Manly tragic Phil Whitehead joins us once more, this time writing about the long wait and the build-up to the NRL season, and what fans do as the season draws near.

The 2010 NRL Grand Final was won by the St George/Illawarra Dragons on 3rd October. Now, after 158 days of waiting, Rugby League fans are only a few short hours away from cheering the start of a new season.

Tipping competitions are rife in offices, classrooms and through any number of websites. As I write this article, I have only settled on my own tips for Round 1 in the last few minutes. As I sat staring at numerous pages of expert analysis, with each providing a compelling case for why every team will start their season with a win… it occurred to me that, although the season officially starts with the kick-off of the first Friday night game, for many NRL fans it has started much earlier.

For some, it was at the beginning of preseason training. Each club will inevitably start the year with a certain number of new faces to offset the number of players who have departed. As fans, we draw our own conclusions in regards to these off-season movements, which invariably lead to some form of optimism about the team’s chances. Then it’s all about who’s training the house down, who’s been hitting the gym with a vengeance and which players have suddenly discovered that extra yard of speed.

Before a ball is kicked in anger, almost every fan of just about every club will have worked out in their own mind that it’s their team who is best placed to win the premiership.

So, with each fan having locked their side into a top four finish, the focus shifts to the news coming out of other clubs. Each team will unveil their “next big thing” and there will be a smattering of injury-related headlines, all of which are quietly stored away in the memory vaults of astute tipsters. Trial form is noted and likely team line-ups will have begun to take shape weeks before Round 1.

Surely at this stage it’s just a matter of applying all this knowledge, entering your tips and sitting back in anticipation of the opening whistle?

Not by a long shot.

Merely knowing which teams will win in the tipping minefield that is the opening rounds of a new season just won’t cut it, if you consider yourself a true NRL guru…

…and so we enter Dream Team, Super Coach or Fantasy NRL competitions. Why? Well… surely all this time spent studying the ins and outs of the National Rugby League should make selecting a squad of players within a salary cap, a quick 10 minute exercise? Granted that concept was a little too advanced for a select group of Victorians… but still.

Oh dear.

A week later, you’ve identified half a dozen “bargains” in several teams and could comfortably recite the name of every player in every squad at a moment’s notice. Loyalty to your own players is tested and every creative accounting method under the sun is used to try and fit just one more superstar into your team, in the name of winning a car or a nice wad of cash. Sympathy for the front office of the Melbourne Storm just became extremely apparent!

Make no mistake about it, being a serious rugby league fan is hard work and the likely result will be a seven-month ride on an emotional rollercoaster. Quite simply, as we sit back and wait for Ray Warren to declare the 2011 NRL season under way, there is no feeling that could rival the passion that brings fans like us back to this same place every year.

Rugby League is back… and not a moment too soon.

Written by: Phil Whitehead

By ricky

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