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Can't wait until kick-off for the 2012 NRL season? Here are the rivalries, new faces and big games to get ready for this year.

1. JT at No.6

It’s been eight years since anyone other than Darren Lockyer filled the No.6 jersey for Queensland and Australia – but that’s about to change following Locky’s retirement. Cowboys captain Johnathan Thurston has called ‘dibs’ on the coveted representative five-eighth role and is set to join the likes of Lockyer and Wally Lewis as superstars in the No.6, kicking things off at pivot for the Indigenous All Stars in February. There’s the likelihood Thurston will shift one player out for the Cowboys too, adding a new dimension to the North Queensland attack. Meanwhile they’re queuing up for the now-vacant Maroons’ No.7, with Cooper Cronk, Daly Cherry-Evans and Chris Sandow the frontrunners. We’ll tip new Kangaroo Cherry-Evans to make the jersey his own.  

2. More Wayne Bennett magic

Six premierships for the Broncos and one for the Dragons in just his second of three seasons… now it’s Newcastle’s turn to shine under the polish of modern era super coach Wayne Bennett. The Knights have experienced lean times for most of the past decade, making the top eight just twice since 2003. But now Bennett’s on board there’s a hum around the Hunter region. Better still, he’s taken a Dragons linchpin with him in 2010 Dally M Fullback of the Year Darius Boyd, as well as Adam Cuthbertson, and will reunite with former charge Neville Costigan. Look for a heap of pressure to come off the shoulders of club mainstay Kurt Gidley, with a boom season on the cards for the hard-working playmaker.

3. James Graham at the ’Dogs

For more than 40 years Australian rugby league has enjoyed a love/hate relationship with Brits who’ve ventured to our shores, from Tommy Bishop to Malcolm Reilly, Ellery Hanley and Adrian Morley. But the fact remains the ones who head to the NRL are the best of their bunch – look at Gareth Ellis and Gareth Widdop, current stars for the Wests Tigers and Storm. This year pugnacious Pommie prop and captain James Graham adds to the English mix when he heads to Belmore. The 2008 Man of Steel recipient will add a stiff upper lip to the ’Dogs, for sure.  

4. Manly v Bulldogs, Round 8

Forget the rematch of last year’s infamous ‘Battle of Brookvale’ between feuding Manly and Melbourne – that’ll have nothing on the Sea Eagles’ road trip to take on the Bulldogs on the Anzac Day weekend. Coach Des Hasler was on top of the nest when the Sea Eagles won their second premiership in four years last October; just weeks later he was sacked by the Manly board and on his way to his new home at Belmore. For a while there Dessie looked bigger than the game itself, with speculation of a mass player and staff exodus. That is, before the defiant Manly players pledged allegiance to the maroon and white. If you can’t make it to this game in person we guarantee you’ll be feeling the crunches watching on TV.

5. Dragons v Wests Tigers, Round 3

Who’d want to be in Tim Moltzen’s boots when the Tigers take on the Dragons away from home on the weekend of March 16-19? With Darius Boyd off to Newcastle in 2012, St George Illawarra recruited Moltzen to plug his departure midway through last season. But Moltzen got cold feet and reneged on the deal at the 11th hour, unraveling a good deal of the St George Illawarra team roster preparations for next season. If Moltzen ends up at halfback as expected, he won’t want to run at the Dragons’ big defenders too often.

6. State of Origin

A record six series victories on the trot for Queensland – but can the Maroons keep their dominant streak going without the guiding hand of Darren Lockyer? Or will coach Ricky Stuart’s passion help the Blues stop the rot? You can bet 2012 will be a series for the ages.

7. The Warriors

After years of false starts they finally displayed just what they are capable of in 2011 – and having gone oh so close to a maiden premiership expect the Warriors to keep their foot on the accelerator in 2012. The Kiwi-based boys showed dazzling flair and outstanding commitment to rocket from seventh place to an unlikely grand final berth. Their entertaining brand of football – punishing forward forays backed up by solo brilliance and hot-potato passing – quickly established them as every NRL fan’s ‘second’ team. Whereas other recent grand finalists Parramatta and the Roosters fell apart the year after making the decider, the Warriors appear determined to become a consistent top-eight force.     

8. Stars we missed in 2011…

Injuries sapped the NRL of several key personnel in 2011, with fans at some teams in particular looking forward to getting their strike weapons and favourites back. Here’s a snapshot of some of the individuals who missed huge chunks (some of them all) of 2011 who will be fit and raring to go in 2012: Michael Ennis, Nathan Friend, Michael Gordon, Roy Asotasi, Terry Campese, Mitch Aubusson, Sam Burgess, David Williams, Antonio Winterstein, Joel Reddy, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Martin Kennedy, Anthony Cherrington, Kevin Gordon, Jerome Ropati, Zeb Taia and Wes Naiqama. (And fingers crossed for a shorter list next year.)

9. Players’ musical chairs

If you’re a fan of a side that lost a major player, no question you’re hurting. But if you’re a fan of the side that managed to pick up that player – happy days! Petero Civoniceva from Penrith to the Broncos… Darius Boyd and Adam Cuthbertson from the Dragons to the Knights… Jamal Idris from the Bulldogs to the Titans… Chris Sandow from the Rabbitohs to the Eels… Bryce Gibbs and Andrew Fifita from the Wests Tigers to the Sharks… Todd Carney from oblivion to the Sharks… Kade Snowden from the Sharks to the Knights… Luke Douglas from the Sharks to the Titans… Jason Ryles from the Roosters to the Storm… Adam Blair from the Storm to the Wests Tigers… Nathan Friend from the Titans to the Warriors… Willie Tonga from the Cowboys to the Eels… these are just some of big swaps. And there are coaching movements as well, with Ivan Cleary upping house from Auckland to Penrith, opening the door for Brian McClennan at the Warriors, as well as Des Hasler’s shift to Belmore, with Geoff Toovey installed as the main man at the premier Sea Eagles. Plus ex-Storm assistant coach Michael Maguire succeeds John Lang at the Rabbitohs after a successful stint in the English Super League.

10. Emerging stars

In 2011 it was rookies Daly Cherry-Evans, Shaun Johnson, Tariq Sims and Jack Reed who set the NRL alight. Who will make the step up in 2012? (Look out for our detailed look at the NRL’s next breed in future weeks.)