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Bumpy ride no worry for NRL
Steve Jancetic
11:16 AEST Thu Feb 28 2013

Its brightest star has been dimmed and the cloud of a potential drugs scandal still hovers, but the good ship NRL remains firmly on course as it sets sail into a bold new world.

With the ARL Commission entrenched and its new chief Dave Smith now on board, the NRL enters the 2013 season with confidence to target a lofty goal - becoming the No.1 football code in the country.

The AFL's grip on that title - with its wider representation across the country - seems secure.

But armed with pocketfuls of cash thanks to a new television rights deal and a plethora of high profile business people on board, the NRL has high hopes.

Club memberships have doubled since 2008 and more fans (3,151,660) went to games than ever before in 2012.

"Rugby league is on the verge of something special, a time of growth and a time of growing confidence," Smith said.

"We have to look at new ways of doing things. We need to be looking for opportunities - not looking over our shoulder.

"This is a time to think about where we want rugby league to be and about how we want rugby league to be seen.

"We have the best athletes, the best coaches, the greatest army of volunteers and the most diverse and passionate fans in the nation."

That did not prevent rugby league's almost traditional pre-season bout of controversy, this time in the form of the Australian Crime Commission report into sports doping and potential crime links which focused on the NRL and AFL.

But, with suspects and names thin on the ground as the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority investigates, concern seems to have waned, at least for the time being.

It has turned instead to the sad plight of the game's most exciting player, 2012 Dally M medal winner Ben Barba, who is suspended indefinitely by his club Canterbury as he battles personal demons.

Due to officially launch the NRL season against a backdrop of his dazzling 2012 feats, the brilliant fullback had to be replaced and will be missing with not even a likely date for a return as the season kicks off.

But rugby league has always been a game that seems to thrive in rough waters.

Like the time back in 2008 when it went to court as one of its biggest names fled the code and the country in a shroud of secrecy.

Back then Sonny Bill Williams was the dirtiest name in rugby league. But five years on he is the key figure in one of the most hyped season openers in years, with his Sydney Roosters to host arch-rivals South Sydney at what's expected to be a sold out Allianz Stadium.

Imagine if the NRL had okayed Israel Folau's return as well.

Williams' prodigal son routine along with the recruitment of Michael Jennings and James Maloney has given the Roosters faithful the hope that a premiership may be imminent, while the Rabbitohs - powered by a rampant Greg Inglis - are coming off their best season in 25 years.

With superstar Barba out of the picture and prop James Graham sidelined through to round 10 for biting Billy Slater's ear in last year's grand final, Canterbury coach Des Hasler faces arguably his greatest challenge in attempting to return to the NRL's biggest day.

Certainly their victorious opponents that day appear on track for another run at the title, the retention of coach Craig Bellamy aiding Melbourne's bid to become the first premiers to go back to back since Brisbane in 1992-93.

What of the other challengers?

Few can be written off, for few professional sporting competitions around the world can match the NRL for evenness of competition.

Consider that over the past four seasons all 16 clubs have made the finals.

Thirteen of the 16 teams have contested the grand final since the NRL began in 1998.

There have been nine different premiers and eight different runners-up since 1998.

And every club has missed the finals since the inception of the NRL.

Clubs, like the NRL, have a habit of bouncing back quickly from adversity.

It's why few doubt Barba's ability to again return to thrill crowds.

In a true sliding doors moment, Barba debuted for the Bulldogs the very week Williams became the game's biggest villain.

Now Williams returns to usher in a season worth waiting for.

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