As season 2018 disappears further into the rearview it’s time to look ahead.
The 2018 season opener has to be one of the most exciting in recent memory.
In the first two weeks alone, we’ve seen many of the dominant narratives around rugby league in Australia shattered in the most surprising ways.
The Knights have won two games in a row.
The Storm have lost their first home game and Billy Slater’s 300th game.
Luke Brooks has won more games than James Tedesco, Mitchell Moses and Aaron Woods combined.
The Raiders have lost two games 28-30 to teams they would have coasted over last year.
And Jarryd Hayne hasn’t been able to prevent the Eels from their biggest historic loss to Manly.
Everyone always expects the first week of rugby league to be a bit of a wild card.
No doubt, too, that the last round saw things return to normality on Friday night, with the Roosters coming away with an expected win over the Dogs and the Broncos dealing with their demons after Round 1 by winning the first Queensland Derby of the year.
Yet that just made the rest of the weekend all the more surprising.
It may be that we’re looking at a genuine watershed year in rugby league – the kind of year when the balance of power shifts and sets a new blueprint in place for the next five or ten years.
To some extent, that’s not surprising, given the enormous number of major player movements – even for the NRL – that took place last year and in the offseason.
Still, I, for one didn’t expect Mitchell Pearce to fire up so quickly at the nights, or for Ivan Cleary’s defensive game plan to reap rewards so rapidly.
The year is all the more intriguing in that there are a number of big questions still open.
How will the Tigers look when Josh Reynolds gets back on the field – and where will he play?
Will Jarryd Hayne eventually settle on centre or fullback, or continue to move between the two? Will he be as much of a nonentity at Parra as he ultimately was at Gold Coast?
Will Kieran Foran be able to make a genuine impact at the Bulldogs? Can he possibly fill Reynolds’ place in terms of team spirit and community building?
The season is all the more intriguing in that there’s still a lot of big clashes we haven’t seen yet – Pearce against the Chooks, Ponga against the Cowboys, Cronk against the Storm, Maloney and Moylan against their previous clubs.
On top of that, 2018 feels like the year when a lot of middle and long-term gestation could start to pay dividends.
Several commentators have held that Nathan Brown has put in one of the best coaching jobs of the last couple of years, building a foundation for Newcastle’s future that might start to reap the rewards in 2018.
Similarly, the addition of Maloney might be the spark that Penrith need to cement Anthony Griffin’s integration of his younger players – Cleary in particular – with his veterans.
And the changing of the guard that Bellamy has been preparing for at Melbourne may get a kick start with Cronk’s untimely departure for the Tricolors.
Even Ivan Cleary’s new team and game plan feels like a long-term effort, so laboriously and tediously did the tail end of last season drag out for Tigers supporters.
In that kind of footy environment, even a win from a major team is going to feel fresh, just because even the top contenders have changed in their relation to the whole.
A Storm premiership feels fundamentally different without Cronk; a Roosters premiership feels fundamentally different with Cronk.
Similarly, teams can latch onto that atmosphere and make the most of it. With so much else changing in 2018, I wouldn’t be surprised if RTS, Johnson and Luke make more of their combination than ever before.
Nor would I be surprised if the Titans bounce back with energy after the relief of dropping Hayne, no matter what their result last week might suggest.
All in all, then, a great year for footy – and one of those exciting years where everything is up for grabs and anything goes.
What do you think is the most unexpected or unpredictable aspect of the 2018 season?