The NRL’s 2011 season catchcry is to “raise the roof” … for all 16 clubs it will be about raising the bar starting with tonight’s Telstra Premiership season-opening derby double.
Last year's grand finalists the Roosters will be just as desperate as their eastern suburbs rivals, the Rabbitohs, to improve on last season when they start their campaign at the Sydney Football Stadium.
Roosters captain Braith Anasta said this week when he re-signed until 2013 that it meant “everything” to him to stay at the club which he believes has a realistic goal of winning the premiership.
“I’ve been here for a while; I’ve been playing for a long time and I’m captain of the club,” Anasta said. “We have the potential to win the premiership with the squad we have.
“I’d like to do that while I’m here. I want to finish my career here too.”
The Rabbitohs finished just outside of the eight last season, but anything less than a play-off spot will be a big disappointment for South Sydney this year after bolstering their stocks again with marquee signing Greg Inglis.
Rabbitohs captain Roy Asotasi said that while the South Sydney players were as excited as the fans to have Inglis at the club, they are not expecting him to be their “saviour” - but he will be their “x factor”.
“It’s a 13-man game … we are not expecting him to get us out of trouble,” Asostasi said.
“Last year we lost a lot of tight games. Greg will give guys around him confidence in those close contests.”
In the other Friday night opener at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium, the Broncos and Cowboys have every reason to want to raise the bar on 2010. The Broncos finished 10th and missed the finals for the first time in 19 years, while the Cowboys finished second-last (just ahead of the Storm who didn’t play for points) and have not made the finals since 2007.
On Saturday, there are match-ups between defending premiers the Dragons and the Titans at the Gold Coast, 2007-08 grand finalists the Storm and the Sea Eagles in Melbourne, and the Warriors and Eels in Auckland. All three games will see teams keen to lift the bar for very different reasons.
The world champion Dragons last won a premiership as St George in 1979 and can’t afford to rest on their laurels … and nor will they. All the indications are that they only plan to wait 12 months until their next title.
Meanwhile the Titans will be keen to step it up a notch after solid third placings at the end of the past two home and away seasons, but no grand final appearance.
Melbourne's 2010 Player of the Year Ryan Hinchliffe is expecting a very physical battle with fierce rivals Manly at AAMI Park, as the Storm have everything to play for in 2011, while the Sea Eagles will be hopeful star fullback Brett Stewart will help spark a return to their 2008 premiership-winning form.
“Last year was very hard and we couldn’t wait for the end of the year,” Hinchcliffe said. “This year it’s more a feeling of excitement. We’re playing for points finally.
“It’s great to be back in the competition although that’s not something that’s been spoken about at training. We have other motivating factors.”
The clash between the Warriors and Eels at Auckland’s Eden Park features two sides with different reasons for putting 2010 behind them. The Eels had a horror season, finishing 12th after being grand finalists in 2009; while the Warriors went from 14th in 2009 to 5th - only to be dumped from the finals race in the first week.
On Sunday the Sharks and Raiders will do battle in Canberra, while the Knights and Panthers meet at Penrith … again all with good reason to improve on their 2010 efforts. The Sharks (14th) and Knights (11th) failed to make the play-offs, while injuries proved costly for the Raiders (8th) and Panthers (2nd) who were bundled out in the semi-finals.
Raiders fullback Josh Dugan showed he was a star in the making last year and captain Alan Tongue is confident his star will continue to rise, rather than be affected from the extra attention and respect he is now likely to command
“Josh, when under pressure, rises to the challenge … he has shown that in the recent All Stars game and in City-Country,” Tongue said.
“The bigger the moment, he will handle it. I’m not concerned about that. He is a fantastic player but he has good people around him who will help him become a complete player.”
Finally, Monday night’s local derby between the Bulldogs (13th) and Wests Tigers (3rd) at ANZ Stadium will provide the best platform for both sides to rise above the headlines of recent weeks and let their football take centre stage.
It will also provide the best possible test for the new Canterbury halves pairing of Trent Hodgkinson and Chris Keating up against Benji Marshall and Robert Lui.
The Bulldogs are coming off a poor year and will be more determined than ever to lift the bar in 2011, while the Tigers may lament the one that got away coming within one point and one game of playing in the grand final last season.