The new Super League season is almost upon us and, as Matthew Crist explains, changes on and off the field make this campaign more mouth-watering than ever...
"As for what we can look forward to in the season ahead, 2019 also sees some of the finest talent the game has to offer arriving on these shores which can only increase the standard of rugby on display..."
The new Super League season is almost upon us with nine-months of tough-tackling and high-octane action culminating in the Grand Final at Old Trafford in October; but 2019 will see a number of huge changes, both on and off the field, which could make this campaign more mouth-watering than ever.
At the launch event for this year's Super League in Manchester all the talk was of "new beginnings" and, after months of off-field in-fighting, the action finally gets underway on Thursday as St Helens host Wigan in the season opener with this promising to be a key year for the sport.
With Brexit on everyone's lips the sport is going through something of a divorce battle of its own as divisions between Super League and the Rugby Football League are there for all to see, while all 12 Super League clubs voted on a host of issues last year which will affect all aspects of the game with no hard border or backstop in sight.
But after weeks of discussion and debate among those who govern the game attention can now finally focus on the action taking place between the uprights, so with a number of major changes being introduced just what can we expect in the months to come?
Probably the biggest innovation is the introduction of a Shot Clock which it is hoped will speed things up a little bit with teams taking more than 35 seconds at scrums and drop-outs now facing a penalty, increasing the tempo of the game on the field while ramping-up the excitement level for fans and spectators.
Another change is that sides will now only be allowed eight interchanges rather than ten, another ploy to prevent slow play while an increased fatigue factor will surely benefit the more skilful attacking players; encouraging fast-flowing and attacking rugby as a result.
If that wasn't enough, games which are level after 80 minutes will now go into two five minute periods of Golden Point extra time with sides encouraged to go for the win rather than settle for a point each as a result of a draw.
And it's not just on the field where we'll see major changes as tweaks to the structure of the league system will also come into effect for the 2019 season as The Super 8s - where Super League and the Championship were split into three divisions after 23 rounds - are confined to history.
Instead, a much fairer system where the worst Super League performers are relegated while the best in the Championship are rewarded with promotion will be re-introduced, while once again the play-offs will offer the best of the top-five finishers with a place in the season finale at Old Trafford, and all the end-of-season drama that brings with it.
As for what we can look forward to in the season ahead, 2019 sees some of the finest talent the game has to offer arriving on these shores which can only increase the standard of rugby on display; generating quality and competition in equal measure.
Blake Austin joins Warrington from Canberra Raiders with the Wolves 11/4 to build on two final appearances in 2018 and win the game's top price for the first time since 1955 while Trent Merrin joins Leeds from Penrith Panthers with the Rhinos priced at 8/1 to win the Grand Final in October.
Kevin Naiqama is another NRL star who joins Super League ahead of the new campaign, signing for St Helens who are priced at 11/4 in the Regular Season Win market to defend the League Leaders' Shield while current champions, the Wigan Warriors, can be backed at 9/2 to retain their Super League title.
The new season promises to deliver a much faster, more skilful and eye-catching game on the field and combined with England's Test series win over New Zealand last year it's no surprise that many feel the 2019 campaign could be one of the most exciting in years.
"Super League will be different in 2019, that's for sure," explained Super League chief executive Robert Elstone at January's launch event in Manchester and for fans of the sport the season can't come quick enough - the new beginning starts here.
Our regular rugby league columnist Phil Spink will be back with a season preview and weekend tips later this week