Super League 2019: Six reasons to be excited about the new season
|Betfred Super League|
|Starts: Thursday, 31 January|
|Coverage: Selected full match commentaries on BBC Radio 5 live, BBC Radio 5 live sports extra, BBC local radio and the BBC Sport website; listen to the weekly BBC Rugby League podcast and watch highlights on the Super League Show; selected live text commentaries and reports of every game on the BBC Sport website and app.|
New rules, a new team and new star names. Super League is back for 2019 and with it a fresh sense of excitement as the road to Old Trafford starts all over again.
The new season starts on Thursday with one of the fiercest rivalries in rugby league as champions Wigan Warriors travel to St Helens.
BBC Sport will be providing live text and radio commentary of the opening game of the 2019 campaign.
There was much to enjoy in 2018 as England beat New Zealand in a three-Test series, Saints ran away with the League Leaders' Shield but lost both their Super League and Challenge Cup semi-finals, while Wigan gave outgoing coach Shaun Wane and full-back Sam Tomkins the perfect send-off with victory over Warrington in the Grand Final.
Here are six reasons why you should be excited about the upcoming rugby league season.
- WATCH: Super League Show 2019 season preview
- LISTEN: New season, new structure, new beginnings - BBC Radio 5 live's Rugby League podcast
- READ: Why NRL star Austin is loving his new life at Warrington
Super League was becoming super sluggish. In the past couple of years it has not been uncommon for matches to finish a full two hours after they kicked off, with plenty of time-wasting to blame.
But the introduction of 'shot clocks' - like those used in basketball to limit how long a team can keep the ball for without trying to score points - will go a long way to quickening the tempo.
Teams will now have only 35 seconds to pack down for a scrum and 30 seconds to take a drop-out, or a penalty will be awarded against them.
It would be helpful if video referees were given a gee-up as well. Wouldn't it be great to see a video referee given a time limit to make a decision?
But overall, we can look forward to a much sharper, more vibrant game.
The game is about the 17 on the squad list, not just the 13 on the field. And when you have 10 interchanges, you can afford to carry a couple of really big fellas who can come on and blast out 10 minutes, before heading back to the bench for a breather.
Now the interchange number has been dropped to eight, the hope is that will lead to more tiring bodies on the pitch, especially towards the end of a game. 'Shot clocks' will increase the fatigue factor. And, so the theory goes, give the skilful footballers a chance to shine and entertain.
One concern is that we may lose some of the big characters as teams adapt recruitment and fitness regimes in the years ahead. Others argue that we should even drop to six interchanges.
But one step at a time. If this tweak leads to the side-steppers and ball-handlers taking our breath away, no-one will complain.
What's the point of golden-point extra-time in league matches? I don't think I've ever walked away from a drawn league game and thought: "That was disappointing."
The draw is a rare commodity in rugby league, so there is an excitement whenever the hooter sounds and two teams are locked together. Fans from both sides share an ecstatic appreciation of what they've just watched.
In football, teams very often set up for a draw right from kick-off. In cricket, one team may play for a draw in the last couple of days of a five-day Test match. But in rugby league, the draw is in nobody's consideration until very close to the moment when it happens.
So why try to fix a problem that doesn't exist? This rule change feels like going down the NRL route for the sake of it.
And don't forget that even with golden point, after 10 minutes of extra-time, if nobody has scored then we will still end up with a draw.
London Broncos are back
Broncos owner David Hughes says Super League needs London. He's got a point.
A successful side in the capital would be a golden egg for those who want to see the game grow at the top level, beyond its traditional playing fields.
But 'successful' is the key word. A lot are making the Broncos hot favourites to go straight back down to the Championship, after their surprise Million Pound Game promotion win at Toronto at the end of last season.
And at this stage of the year, it's hard to make a case for any other top-flight side being less capable of staying up than London.
A London side limping along at the foot of the table would not be a great story for the game to tell.
But they have been terrific in developing young kids in recent years.
In an era of diminishing player pools in some so-called heartland areas, the Broncos have introduced scores of London youngsters to the game.
There is more and more top-flight talent knocking around that may even not be aware of rugby league had it not been for the Ealing-based side.
So good luck to them - but they might need that luck.
Wow, there's some talent coming into Super League from the NRL this year. Warrington's new arrival Blake Austin has already been chalked up as bookies' favourite to win the Steve Prescott Man of Steel award.
But add to the sizzle factor Akuila Uate at Huddersfield, Konrad Hurrell at Leeds, Kevin Naiqama and Lachlan Coote at St Helens and the return of Jackson Hastings at Salford.
There is also some real pedigree coming into several packs in the form of Trent Merrin at Leeds, Joseph Paulo at Saints and Jason Clark at Warrington.
Apologies to those I've missed.
But this is a year to get excited about the British talent that has emerged in the past couple of years, starring for a resurgent England.
We now have confirmed what we'd suspected, that St Helens wing Tommy Makinson is world class following his try-scoring exploits against the Kiwis in the autumn.
England centre Kallum Watkins will come back from injury looking set to shine again for Leeds. Saints' James Roby is a modern-day phenomenon and Zak Hardaker could dazzle for Wigan now he is free to play again following his 14-month drugs ban.
And so the list goes on.
Whatever match we'll watch this year, there is a guarantee that there will be several personalities out there to fill us full of awe and wonder.
Teams in transition
Two teams in transition will make for fascinating viewing in 2019 - the champions, Wigan, and across the Pennines, last year's great underachievers, Leeds.
Wigan's new coach Adrian Lam is promising a bigger risk and reward approach to the Warriors' playing style this year. New signing Hardaker will help deliver a thrill factor to the DW Stadium.
It's a strange set-up because, Lam knows, as things stand, he only has one year at the helm, whether he's successful or not.
The shadow of club legend Shaun Edwards is already lengthening across the minds of Wigan fans - he'll move back home to take charge once his rugby union World Cup commitments with Wales have concluded in the autumn.
Lam not only has to entertain, but Challenge Cup or Grand Final success will be marked down as a minimum requirement.
In some ways, the pressure is off for Leeds' new coach David Furner. He only needs to get the Rhinos competing again and he'll be hailed a hero by the Headingley faithful who endured a brush with relegation last campaign.
All the signs are that Leeds will be back busting out the big moves in the big matches. Forward Merrin is undoubtedly their five-star signing, centre Hurrell will be expected to deliver and it'll be interesting to see how Tongan Tui Lolohea settles in to the halves.
The continued redevelopment of their iconic old stadium should act as a metaphor for the rebuilding of Leeds' status as an on-field giant in 2019.