After another dramatic off-season, the NRL season kick-off is just days away.
It's a summer which has seen the game rocked by the Australian Crime Commission report into corruption, match-fixing and performance-enhancing drugs.
Then came the sad story of Ben Barba's off-field struggles after an amazing year where he captured the Dally M Medal and led the Bulldogs to the NRL grand final.
While he takes time off and we wish him all the best as he gets his life and career back on track, the season will start, much to the relief of the general league-loving public.
Wollongong fans will be treated to their first home game in just 13 days, when St George Illawarra host Brisbane at WIN Stadium. So many questions now arise. Can the Bulldogs go one better if Barba does not return this season? Will Melbourne be able to defend their crown now they've put the salary cap scandals behind them? How far-reaching will the impact of the corruption and use of illegal substances in the game be? The Dragons have been written off, can they make the finals?
Mercury league writers TIM BARROW and ADAM PENGILLY preview the action.
Barrow: What's doing? How much are you looking forward to the season finally kicking off? It's just the tonic as the NRL deals with yet more explosive issues.
Pengilly: Bazman! I'm peptied (is that even a word?) up to the eyeballs and can't wait for 2013 to get started ... provided I can sneak away from those alluring machines which promise a mountain of money yet rarely deliver. I'm feeling for poor Benny - that's Benny, not Benji - Barba. Can Dessie shake off second-year syndrome at Belmore?
Barrow: Look at Dessie's record at Manly. They were there when it counted every year and I think the Bulldogs are still top four material, especially with their endless supply of damaging forwards. I reckon they need Barba back to win the premiership though. Still, all credit to the Bulldogs for the way they've handled the situation, it's a lesson other clubs should take heed of. What about your Dragons? They've got less backers this year than a Clydesdale in a match race with Black Caviar.
Pengilly: You mean the ones they use in those Carlton Draught ads? The Dragons' first-half effort in the Charity Shield had me scrambling for the fine amber ale, I must admit. If they can sneak into a finals spot it will be Mission: Accomplished in 2013. I'm looking forward to seeing the progression from the likes of King, Stockwell, Drinkwater and co this year under Steve Price. Did you mention beer?
Barrow: Why, are you shouting? It's a tough start for Price this year, given they have a trip to Melbourne first up and the Canberra hoodoo to face early on. The Dragons say they are exploring their options, but Price's fate might be sealed by the annual Anzac Day clash with the Roosters if the team don't aim up early on. It seems he's leaning towards the experience of Fien ahead of young talent like Drinkwater. Did you notice I've got them sneaking into the top eight this year by the way?
Pengilly: You would back the clydesdale against Cav! Having said that, they're a sneaky chance of making the finals, but Price's fate - whether staying or going - will be long sealed by then. I wonder whether we'll hear anything from the ACC or ASADA or the NRL or any other organisation with a fancy acronym about the drugs/match-fixing scandal by the time Price's future has been announced. I still think there might be a few players out there sweating more than Stephen Dank in a 7.30 Report interview.
Barrow: Yeah, this report is going to hover over the game until the proof emerges about the scope of it all. Either the NRL - and to some extent other football codes - have some major issues in relation to match and spot fixing, as well as access to substances which enhance their recovery and performance, or the federal government and ACC has delivered the greatest scare-mongering exercise in the history of Australian sport. Either way, there are a lot of questions still to be answered and the punters out there have the right to know. Speaking of hard-hitting questions, who you tipping for premiers and wooden spooners?
Pengilly: Call me boring, but I think the Storm can go back-to-back and be the first team to do so in two decades. Think the Warriors might be value for the spoon. Matt Elliott to re-incarnate his famous neck tie noose, anyone?
Barrow: Cowboys my premiers whether Johnathan Thurston stays on or not. Penrith my wooden spooners.
Pengilly: See you at the footy.
Barrow: Yep, your shout!