Will Cameron Smith stay in Melbourne beyond 2014 or will he head north? Credit: NRL Photos Copyright: NRL Photos
A is for... Asian Expansion
There has been plenty of talk in recent years about the NRL's next expansion target in terms of a new club – Perth, Adelaide, then Central Coast, Central Queensland, a second New Zealand team or a second Brisbane team have all been mooted by several parties. While having a team based on the Chinese mainland may yet be a way off it is clearly an area that is on the mind of the NRL, clubs and sponsors. This was highlighted by recent talks between the NRL, Manly, Manly sponsors Kaspersky, Canberra, and Canberra's major sponsor Huawei, about taking the clubs' Round 8 meeting to Shenzen in China. Although it appears that financial and timing issues may have defeated this particular effort for now, it is clearly something that is on the radar – meaning the first game played in China for premiership points may be a case of 'when' rather than 'if'.
B is for... Bronco Barba
He's been one of the most talked about signings in recent memory but March 7, 2014 will be D-Day for Bronco Barba, when Brisbane's new X-factor lines up against his former club and teammates (and home crowd) at ANZ Stadium. Will he spark a Brisbane outfit that underperformed in 2013? Will he return to Homebush and wreak attacking havoc on his former club? No doubt Barba will be one of the most closely watched players of 2014 as fans wait to learn the answers to all those questions.
C is for... Concussion
It's been one of the hot topics of recent years as the NRL has continued to step up its efforts when it comes to player safety. In the rough-and-ready, frontier days of rugby league a head knock was something players simply shook off but increasingly research (particularly coming out of the US in relation to NFL players) is showing that multiple head knocks in a short space of time can have serious long-term consequences. We've already seen in the NRL increasing caution over concussions, with players being taken from the field to be assessed by club doctors. Losing a key player early in a match can prove detrimental a team's chances and overzealous caution is unlikely to be popular with coaches and fans but two competition points is a small price to pay compared to a player's long-term health.
D is for... Decision Time
Each season brings plenty of big decisions for players, coaches and administrators but one that everyone is currently waiting for is the decision of Kangaroos skipper Cameron Smith over his playing future. Will the Storm captain stay and finish out his career at the club he led to a premiership in 2012? Or will he return to his home state of Queensland and take the big bucks from a Broncos side desperate to return to its winning ways?
E is for... English Invasion
In recent times the trickle of top-shelf Brit imports has become a flood – and the big-name signing of 2014 is England's answer to Billy Slater. Wigan premiership winner and 2012 Man of Steel Sam Tomkins has chosen the Warriors to be his home club in the NRL. Will his electric style of play gel with fellow superstars Shaun Johnson and Konrad Hurrell? Will he displace Kiwi Test custodian Kevin Locke at the back for the Warriors, and if so will Locke be forced onto the wing, or even out of the club? Or will Tomkins find a home at five-eighth and combine with Johnson to form the fastest halves pairing in the NRL? He gets to test himself against one of the game's form fullbacks in Eels superstar Jarryd Hayne in Round 1, and against star Kangaroos fullback Billy Slater in Round 8 when the Warriors travel to Melbourne.
F is for... Ferguson's Fate
What is to become of troubled former Raiders and Blues star Blake Ferguson? Plenty of ink has been devoted to chronicling Ferguson's fall from grace so we won't go to lengths on the topic here. The key question now though from a pure rugby league perspective is – what does the future hold for Ferguson? It appears highly unlikely he'll strap on a boot in first grade in 2014 with the NRL having taken a firm stance over his registration (or lack thereof). But even in 2015 and beyond, any club that attempts to throw him a lifeline may need to be prepared to face some fallout. Rugby league is a family game. Its values need to be upheld. Ferguson's recent conviction for assault is at odds with everything the game stands for. It is a shame such a prodigiously talented player who seemingly had a long representative future in front of him finds himself in this predicament. Only time will tell whether he will be able to make it back.
G is for... Golden Age
Golden points and golden tries. It seems that, despite the cries of protest from the traditionalists, the days of the 80-minute draw are behind us for the foreseeable future. There is certainly no doubt that 10 minutes of golden point can bring huge excitement but one pretty fair criticism is that the extra-time period can essentially descend into a field-goal shootout. It also places incredible pressure on referees when there's an infringement within penalty goal range because all of a sudden a single penalty can decide the match. The Auckland Nines tournament will experiment with an option that has been gathering increasing support in recent times – the golden try. It remains to be seen how often (if at all) the golden try will come into play in Auckland but if it's a winner there could be pressure on administrators to consider golden try as an option in the NRL proper.
H is for... Hoppa's Hiatus
One of the biggest signings of 2014 involves the return to the NRL of former Manly and Origin star Will Hopoate. The son of former Sea Eagles bad boy John, Hoppa Jr appears to be anything but the troublemaker his father was. The question is, will he be causing trouble for opposition defensive lines the way he did in his breakout season in 2011, or will he be causing trouble for Eels clipboard holder Brad Arthur as he works his way back to match fitness? From all reports Hopoate is training the house down and has impressed all and sundry with his professionalism. But we won't really know whether that means he's ready to again dominate in the big time until he's tested in the heat of battle. Parramatta (and NSW) fans will be hoping he hits his straps quick smart.
I is for... Integrity Unit
2014 represents a brave new world as far as the NRL's Integrity and Compliance Unit (ICU) is concerned. The ICU has been working with ASADA during its ongoing investigation, and was involved in monitoring a number of off-field issues involving players in 2013. But with the resignation of long-serving salary cap auditor Ian Schubert recently, the ICU will be adding yet another string to its bow with responsibility for salary cap monitoring coming under its umbrella in 2014. Jamie L'Oste Brown, who worked with Schubert for the past seven years, will take over as salary cap auditor.
J is for... Judgment Night
A new referees boss is being sought, as well as a replacement for Greg McCallum as the chairman of the match review committee. Regardless of who ends up pulling the strings it is highly unlikely we'll get through the 2014 season without some mid-week judiciary controversy. When Newcastle prop Kade Snowden was faced with a nine-week suspension for a shoulder charge on Ray Thompson in Round 24, McCallum admitted that the extent of the injury played a factor in the grading. You can bet if a Knights player is injured as a result of any foul play, coach Wayne Bennett will let his opinion be known. Also, given there was some success for players who challenged charges before the judiciary in 2013, perhaps Wednesday night hearings will become more frequent.
K is for... Kiwi Pride
Whichever way you like at it, the Kangaroos' dismantling of the Kiwis in the World Cup Final was something of an anti-climax to a wonderful tournament. Perhaps the semi-final against England took too much out of the New Zealanders but they'll get their chance for a muted revenge when the sides renew hostilities on May 2. The failure of the Warriors to make the NRL finals after an horrendous start to the season was another blow to the game in New Zealand and with a Rugby World Cup on the horizon, rugby league needs Kiwi hearts and minds engaged for as long as possible. A Four Nations tournament to be co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand at the end of the NRL season will also deliver exposure to high-class rugby league late into the year.
L is for... Let There Be Light
We will find out in 2014 whether the cry to return to the "good ol' days" of Saturday afternoon footy is what fans truly want. The draw allows for 11 Saturday afternoon games (the majority of which will kick off at the traditional time of 3pm) with the Panthers to become something of Saturday afternoon regulars with five games allocated to that time-slot. Sharks v Warriors at a sunny Remondis Stadium in Round 5 should draw a big crowd while Canberra fans should appreciate the chance to watch their team play the Knights at 3pm a week later. Fans have been begging for more daytime footy; let's see if they respond with their feet.
M is for... Milestones
They're going to come thick and fast in 2014 but here are a few of our favourites (injuries and selection permitting): Luke Douglas to surpass the record for most consecutive appearances (194) in Round 1; Nathan Merritt to score the one try he needs to become greatest try-scorer in Rabbitohs history; Cameron Smith to become the most capped player in Storm history in Round 2; John Sutton to become the most capped Rabbitoh of all-time in Round 5; Johnathan Thurston to play game No.200 for the Cowboys in Round 10; Brent Kite to play game No.300 in Round 12; Corey Parker to become the third player to score 1,000 points for the Broncos (currently 968); Wayne Bennett to equal Tim Sheens's record for most seasons as a coach (28); Akuila Uate to score seven tries and become greatest try-scorer in Knights history and Anthony Minichiello to reach game No.300 for the Sydney Roosters in the finals series. And there's many more where that came from.