Sonny Bill Williams and Sam Burgess set to square off in Australia's NRL season opener
Rugby Union-bound pair clash in Sydney derby
Sonny Bill Williams and Sam Burgess square off when champions Sydney Roosters face South Sydney in an explosive start to Australia's National Rugby League season on Thursday.
Williams was a pivotal figure for the Roosters in their championship campaign last year and looms again as one of the NRL's superstars in his final season in the league before a return to rugby union in New Zealand.
Rabbitohs' strongman Burgess is also heading to the 15-man game with English giants Bath as he looks for a spot in England's team at next year's Rugby World Cup.
The Roosters were the standout team last season under first-year coach Trent Robinson, and beat Manly Sea Eagles 26-18 in the grand final after Manly knocked Souths out of the reckoning in the preliminary final.
The Roosters are again favourites to land the NRL title ahead of the Rabbitohs and Manly, with 2012 champions Melbourne Storm the fourth pick ahead of the Canterbury Bulldogs.
Sydney Roosters go into Thursday's blockbuster already the world club champions after outclassing England's Wigan Warriors 36-14 in Sydney last month in a match where centre Michael Jennings scored a hat-trick of tries.
Not since the Brisbane Broncos in 1992-93 has a side claimed back-to-back titles in a unified competition, but pundits believe the Roosters' star-studded squad is primed to achieve where past champions Melbourne and Manly fell short.
The Sydney derby between the Roosters and Rabbitohs will usher in the 2014 NRL season with a bang.
"Ever since I have been at the club and a lot longer there has been great rivalry between us," said Roosters' skipper Anthony Minichiello.
"Souths will improve again. They are a big powerful team. It will be a great clash. We need to improve as well. Hopefully we can build through the year."
Once again, question marks will hang over Souths and how well they can recover from last year's preliminary final meltdown against Manly, and key forward Burgess' shock decision to quit the club at the end of the season for rugby union.
This season, it will be 43 years since South Sydney last won a premiership, and they have their best chance under the meticulous coaching of Michael Maguire.
Manly, under coach Geoff Toovey, have had two successive top-four finishes along with last year's grand final appearance.
"We fell short last year but I'm quite confident we've got a side that can give it a shake this year and that's exactly what we will be doing," Toovey said.
Manly will face a tough opener against Melbourne at home on Saturday.
Melbourne have a record of strong starts, winning their first game of the season every year since 2005, including three on the back of arduous trips to England for the World Club Challenge.
Exciting fullback Ben Barba will make his debut for the Brisbane Broncos against his old Bulldogs club in another intriguing match-up on Friday.
Meanwhile, crisis-hit Cronulla Sharks have failed in a bid to overturn a A$1 million (HK$6.95 million) fine and coach Shane Flanagan's 12-month suspension over a supplements scandal.
After considering written submissions and other evidence, NRL chief Dave Smith confirmed that the club breached the league's code of conduct in relation to its supplements programme during 2011. It follows provisional findings handed down last December.
"My overriding concern has always been the health and well-being of our players, and my decision recognises that rugby league will not accept practices that put our players at unnecessary risk," Smith said.
"While I recognise that this is a difficult time for everybody involved, it is important I take action to ensure proper processes are in place to protect our players and the strength of our game."
The punishment followed an investigation by the NRL Integrity Unit into the club's supplements programme, where players were allegedly given prohibited substances such as peptides.
The unit said Flanagan and then head of strength and conditioning, Trent Elkin, were responsible for several code breaches, including ensuring a safe and healthy work environment.