Rugby league commentator Andrew Voss is back with NRL.com in 2016. In his first column for the season he predicts his final ladder from 1 to 16, explains which team is under the most pressure and highlights which former NRL stars are lighting it up in the Super League.
Who wins in 2016?
Brisbane… or one of 12 others!
Yep, that's how open I believe the 2016 NRL Telstra Premiership will be. I have narrowed my list of finals contenders down to 13, and once you make the playoffs, three wins can have you in the grand final.
I have only the Wests Tigers, Knights and Titans 'certain' to win less than half their games this season.
I'm predicting the points gap between 5th and as low as 13th to be one of the smallest on record. Points differential could again be crucial, so teams have to try and minimise blowout scorelines.
It is said opinions are like backsides: we all have one. So let me bare mine as I tip this order for how the teams will finish in 2016: 1st Broncos, 2nd Storm, 3rd Cowboys, 4th Warriors, 5th Roosters, 6th Raiders, 7th Bulldogs, 8th Rabbitohs, 9th Panthers, 10th Sharks, 11th Sea Eagles, 12th Eels, 13th Dragons, 14th Tigers, 15th Knights, 16th Titans.
Which team is under most pressure?
Warriors first, daylight second.
And that pressure is on right from Round 1 for a club that hasn't won their first match of a season since 2009!
For the last five years the Warriors haven't started a season better than two wins from their first five games. Talk about missing the kick.
I have learnt over the years not to read too much into trial form, but I still don't like to see sides conceding big scores as the Warriors did in their final hit out two weeks ago against the Dragons (lost 46-10).
Put simply, the Warriors must open with a win over Wests Tigers.
With games against Brisbane (away) and Storm (home) to follow in Round 2 and 3, it would be 'blowtorch to the belly stuff' in build up if they return from Campbelltown on Saturday without the two competition points.
No team on paper excites me more on what they could deliver in 2016.
But right now that's a big "could".
How good have NRL television viewers got it this year?
We've certainly come a long way from the days when I used to try and tune my television into 5A to pick up the first half of the ABC Saturday game live in black and white.
Obviously my allegiance is with Fox Sports as a member of their commentary team, but as a footy fan first and foremost I'm loving just how many rugby league shows are scheduled for during the week as well as the greater time spent on pre and post match analysis.
Wherever you watch your NRL, it's all live.
The rights deal that we eventually reached is a huge win for rugby league fans. Both Fox Sports and Channel Nine have a duty to present the game better than it has ever been.
I encourage you to tune in this weekend and provide feedback. It's your game, and we'll be in your lounge room more than ever before.
What next in the case of Mitchell Pearce?
From the moment this episode became public I haven't been able to come up with a line of what could be an appropriate punishment. Or, and I'm happy to debate the point, if there needed to be any in terms of football missed?
No matter what the fine or match ban that is coming the way of Pearce, nothing will be greater than the self-inflicted embarrassment and 'punishment' he has put himself and his family through.
I have appreciated Mitchell's honesty in interviews he has conducted since returning from the overseas rehab clinic.
But I am also understanding of the cynicism among many as to how this has been handled since the story broke after Australia Day.
I pondered then that if only club officials saw the video of his Australia Day antics and not the public, would it have been considered appropriate to send Mitchell off to a rehab clinic in Thailand?
And now in light of his admissions on return that he is not an alcoholic, but rather an occasional binge drinker who doesn't know when to stop, in the best interests on the welfare of all players, is the course of action taken with Mitchell Pearce the new benchmark in the NRL?
I have never had any great interest in the players' private lives, nor do I care if they were to get on the drink every day.
I'm glad Mitchell is in a better space now, but what will take precedence in the future - the absolute welfare of the player, or the image of whatever club is involved and the game?
How do you tip a winner through March?
If you have the formula for success, please let me know.
It will come as no surprise to me that if by the end of March, no side will be unbeaten, and no team will be without at least one win.
I am obliged to lodge my tips early each week and when I locked in my eight selections for Round 1, I did so thinking there wasn't one match I was even close to 100 per cent confident of being correct.
Good luck to you all on the tipping front. Have the darts sharpened!
Who have been the Super League surprise packets?
For those without access to Fox Sports, you probably haven't seen much of the Super League so far this year.
But let me tell you there are some ex-NRL players really making a positive impression.
A player I've always had a lot of time for in Ben Murdoch-Masila is killing it at Salford. Ben never reached his potential with the Tigers or Panthers here. His old coach at Keebra Park High, Greg Lenton, will be thrilled with what he's achieved in the UK so far.
Others to star in the first month of the Super League include Robert Lui, also at Salford, and former Bulldogs winger Corey Thompson at Widnes who is currently the Super League's leading tryscorer.
And while the Brian Smith coached Wakefield are again doing it a bit tough, Anthony Tupou has been outstanding. A true league professional.
It's a big year folks. Let's all enjoy the ride.
In Round 1 of the NRL Telstra Premiership Andrew Voss will be calling the Eels v Broncos match on Thursday, March 3 LIVE from 8.00pm AEDT on Fox Sports 1, and the 5.30pm Wests Tigers v Warriors game on Saturday, March 5, also LIVE on Fox Sports 1.