The NRL Round 19 teams are in, and it’s the St George-Illawarra Dragons featuring heavily again with the return of captain Gareth Widdop.
The long hot summer has started and the countdown to season 2019 is on.
Clubs have started their pre-seasons and the coaching circus has finally drawn to a close as Wayne Bennett and Anthony Seibold swap clubs a season early.
The Panthers, Rabbitohs, Broncos, Tigers and Sea Eagles all have different coaches than this time last year, and it adds a layer of intrigue going into 2019.
The off-season builds a level of anticipation amongst fans. It is a chance to reflect on the season that has passed, but to also hope for the season that is ahead. No two seasons in the NRL are the same, and before a season begins fans should be thinking, ” why not us?”, such is the unpredictability of this competition.
Here are just some of the things to look forward to in the season ahead.
There is something special about the first round. Something about putting a long summer behind you, and getting into the ride that is the season ahead.
You don’t know what is going to happen, but you are excited about it. There’s something about watching your team run out for the first time that sends a shiver up your spine.
For me the first round will be exciting in its entirety, but the main attraction is a sunny afternoon at Panthers Stadium.
A full house, a local rivalry, the noise, the sights, the atmosphere, it feels like home.
While it is never good to get carried away, a first-up win starts the season off on a high. Last year the Panthers turned around a 14 point deficit to beat the Eels.
It set the tone for their season, giving away starts but running teams down. It was a trend that would end their season too, giving up an 18 point start to the Sharks in the finals only to come back and nearly steal it at the death.
While premierships aren’t won in March, precedents certainly may be set and we shouldn’t underestimate the significance of a Round 1 result.
It has been a long time coming but Parramatta has a new stadium. The Eels will return home on Easter Monday to open their new home ground with a blockbuster match against the Tigers.
This game will surely be a sell-out as fans flock to see the new state-of-the-art stadium.
The Eels and their fans have had a rough decade, but hopefully a new home can be the catalyst for a finals tilt.
The excitement will permeate the club heading in 2019, and fans in Sydney should be excited that they get a new purpose-built stadium.
The stadium will also hold an international Nines tournament at the end of the season. It is a
new step for the game, and one that will hopefully be embraced by fans in Western Sydney.
The negative response to the announcement of a Magic round in Brisbane was a little intriguing to me.
It highlights a real perception and attitude problem amongst the game and its fans.
It may not work. But at the very least the NRL is trying to innovate. We have seen the appetite that Brisbane has for the game, and the city deserves such a fixture as a reward.
Origin, double-headers, International matches have all been well received at Suncorp.
In just about every round as it stands, we see cavernous stadiums that are mostly empty. ANZ Stadium on a Thursday night is about the least enticing form of NRL you can get.
The Magic Round is an opportunity for fans to travel interstate for a long weekend, see every game live, or as little as they like.
We saw the success of the Auckland Nines, particularly in its early years, where fans of all teams could enjoy a smorgasbord of Rugby League.
Hopefully fans embrace the concept and we see a packed stadium for a weekend full of Rugby League.
Sure there are some logistical issues to work through but it’s good to see the NRL attempting to make a big event out of an average round.
It is pretty rare that NSW go into a series as defending champions but that is the story for 2019.
After a decade or so of suffering, Brad “Freddy” Fittler managed to win a series with a game to spare, blooding a number of exciting players in doing so.
It is a real new era for both sides. The Blues are hoping that their darkest days are behind them, as the Maroons have farewelled a number of the games biggest stars in the last two series.
The talent that is coming through is exciting – Kalyn Ponga, Latrell Mitchell, Nathan Cleary, Tom Trbojevic, the list goes on.
While the Blues did win in 2018, there was a big play in each game that could have gone either way.
So often in these big games it is a moment or two that can determine the outcome of the game and indeed the series.
Queensland will be confident that they can strike back at the Blues, and they get an early opportunity to do so with Game 1 taking place in Brisbane.
Game 2 will see the game go to Perth for the first time. The series will wrap up in Sydney for Game 3.
Fans of both sides hope that Game 3 is the deciding one – the stakes are high, everything is on the line, and this is where Rugby League really shines.
Game 2 in Perth will also be a big talking point. Having a third game played outside the two “Origin” states looks like it is going to become the norm with 2020 seeing Adelaide host a fixture.
Origin is the game’s biggest event and while some fans may be irked that the game is taken away from the sides’ biggest fans it is an opportunity to expand into new markets, and make the series fairer with a match taking place on neutral turf.
The weather is starting to heat up again, the race to the finals is on. So much can change over the last month or so of the NRL season with sides vying for positions.
It is a long season and by the time September rolls around, everyone is geared up for the finals series.
No matter how often the cliche is sprouted, in the finals everything does change and the competition starts again.
The Broncos were red-hot in their final game of last season to shore up a home final. They would play the Dragons, who had looked cooked for much of the second half of the season.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon in Brisbane the Broncos were firm favourites to win it in a canter but in the end, the Dragons would get up in a big way and go through to week 2.
Again they would be outsiders against the Rabbitohs, but rallied to push the Bunnies all the way.
In the end Ben Hunt was in the spotlight once more as he failed to kick on the last tackle, and possession was surrendered to the Rabbitohs on half-way.
Adam Reynolds would slot his third field goal of the evening to send his side to the preliminary final, a moment for Hunt and the Dragons to dwell on all season.
Then there was the thriller played out between the Rabbitohs and Storm in week 1 of the finals.
One of the fastest, most open matches in a long time, which both sides had it won and lost at different stages.
In the end the Storm would steal it late, through a Cameron Munster field goal, 29-28.
A week later and the Sharks would take on the Panthers in a sudden death semi-final.
Another dramatic night saw the Panthers down 18-2 at halftime, but rally to level the scores at 20-all going into the final 10 minutes.
In a typically Penrith performance they came home with a wet sail, but Cronulla would rally, Chad Townsend slotting a field goal to put the Sharks ahead.
With time quickly elapsing, Nathan Cleary had the chance to level the scores once more with an attempt right in front, 30 metres out.
The typically cool halfback would spray it wide, the dismay on his face evident.
It is the moment Panthers fans will dwell on over the off-season. How much further could they have gone had he nailed it?
This is the best aspect of finals time. So many moments make up getting there, where you finished, and if you even made it at all.
How could you have secured a top four spot? A home final? A second chance? And so often it is a moment or two that makes or breaks your season in the end.
For the Panthers and Dragons there were opportunities missed that should have been taken, and who knows when the opportunities will come around again?
The finals series always offers up some great footy, and some big upsets, and 2019 will be no different.
The big dance. Two teams who have made it through a gruelling campaign to arrive on the biggest Sunday of the year.
In recent seasons we have seen some real fairytale finishes. The premierships of 2014, 2015 and 2016 were emotional occasions that will be replayed on highlights reels forever.
The Rabbitohs breaking their drought of 42 years to finally lift the trophy again.
The Cowboys winning their first ever premiership in their 20th season, with Jonathan Thurston kicking one of the most important field goals of all time.
In 2016 it was the Sharks, for the first time in their 50-year history, winning it in dramatic fashion as they held off the Storm in the last play of the game.
If your team isn’t lucky enough to be there, this is the next best thing. Big moments, and history being made.
Close contests and dramatic finishes.
There are some teams in the competition that are starved of success, and some who have fans waiting for their first ever premiership.
However unlikely it might seem, the pre-season is the time of year to dream.
What have I missed? What are you looking forward to most in the season ahead?