazarus-like resurrection of the Eels. We all know that even without their missing stars the Bulldogs are not going to put in two consecutive error-ridden games. We know equally well that the word 'tenacious' will barely do justice to the grip that the Eels are going to apply to that second-to-top spot on the ladder.
What a delicious prospect – no hype, no bull, just the sheer magic of hopefully 80 minutes of a superb contest and a magnificent standard of rugby league.
Rugby league can be a hard task master. For those who love and play the game at its highest level, life is lived in a public arena that can be savagely judgemental as often as it extols unqualified acclaim. For those of us who love and watch the game... predicting the highs and lows, the winners and losers, and the off-season newsmakers... can be just as thankless and problematic.
But fortunately, once the season kicks off, predictions become far easier... I predict that this time next week, once again we will still be shaking our heads at the excitement and skills shown in Round 2, with all of us looking forward to another great round of action. And whilst our thoughts will be with all players and officials experiencing off-field problems, our focus will be most definitely on the field, and not the furore.
*Erin Molan is a rugby league reporter with Channel Nine in Sydney.