WHEN Richard Ings, the former head of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority, claimed a recent explosive ACC report into organised crime and drugs was "the blackest day" in Australian sport, he went off a month early.
At least in respect of the NRL, that is.
Rugby league's very dark day - and a stain on the soul of every fair dinkum fan - will be next Thursday, March 7, when an expected first-round record TV audience tunes in for the 2013 season opener between the Roosters and the Rabbitohs.
That in itself is wonderful bad news for the code, because the match between two of the premiership heavyweights should be an absolute ripper.
The sad fact is that many of the fans will be tuned in to see deserter Sonny Bill Williams' return to league.
Williams walked out on the Bulldogs midway through 2008, with four years left on his $½ million-a-season contract.
He has since become a virtual one-man circus act, flitting between Italy, New Zealand and Japan playing rugby union and endorsing himself as a boxer.
But with his return and several other significant changes in coaching and playing ranks, the Roosters have firmed as a top eight chance in 2013.
To me, they look the big improvers, and could well finish as high as fourth.
And despite losing a string of experienced campaigners, including Kiwi international Sika Manu and Maroons back Dane Neilsen, premiers Melbourne will again start the season as premiership hotshots.
Their World Club Challenge win last weekend underlined their professionalism and no doubt the punters like the Smith, Slater, Cronk and Bellamy quartet.
Fellow 2012 grand finalists, the Bulldogs, will again be to the fore, as will perennial finalists the Sea Eagles and Broncos, while the Cowboys possess the striking power to progress a couple of steps further than their heartbreaking exit of 2012.
But notwithstanding their buying spree, I still can't see the Sharks as a premiership force.
Their strength is indisputable but they will take a season or two to gel.
At the other end of the ladder, nothing has convinced me the Eels can escape a second successive wooden spoon.
The Panthers will also be in the hunt, as will the once-mighty Dragons.
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