The St George Illawarra Dragons couldn't have asked for a tougher start to the season than travelling to Melbourne this weekend.
Facing the premiership winning Storm side boosted by the re-signing of their coach and hardened by the world club challenge victory seems like an onerous one. Yet the bonus for an out-of-the-box performance will be huge as regards season confidence and expectation.
And to be brutally honest, there isn't too much expectation given the key losses in personnel and the modest gains. Can the spirit of the Red V prevail?
One can't go past the grand finalists in looking for the top two this year. The hiccup for the Bulldogs with the Barba situation might just galvanise them in the early part of the season. Tony Williams is a huge acquisition.
Melbourne will be there for certain. One would also expect the Rabbitohs and Manly to consolidate. Manly's half combination of Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran are again pivotal to their hopes.
If there is a side to spear past the top two, it will be the Rabbitohs. Some solid recruiting to go with existing strength and the confidence of 2012 will motivate them to go all the way. They constitute the "feel" side of the competition.
One would expect Brisbane to rebound and the Sharks to make a statement or two. They look very strong.
And the Roosters with Sonny Bill Williams will have an impact.
If there is to be season surprise, look for the Warriors under Matt Elliott. One would be surprised should he not draw some more consistency from the enigmatic outfit from across the Tasman.
My premiership prediction: The Bulldogs.
Proactive help needed for young players
Ben Barba’s fall from grace reminded one of the responsibility on clubs and the system to direct young players in the professional sports, particularly those who land in the brightest of spotlights and have a pay packet to match.
The management of time and the rewards of the fame game is not a simple equation.
The meteoric rise and celebrity of Barba (pictured) would have challenged any rock star or world sporting icon.
From washing cars to the top of the game of rugby league in just a few years, from a modest income to one garnered by the top 1% of the population.
Now clubs have education programs, financial advisors and minders.
But the unquantifiable is the individual needs of each player and ultimately personal responsibility has to hold sway. However, some individuals need proactive management and Ben Barba might just have been one to fall into this category given his status.
Many accolades were thrown in the direction of the Bulldogs club and its well-respected CEO Todd Greenberg over the handling of the Barba case.
Just how much time they’d put into Barba is knowledge between the parties alone.
One suspects a trigger point to the current situation, which may not have seen the light of public exploration, and might not.
For the club to consider the termination of Barba’s contract, there had to be a serious episode, not just a cumulative build-up of mishaps.
Hopefully, in the course of Barba’s rehabilitation, the club is hard on the shoulder of their young star, and can provide support over and above, as Greenberg articulated.
They have a responsibility to protect their investment, and they have a greater responsibility to the individual.
Western Sydney fans are winners
There was reward for anyone surfing the pay television landscape on Saturday night catching the A- League Mariners v Wanderers spectacle.
The atmosphere, largely created by Western Sydney’s vocal troupe, must make other codes envious, particularly Australian rugby, which can’t muster the shoulder-to-shoulder passion the Wanderers take with them wherever they play.
The 18,000 strong crowd was a pulsing mass of energy creating a burble that was just infectious.
The appalling weather conditions made the prospect of spectating quite onerous for any but the breed of fan following the Wanderers.
That the quality of the match did not quite match the supporting brigade was more due to the well marshalled defences from both teams who just about negated each other.
Despite the result, the Central Coast team is still the one to beat for the title this year. They won the game everywhere but the scoreboard... possession, shots on goal, overall look and feel.
Coach Graham Arnold was rightly un-phased by the defeat, which does transfer the pressure well and truly to WSW, at the top of the table, amazingly in their first season, with four rounds of the competition proper to go.
The psychological hurdle of missing four consecutive penalties has the potential to seep into other aspects of Mariners play.
To see goalkeeper Matt Ryan come up to take the penalty was clutching at straws. Arnold passed it off, yet he would be seething that in the space of four days, misses from the spot cost his team two big results.
It was a dramatic turning point on Saturday night and a really inexcusable situation to have no striker in a winning team confident enough to stride up to the spot.
They don’t need practice, they need a dose of psychology.
Skipper not doing what form dictates
Michael Clarke is peerless in his current form, yet he’s ignoring his responsibility by not batting at No3 in the line-up.
Rejecting pleas from many respected figures in the game, the first innings in Hyderabad again underlined the fragility of the top order and therefore the necessity for Clarke to bat higher up.
Clarke is head and shoulders above the rest of the order in form and playing spin.
His run-scoring frenzy since taking over the captaincy should be dictating his position.
Too many times it’s been resurrection rather than enforcement, and the Australian team is suffering as a result.
When Ed Cowan made his delightful century against South Africa last November, his only Test ton to date, the applause was balanced by a whispered uncertainty about his longevity in the side.
That hasn’t changed. There is a flightiness about the other three that doesn’t engender confidence.
The vacuum left by Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey is a real dilemma not likely to be solved come Ashes time.
And the lack of confidence in Nathan Lyon by leaving him out in spin-friendly conditions is an arrow to the heart of his long-term hopes.
But in the interests of the team and before the Ashes campaign, one M Clarke must step into his rightful position in the order.