Why rugby league still has so much to celebrate

If you have found yourself travelling through Atlanta, Georgia over the last couple of weeks, you may have been lucky enough to have seen the NRL's new ad campaign in the form of four billboards displayed across the city.

The new campaign is a cheeky jibe at the United States and the NFL, where the winners of the Super Bowl each year are crowned "World Champions of Football". The billboard features Boyd Cordner, Latrell Mitchell and James Tedesco and claims that the Sydney Roosters are the 'World Champions of Football'.

And why not make that claim? As far as I'm concerned, the NFL has a relatively small international presence compared to some sports, so it's quite a stretch to call their champions 'World Champions'. If they can call their champions 'World Champions', then why can't we?

The campaign has had a mixed response. Some Americans don't quite get it and still think Cooper Cronk's name is Cooper Cringle. Some have been pictured trying to get photos in front of the billboard. Some Aussies think it's a little bit lame.

I think it's awesome.

For many years I have been encouraging the NRL to back itself more; to be unapologetic about self-promotion and to take any opportunity to put our game in the limelight. Because our game deserves it both for the skill level of our athletes and how entertaining it is on the field, and also because of the exceptional work the majority of our players and teams do off the field.

You could be forgiven for thinking that after the off-season we've had, there's not much to celebrate in our game.

The alleged behaviour of some players during the off-season has been so bad that Todd Greenberg had no choice but to come out strongly this week and declare that "the game has changed, and community expectations are clear. We won't tolerate misbehaviour and the sanctions will be extremely strong, especially for violence against women".

To this end, we have already seen Ben Barba axed by the North Queensland Cowboys, with Greenberg saying he can't see a chance of him returning to the spot.

This strong stance has been applauded by fans, many of who wished for it to happen sooner, and has also been supported by the Rugby League Players Association who put out a statement earlier this week via their CEO, Ian Prendergast stating "Any conduct relating to violence against women is unacceptable, not only in rugby league, but in society as a whole".

I'm hopeful that Todd's message has gotten through to the current crop of players as well as the next generation of players coming through, and that we see a significant reduction in incidents.

Despite the challenges of this off-season, we still have so much to celebrate in our game. Off the field, we've seen two exceptional examples of the professionalism and selflessness of our players just this week.

Several high-profile players from the NRL and the NRLW including Coen Hess, Ali Brigginshaw, Dale Finucane, Isabelle Kelly and Tim Mannah have been on the road this week, with a plan to visit more than 60 regional towns across Queensland and New South Wales as part of the 'Road to Regions' tour.

The tour is all about giving communities the opportunities to meet players they wouldn't normally have the opportunity to interact with. It also gives those players the chance to meet some of their fans and also to promote positive education and wellbeing messages, including through the NRLs 'State of Mind' campaign, which was delivered to 90 grassroots rugby league clubs last year.

Heading even further north, we have also seen footage of North Queensland Cowboys players John Asiata, Scott Bolton and Antonio Winterstein assisting and rescuing local residents by boat in Townsville, following catastrophic floods which are the worst on record.

In circumstances where these players have seen many members of their communities lose everything they own, it's moving to see them continue to show care for others in what are very dangerous circumstances and give back to the community which supports them so enthusiastically during the footy season.

All this positive work off the field continues as clubs find themselves in pre-season training ahead of an NRL season which will have plenty of unknowns.

How will the Rabbitohs, Panthers, Wests Tigers and Broncos fare under their new coaches?

How will Shaun Johnson and David Klemmer fit into their new clubs?

With the addition of Angus Crichton to the team, will the Sydney Roosters become the first team in the modern era to win back-to-back premierships (and be back-to-back "World Champions of Football")?

Will Parramatta bounce back from a terrible season in 2018 and give their fans more than just a new stadium to cheer about? This Eels fan very much hopes the answer to this question is yes.

As a game, we have our challenges โ€“ just like we as a society have our challenges. But don't let these challenges detract from what many of our players are doing off the field or from the excitement that lies ahead in season 2019.