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The big questions facing rugby league this season

Nevertheless, the intoxicating scent of rugby league is never far away. We can already sense the draaaahma.

These are the burning issues for the season ahead, as I exclusively see it.

Can Mitchell Pearce bounce back?

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I spoke to the Knights halfback the day it emerged his wedding had been called off because he sent some lewd/racy/flirty text messages to a female club staffer.

(One day, they will invent a breathalyser for mobile phones and it will be the greatest invention of all time).

Pearce was furious that a very private matter had become very public.

He denied to me then that he’d lost the support of his teammates, that he’d had it out with Lachlan Fitzgibbon (who is good friends with the staffer’s boyfriend) and he was concentrating on winning back his partner.

He was also adamant he could remain as captain. Then, last week, he stood down.

I’ve covered more Pearce scandals than I care to remember — from the incident involving the girl in the yellow dress to him having simulated sex with a poodle-cross – and he’s bounced back from all of them.

You can see what will happen here. Pearce will stay sober and focused throughout the rest of the year, steering the Knights to the finals.

Then the club will really have to make a hard decision: re-sign him or let him go?

The future of NSW and Roosters captain Boyd Cordner is uncertain.

The future of NSW and Roosters captain Boyd Cordner is uncertain.Credit:Getty

How long before Boyd Cordner plays again?

The Roosters captain was seen sipping water at Pearce’s buck’s party in early December, talking up the possibility of playing again despite a serious run of concussions.

When he was concussed in Origin I — before controversially returning to the field — some at the club wanted him to sit out the season. Some have been concerned we’ll never see him play again.

My mail is the Roosters are pushing for the NSW captain to sit out 12 matches before his return.

Only time will tell how that affects his selection for the Blues, but it will be an emotional moment when we see him take the field again — provided he’s been given medical clearance by the NRL.

Cameron Smith: what’s doing?

For a bloke who is apparently unpopular with the fans, he sure can sell a book. Almost 60,000 copies of his autobiography moved off the shelves in the lead-up to Christmas.

It remains to be seen, though, if there’s one more chapter to write.

Will the 37-year-old join the Titans or Broncos or just retire, as many predict? Answer: no idea.

According to his management, he also has no idea because he’s undecided about whether he wants to keep playing.

Will there be another chapter to Cameron Smith's playing career?

Will there be another chapter to Cameron Smith’s playing career?Credit:Getty

You can bet the competitive sinews within Smith want him to keep playing.

The Titans keep denying they’ve talked to him, although more than a few people have told me club boss Mal Meninga is cagey when the subject is raised.

Given Smith’s penchant for waiting until the last minute to do anything, expect an announcement a few minutes before kick-off in Thursday night footy.

Will the rule changes turn the game into touch football?

Let’s hope not.

The game turned into a point-scoring frenzy last year after the return to one referee and introduction of the six-to-go rule.

Sure it was entertaining, but the shock announcement late last year of further rule changes to make the game “faster, more free-flowing, entertaining and unpredictable” worries me.

I am predicting Wayne Bennett’s side will win it this year. You heard it here first — unless, of course, it doesn’t happen.

“Defence” is not an evil word. The game’s custodians should be mindful of keeping the balance right.

No team will benefit from the faster game as much as South Sydney with the speedy pinballs of Damien Cook and Cody Walker running wild.

They were unlucky to not reach the grand final last year. I am predicting Wayne Bennett’s side will win it this year.

You heard it here first — unless, of course, it doesn’t happen.

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Which coaches are under the most pressure?

Brad Arthur needs to reach a grand final or serious questions will be asked if a change is needed for Parramatta to win the premiership many were predicting in May last year.

Michael Maguire has re-signed for another two seasons at the Wests Tigers, but if they don’t reach a finals series soon I fear for the mental health of their fans, especially the sober ones.

After getting knocked back for head-coaching jobs at several clubs over the past 10 years, Kevin Walters finally gets his chance at the club he loves most — the Broncos — to show us if he can actually coach.

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