Time for a new NRL era on and off the field

The footy is back in less than a week, and it's hard to remember when the game has needed it more.

The NRL's slogan this year is 'A New Era Begins' and it couldn't be more appropriate - 2019 could well be the year we remember for a long time as the launching pad for the game in more ways than one.

I think the game is set for a significant shift in how it's played and officiated and the faces kids will be putting on their walls, the names they'll be imitating in backyards for years to come.

Here's what's got me most excited with the season kick-off just days away.

It's evolution, baby

The game has evolved in recent years with some incredibly strong defences, driving home more than ever that defence wins competitions.

The Roosters did exactly that in 2018 and full credit to them. At times their attack wasn't all that flash at all throughout the season but their defence kept them in games, and won them close games that other teams coughed up.

Coaches put so much time into defence and attitude as a result.

Now for the game to evolve as it always does every five years or so, I'm looking forward to seeing what coaches and players are doing around their attacking approaches.

I hope we see some curve balls, trick plays and different plans tossed up in 2019.

Given the quality of defences these days, I think we're due for something out of the mould to break down the defensive lines.

And with young playmakers like Kalyn Ponga, Anthony Milford, Luke Keary and the like, we really do have the types of players that can make it work.

We've seen more eyes-up footy, and a little bit less structure from some teams like Melbourne and South Sydney last year, and the Dragons early in the season.

I think given the Roosters have set such a quality benchmark as far as defence goes, it will take a team thinking outside the box to match it with new attacking options.

Growing up fast

The game's next generation is rightly being celebrated as one of the most exciting in some time.

Players like Ponga, David Fifita, Tevita Pangai jnr, Victor Radley, Cameron Murray, all the young stars that made a tremendous impact in 2018.

What I'm quite keen to see is how they handle the expectation that comes this season, and whether individuals get caught out by the dreaded second-year syndrome.

All of a sudden some of these players will not be able to walk the streets without being recognised, and that's a strange thing to get used to.

I certainly experienced that in my own career and it's very hard not to lose perspective at some point.

How you handle it and who you surround yourself with is the key.

When I came through in the Brisbane competition in the late 1970s, I was a policeman so that kept me busy. But I did still get a big head.

You still start thinking "how good am I" and you can forget about all the hard work that went into getting you there.

One of my best mates grabbed me and told me to pull my head in and it's exactly what I needed at the time. You need honesty around you, and people who are not afraid to call you out.

How these young stars handle their growing profile is exciting and daunting all at once.

Mastering the apprenticeships

In the same vein, there are several bona fide stars and representative players that teams will be relying on like never before in 2019.

Last year some of the best players we've ever seen bowed out, the likes of Johnathan Thurston, Billy Slater leading a stellar cast of retirees out of the game.

In turn there are quality players like Michael Morgan at the Cowboys and Cameron Munster at Melbourne whose time has come to step into those breaches and take their games to the next level.

It's going to be fascinating watching that development in the next generation of playmakers.

Ash Taylor has carried expectation for some time, and coming into his fourth full year of NRL the training wheels are well and truly off.

Luke Keary's 2018 season was superb, not so much a breakout year as the next evolution in his game – from a good club player to a representative quality player who should shoulder more responsibility again alongside Cooper Cronk at Bondi.

Kodi Nikorima is now a New Zealand international with pressure on him at the Broncos, and Nathan Cleary is an Origin-winning half at Penrith.

A lot of these playmakers have had senior guys around them nurturing them through their early years.

Now a lot of those senior players are gone and it's on this next generation to take charge and truly own their respective teams.

The refs recalibrate

And tying into the potential for more expansive footy and our best and brightest coming to the fore, is how the game will be officiated.

Under the leadership of new NRL head of football, elite competitions Graham Annesley, I want to see the officials referee what they see again, not who they see.

By that I mean not considering players' idiosyncrasies before they take the field. Just what they see when they're out there.

No plans or idea that say "Andrew Fifita doesn't play the ball with his foot all the time" and looking for that, just refereeing the contest as it's seen. We'll see more footy, fewer penalties and arguments from players, more ball-in-play.

When Annesley was a referee I don't remember seeing his name mentioned all that much.

He didn't create headlines which is what you want from a game, and what the officials want to. They want to do their job and help footy be played.

Which is what I'm most excited for in 2019.