The NRL regular season can often seem an entree to the main meal of finals football, but rarely has an initial offering seemed so capable of satisfying even the most insatiable of rugby league appetites as that tabled in 2012.
From opening night in Newcastle when the Wayne Bennett era gets underway against his former club St George Illawarra, blockbusters of intrigue and sub-plots come so thick and fast they would put a list of Oscars finalists to shame.
What about a grand final re-match at Auckland’s famed Eden Park, or last year’s grand final coaches going head to head on debut with their new clubs, or the latest edition in the longest-standing rivalry of all – South Sydney v Sydney Roosters.
And that’s just the opening round.
The main protagonists from last year’s Brookvale Donnybrook – Glenn Stewart and Adam Blair – will lock horns in round two, while Tim Moltzen – who snubbed his nose at the Dragons after signing with them – is sure to get a noisy welcome when his Wests Tigers venture down to Kogarah in round three.
Then there’s the clash which shines out like a beacon above all others, when Des Hasler – accused of attempting to rip the heart out of a Manly premiership juggernaut he created as he headed to Canterbury – takes on the Sea Eagles for the first time.
There’s no denying the Sea Eagles have the date marked in their calendar.
Questioned by a journalist – who claimed not to know when the two sides would meet – about the rivalry, Manly prop Brent Kite’s eyes lit up.
“Yeah … round eight,” he responded with little hesitation.
“We have thought about, we have talked about it, had a bit of a laugh about it.”
Then the standard: “We can’t get too caught up with it because it’s just another game.”
Hasler knows his performances at the Bulldogs will be held up against his portfolio of work at Manly, but claimed he wouldn’t be on his own there.
“Every side should be comparing themselves to Manly,” Hasler said of the premiers, now guided by his former understudy Geoff Toovey.
“Manly are the benchmark. They’re the number one team out there.
“All the sides will be really working well to compete against that Manly side. They’re a very good side and they’ve earned that right.”
There’ll be little love lost when Parramatta venture to ANZ Stadium to face South Sydney, pitting former Rabbitohs halfback Chris Sandow against his former club.
While Souths fans will be hoping rookie playmaker Adam Reynolds has them chanting ‘Chris who?’ by the time the two sides meet, it’s doubtful the acrimonious split – which included Souths owner Russell Crowe tweeting details of Sandow’s new salary – will be quickly forgotten.
As much pressure as Reynolds is under, it has nothing on the man taking on the Brisbane No.6 jumper in 2012.
Replacing Darren Lockyer, one of the greatest to ever play the game, will not be easy.
Anyone doubting that need only look at Newcastle, who haven’t been a premiership force since Andrew Johns hung up his boots.
There’s a new superstar in Newcastle now, and while Bennett won’t make a tackle or set up a try, it’s an indication of his qualities that the Knights, who barely cracked a finals berth last year, are being discussed amongst the premiership favourites.
The team with the question mark are Cronulla, who took the biggest punt of any NRL side during the off-season by handing troubled star Todd Carney yet another lifeline.
At his best, Carney could return the Sharks to the glory days when Andrew Ettingshausen and David Peachey were running in tries for fun.
But the Cronulla faithful only need to look at the Carney-inspired demise of the Roosters last year to appreciate just how wrong it can all go.
While Toovey will be under the spotlight as Manly look to go back to back, there’s just as much pressure on fellow newcomers to the NRL coaching ranks Brian McClennan and Steve Price.
McClennan takes over a youthful but richly-talented Warriors side seemingly destined for a sustained period of dominance, while Price will be hoping the Dragons’ premiership window is still ajar as he follows in Bennett’s big footsteps.
Bring on the rugby league feast.