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How good is it to have the footy back! It’s been a long off-season and it was great to see so many strong performances in the opening round, but in my opinion none was more enjoyable to watch than my old club Penrith’s first-up win over Canberra.

I have to say I was surprised to see a few so-called ‘experts’ tip the Panthers to get the wooden spoon this year. I don’t think that will be the case at all! I actually think they’ve got quite a strong squad  with a number of new guys arriving that I think will be a real bonus to have in a Penrith jersey. Sika Manu in particular caused so much damage for the Melbourne Storm on the edges of the ruck, and he again showed his value last week. 

I understand the disappointment felt by the fans to see guys like Luke Lewis, Michael Gordon and Michael Jennings move on – and no doubt it would have been quite a shock and very demoralising – but I understand what it is that Ivan Cleary is trying to do there.

He wanted to start with a clean slate and is looking at the bigger picture in terms of what lies ahead of the next few years. Sometimes you need that clean slate so that your plan can develop. They have an opportunity to do that now, with Tim Grant and Sam McKendry up front and some other great core players. The job now is to try to attract some real top-quality players to the club – and all of a sudden you’ve got a great team! 

But I have no doubt that even with the guys they have now they’ll develop into a very good team in the years to come. All those new guys they’ve been able to attract to the club I think will really help them build towards where they want to go and already I can see a great balance there. They’ve got a quality pack; and having a guy like James Segeyaro working in tandem with Kevin Kingston will cause a lot of trouble for a lot of teams.

Having said that, three sides really stood out to me in Round 1.

Melbourne hasn’t changed at all as the best side in the competition in my opinion, following that demolition job they did on St George Illawarra. They weren’t at their best but they just showed in their execution that their big three of Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater still have a huge role to play, so nothing has changed since last year.

North Queensland looked ominous as well. The sheer power of their forward pack and Johnathan Thurston playing at his very best showed to me that they are going to be in real contention come late September. They’ve had a strong squad for a few years now but they’ve also had a number of young players coming through in that time – guys like Tariq Sims that have been learning their trade – but who I think will really contribute this year. No doubt they would have been hurt by their exit from the competition last year and I think they now have the size and skill to go all the way.

And South Sydney is going to be very hard to beat. Led by the Burgess brothers up front and with Adam Reynolds at halfback, who has really taken to that No.7 role, they’ve really developed into a quality side. Their backs are getting plenty of room to work with and the fact that it brings Greg Inglis into the game is something that will take them a long way in 2013.

Like most fans, I was thrilled to see Sonny Bill Williams back playing rugby league last week but after all the hype surrounding his return I think everyone needs to ease up and give him the time he needs to get used to our great game once more.

I think it will take a good month for him to adjust to the speed and the contact in rugby league in 2013. In fact, I think the speed the game is played at now probably surprised him in his first game back and that will take some adjustment. Likewise the physicality of our game and how that has changed since he last played. 

I think he found that out the hard way, with what big Sam Burgess did to him! It will take some time but we have to allow him that. No doubt there was a tremendous amount of pressure on his shoulders after a number of years away but as time goes by, things will ease up. Once he gets his head around that and has mastered the game again he will definitely start to impose himself on games and again be one of the outstanding players in our code.

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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