With all the off-season maneuvering over, set pieces practiced, fitness regimes implemented and half-time oranges picked, it?s time for the first whistle and all the usual fast, furious and fever-pitched action the Super League delivers.
Last season was a real humdinger, with the competition?s minor premiership, top-three, top-five and bottom two positions not decided until the final round.
And with the Super League cut from 14 teams down to 12, there?s no suggestion that this year?s finish will be any different.
Interestingly, many clubs opted to lure local players back to the area they played juniors in, which will be great for fans wanting to cheer on their homegrown talent.
The shift back to 12 teams in the Super League will also make it an interesting dash to the minor premiership, with a step up into Premier League coating the dangling carrot in gold.
Not surprisingly, every coach believed they have the talent to position themselves in the top half of the table, which would see them all press for a top-five spot.
But 12 into five doesn?t quite fit, unless you carry a really large hammer, and some frontrunners have already emerged from the playing field.
Last year?s champion Bonnyrigg was the most mentioned club when Football NSW spoke to all 12 coaches leading up the start of the season.
White Eagles mastermind Blagoje Kulevski, who will sit on the sidelines for the first three rounds due to a suspension he picked up for an off-field argument with a Sydney University manager in round, didn?t shy away from the ?favourite? tag.
?Of course there is an expectation on us to win again because we are the champions,? he said.
?But there are many good sides in the competition, and we have not played a single game yet.?
A full day of football is scheduled for Bonny Sportsground on Saturday (March 22), including a match featuring players from the 1992 grand final, when Avala beat Blacktown City (5pm).
Northern Tigers coach Hugh McCrory was at his shrewd best, at first agreeing with a brazen prediction of first place, before adding a more subdued forecast.
?We?ll be in Premier League next year ? there?ll be no stopping us,? McCrory said coyly, before turning.
?Honestly, I don?t know where you get that stuff from. We have a workman like team, and I hope we can finish in the top-five.?
McCrory said the Tigers would show a bit more pace this year, with some new recruits bolstering the defence, and good ?craftsmanship in the middle of the park? to add some creativity in the centres.
?The older heads are still there, and they should do well to keep the younger ones a bit more focused,? he said.
?A top-five spot would be a satisfying year, but I would think it?s between Parramatta, Bonnyrigg, St George and Rockdale. Competition will be very tight again, with everyone scrapping for that fifth spot.?
St George Saints kept the bulk of last year?s squad and added a sprinkling of new, young talent. Coach John Calleja said he was aiming for a place in the finals.
?We have 10 players from last year?s squad, and I?m expecting to do reasonably well,? he said. ?I spoke to the players about improving on last year, and I believe we can do that. We kept the same defence, and I?m hoping [signing] Nick Polimenakos will fill the striker?s boots.?
Calleja said the Marrickville spearhead would be well complemented by a string of attacking midfielders working around him. He believed Matthew Demetriou (from Uni), James Rioseco (Sutherland), Carlos Villazon and Mitchell Fihlebon would create some chance s and score some goals as well.?
He tipped Bonnyrigg, Parramatta and the Tigers to be up at the top come playoff time, with improvements from Liverpool and Granville.
Parramatta Eagles were another side fancied of taking out the title, and coach Jason Falzon was going to ride that wave of expectancy from his rivals.
?We will win the minor premiership and whatever it takes to win the grand final. We have the team do it,? he said. ?I looked at last year as a learning curve. I now know what I need to do to improve and I have the personnel around me to do that.?
Central Coast Lightning coach John McLafferty was happy with his recruitment drive. The wily coach is involved in the Central Coast football academy, and was responsible for bringing a lot of juniors back to the club.
?We?ve got massive changes,? he said.
?For years, players have been playing outside the area. But having the Mariners up here has helped get a few of them back on the coast. We have gone for youth. Of the 33 players at training, only five are over 25 years old. We?ll be fast enough and fit enough, whether we have got the heads to keep ourselves in the game, we?ll see.?
Plenty of players in the Lightning squad have had time training with the Mariners.
Mariners’ young striker Matt Simon even enjoyed a few games and teenager Ian McKendrie is on a goalkeeper?s apprenticeship with the A-League club.
?I think we can finish in the top half of the competition. It would be great to figure in the finals, but if we get two players promoted into the national league, it means we?ve done our job in player development,? McLafferty said.
Last year?s disappointment, Rockdale Suns will be craving for to return to the good old days when they were crowned 2006 Super League champions.
Coach Michael Grbevski was certain his team would go much better this year, having netted an average of one goal per game in 2007.
?I am confident of doing well, but you always have to take it one game at a time,? he said. ?In the long term, I would be disappointed not to make the top five. I believe I have the squad to do that, but Northern Tigers, Bonnyrigg and St George look dangerous.?
Sydney University coach Bruce Tilt said they would be close to snaring an elusive semi-final berth after impressing for most of last year.
?We?ve lost a few experienced players, but will be knocking on the door again,? he said.
?I hope the strength of the squad and last year?s experience will get us through the year. We?ve already identified 6-7 players in the under-20s who are training with the senior side. Over the next couple of years we will see Sydney Uni players coming through the ranks and one day push to be on top.?
Fairfield Lions mentor Aydin Cetinay gave his charges a goal to finish in the top-five. Injuries rocked the Lions camp last year and they never recovered from a slow start to the season.
They have even torn up last year?s playing strip and will return to the familiar black and red stripes.
?We had so many players out and you could see the improvement in the team when they started coming back in the second half of the season,? Cetinay said.
?We?ve kept the core of players, held on to Tanju Balabanel, Yavuz Ekinci has a broken foot but will hopefully start the season. Nabil Codmani is 38-years-old and getting better every year.?
Liverpool Bossy have been tipped as one of the dark horses of this year?s Super League and the club knows what it takes to hold the trophy.
After all, coach Mile Todorovski guided them to the 2005 Super League title. He said a top-five position would be a terrific achievement.
?Things are looking good at the club. There is a lot of work still to be done but we have quality players, and everyone is looking forward to another good season of football. From my point of view, we are much fitter ? the players worked themselves five times a week, which for this level is very high.?
?We are not working like a team at the moment, but we?ll be ready for the beginning of the competition. The top-five is at the back of my mind but it will be hard to get into the top three. Bonnyrigg is like a Barcelona or Real Madrid, Northern tigers will be hard to beat again, Parramatta is always there, and Rockdale is looking good.?
New Granville Rage coach Lee Sterrey also hoped to go further than last year?s mid-table finish. But, with quite a level playing field, he knows it?s going to be a challenge.
?We?re looking to go higher than seventh,? he said.
?There are plenty of familiar faces and we should go alright. Of course, we?ll be out to win the league if we can, which is where every team should be aiming to go.?
Mount Druitt Town Rangers welcomed new faces to Popondetta Park ? after Chris Camilleri left for TeleChoice Premier League (Penrith), player of the year Elsid Bharkousir to Sydney United (major loss), Daniel Rosier to live in Melbourne, Michael Dowling gone ? but coach Phil Pavela managed to keep a hold on many of the players he wanted for this year?s campaign.
?The players we got will give us more variety in the midfield,? Pavela said.
?A lot of the problems last year came from giving away silly goals and we have really worked on those areas. We are looking to make the semi-finals. Last year was our first year in Super League and I wanted us to consolidate a mid-table position, which we did. Now it?s time to take it to the next step.?
Fraser Park Dragons are in a great position for improvement on 2007 with the only way up for last year?s stragglers.
Although they were certainly entertaining, they were also dreadful at times. Coach Alex Augusto trumpeted a top-six finish this year.
?Fraser Park will be competitive, we signed well and can push for a top-five place,? he said.
?Some of the under-20?s who played in plenty of first grade games last year, covering for various players, have been promoted and striker Tony Faria is back at club. We also welcomed back Jose Mendez [from Dulwich Hill] and Greg Collins [Uni].
The first round kicks off on Saturday, March 29, with a blockbuster at Bonnryigg Sportsground between the White Eagles and St George Saints, while Granville Rage host the Northern Tigers at Garside Park, Fairfield Lions welcome Fraser Park Dragons to Norford Park, and Bossy Liverpool travel to the Central Coast to take on the Lightning. All matches start at 7.30pm.
On Sunday, Mount Druitt Town Rangers play Sydney University at Popondetta Park and Parramatta Eagles visit Rockdale Suns at the Ilinden Sports Centre. Both kick-offs at 3pm. Good luck to all teams.
Super League Round 1 Fixtures
Saturday 29th March
Bonnyrigg White Eagles vs St George FC – Bonnyrigg Sports Club – 7:30 PM
Granville Rage vs Northern Tigers – Garside Park ? 7.30 PM
Fairfield City Lions vs Fraser Park FC – Norford Park No2 ? 7.30 PM
Central Coast Lightning vs FC Bossy Liverpool – Pluim Park No 1 ? 7.30 PM
Sunday 30th March
Mt Druitt Town Rangers vs Sydney University – Popondetta Park ? 3 PM
Rockdale City vs PCYC Parramatta – Rockdale Ilinden Sports Centre ? 3 PM
–By Daniel de Nardi