By Nick Mulvenney
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Defending champions Melbourne Storm take on a talent-packed South Sydney Rabbitohs side on Thursday in a blockbuster clash to open a National Rugby League season in which the pace of the game looks set to go up another notch.
A raft of rule changes intended to eliminate dead time from matches have led to some breathless pre-season contests and fears that the day of the "big man" in this most physical of football codes might be numbered.
Two of the finest coaching minds the game has known, Wayne Bennett and Craig Bellamy, will give the first proper indications of how their teams will approach the new high-tempo game in Melbourne to kick off the campaign.
Bellamy has never lost a season-opener in 18 years in charge at the Storm, who he led to a fifth title NRL last season if two championships the club had stripped for salary cap breaches are included.
The Storm are sure to miss the peerless game management of former Australia captain Cameron Smith, who confirmed on Wednesday that he would not be playing a 20th NRL season.
Bennett, 71, has won seven NRL titles with two clubs and many are convinced he has the weapons at Redfern to add another before he hangs up his clipboard at the end of the season.
The pack has been strengthened and the halves combination of Cody Walker and Adam Reynolds will be looking to unleash an impressive backline, including fullback Latrell Mitchell, who sat out most of his first season at the club because of injury.
The Rabbitohs, who last won the title in 2014 and are co-owned by Oscar winner Russell Crowe, have never beaten the Storm in Melbourne but Bennett knows more than anyone that an NRL season is a marathon not a sprint.
The Penrith Panthers, who reached the championship decider on the back of a 17-match winning streak last year, and the Sydney Roosters, champions in 2018 and 2019, should also be in the frame come the playoffs.
The Canberra Raiders have also been contenders for the last few years and will welcome back influential hooker Josh Hodgson for their opener against Wests Tigers after the Englishman was sidelined by injury for much of last season.
Thursday's clash will be a homecoming for the Storm after they were forced to relocate to Queensland midway through last season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Australia has been relatively successful at containing the virus so there will be crowds at matches, but international travel restrictions mean the New Zealand Warriors will be based across the Tasman Sea for a second successive season.
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Peter Rutherford)