Defending champions ... can Manly go back-to-back in 2012? The wait is almost over for NRL fans, with the 2012 NRL premiership competition just a week away. As the 16 clubs prepare for their first season in the era of the independent commission, beginning on Thursday, March 1, we arm you with everything you need to know about the competition in 2012 and your club's aspirations. Watch five games a week Live and Exclusive and in High Definition, only on Fox Sports. Get Foxtel ! THE FORMAT The regular season lasts for 26 weeks, with 24 weeks of competition and two byes for each team. Throughout the 26-week NRL draw, each team plays every team in the opposing pool twice - home and away - (16 games total) and six of the other seven teams in their own pool once (six games total). They play the remaining team in their own pool twice (two games total) to add up to 24 games. The two pools are designed to be of equal strength based on the ladder at the end of the previous home-and-away season. At the conclusion of the regular season, the top eight teams play off in a four-week finals series, ultimately deciding the 2012 premiers. THE BIG ISSUES Every year, events on and off the field create talking points that shape rule changes, changes to competition formats, and overall improvements to the game. This will be particularly interesting this year as the independent commission puts its unique stamp on the direction of the game. So what are the issues likely to be debated in 2012? The play-offs: The NRL has finally come to its senses and re-installed the original top-eight finals system, scrapping the unbalanced McIntyre system, and giving all top-four teams a double chance. This is just reward for the teams that perform at a high level consistently over the course of the regular season, and it will put more emphasis on the final weeks leading up to the finals as teams scrap desperately for the double chance and home finals (this system guarantees the teams that finish fifth and sixth one home final). For now, everyone seems happy with the change; but watch this space in September. Will teams five to eight cry over spilt milk? The ruck: For as long as modern tactics have involved wrestling coaches, third men in and flops, the ruck contest has defined NRL seasons. When the referees' interpretations force quick play-the-balls, it's most often the fitter more mobile teams that dominate. When the ruck can be slowed, the teams with the big, power forwards generally have the final say. One of the most compelling experiments in recent times was the call of "six again" for ruck infringements in the All Stars game, speeding up play significantly. This system won't feature in the 2012 premiership season, but the experiment reflects a desire at management level to twist the balance of power back in favour of attack over defence. Concussion rule: The AFL has already rolled out a rule preventing concussed players from returning to the field of play, and the NRL this year has flagged its intention to get tough on clubs who fail to put the welfare of their players first. As in the AFL, players will be banned from returning to the field if they are deemed by their club doctor to have suffered a serious head knock. And for clubs who refuse to fall in line, heavy penalties, including fines of up to $500,000, are in place, with investigations to be be performed by an independent doctor and neurologist. What happens if two or three players from the same team suffer concussion in the one game? It's an issue that will inspire heated debate at various times during the season, and may eventually result in something similar to the AFL's unpopular substitute rule. THE REIGNING CHAMPS Manly are the defending champions after beating the Warriors 24-10 in last year's decider at ANZ Stadium. ODDS $6 Wests Tigers $8 Melbourne Storm $8 Newcastle Knights $9 Warriors $11 Brisbane Broncos $13 Canterbury-Bankstown $13 Manly $15 North Queensland Cowboys $17 South Sydney $17 St George Illawarra $21 Parramatta $21 Penrith $21 Sydney Roosters $26 Canberra $26 Cronulla $41 Gold Coast Titans (Odds supplied by TAB Sportsbet; correct on February 23) CLUB-BY-CLUB GUIDE BRISBANE BRONCOS Round one Paramatta v Brisbane Broncos, Friday March 2, 7.35pm (EDT), Parramatta Stadium Premiership odds: $11 (Odds supplied by TAB Sportsbet; correct on February 23) Snapshot: For the Broncos, this season is all about how they cope without champion playmaker Darren Lockyer. Their forward pack is full of proven performers who have completely shaken the "youth" tag. Their backline is littered with rep players, including the freakishly talented Justin Hodges. But Lockyer won the Broncos so many tight games that the whole player group is going to have to lift when the game's on the line. How they make this adjustment will determine their fate. CANTERBURY-BANKSTOWN BULLDOGS Round one Penrith v Canterbury-Bankstown, Saturday March 3, 7.30pm (EDT), Centrebet Stadium Premiership odds: $13 (Odds supplied by TAB Sportsbet; correct on February 23) Snapshot: With a new coach on deck and new structures and philosophies, the real Bulldogs under Des Hasler are unlikely to stand up until the second half of the season. Whether last year's premiership coach has the cattle to implement his style of game style, and just what a remodelled Bulldogs outfit looks like, is set to make fascinating viewing. CANBERRA RAIDERS Round one Canberra v Melbourne Storm, Saturday March 3, 5.30pm (EDT), Canberra Stadium Premiership odds: $26 (Odds supplied by TAB Sportsbet; correct on February 23) Snapshot: At their best, the Raiders have a breathtaking attacking arsenal; at their worst, it's a case of cover your eyes and hope the mess isn't too tough to clean up. Last year, the worst was on show far too often to give the Green Machine any momentum. But with Terry Campese back on deck, that should change this season. Watching the Raiders is never dull, but, for 2012 to be a year of big improvement the side's defence is going to have to toughen right up. Will Terry Campese be in your Fantasy NRL side? Register now to be part of the action! CRONULLA SHARKS Round one Wests Tigers v Cronulla, Sunday March 4, 2pm (EDT), Leichhardt Oval Premiership odds: $26 (Odds supplied by TAB Sportsbet; correct on February 23) Snapshot: All the talk in the off-season has been of the Sharks' strong recruitment drive, luring names such as Todd Carney, Bryce Gibbs and Andrew Fifita to the Shire. While they may have lost big boppers Luke Douglas and Kade Snowden, the Sharks have built an imposing forward pack and, with Carney pulling the strings, excitement among Sharks supporters hasn't been this strong since the days of ET. Will they ride the wave into top-eight contention? Or will it be another disappointing year? Either way, it will be impossible to look away. GOLD COAST TITANS Round one North Queensland Cowboys v Gold Coast Titans, Saturday March 3, 7.30pm (EDT), Dairy Farmers Stadium Premiership odds: $41 (Odds supplied by TAB Sportsbet; correct on February 23) Snapshot: After a shocking year in 2011, the early money for the wooden spoon is being directed almost exclusively the Titans' way. But after signing big names Jamal Idris, Nate Myles and Beau Champion, coach John Cartwright has good reason to be confident he won't need to take down the club's trophy cabinet to make room for a bigger cutlery drawer. Can Scott Prince bounce back from a terrible year by his standards? Is William Zillman the answer to the club's five-eighth woes? The answers to these questions will have a big bearing on how the Titans fare. MANLY SEA EAGLES Round one Warriors v Manly, Sunday March 4, Midday (EDT), Eden Park Premiership odds: $13 (Odds supplied by TAB Sportsbet; correct on February 23) Snapshot: After proving themselves the class NRL outfit of 2011, few would have predicted such a tumultuous off-season for the Sea Eagles. After losing their coach to Sydney rivals Canterbury-Bankstown before the celebrations had hit top gear, Manly have spent much of the summer in damage control. In many ways, the pre-season has been a reflection of this with Geoff Toovey failing to convince the doubters that he has what it takes to coach at the top level, overseeing a winless trial campaign, including a big loss in the World Club Challenge. But the Sea Eagles are a resilient bunch, and their side's virtually unchanged. After a slow start, the expectation is they'll have another strong campaign. MELBOURNE STORM Round one Canberra v Melbourne Storm, Saturday March 3, 5.30pm (EDT), Canberra Stadium Premiership odds: $8 (Odds supplied by TAB Sportsbet; correct on February 23) Snapshot: Coach Craig Bellamy has a happy knack for churning out a team with a look of success at the start of every season, and this year's no different. With Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater and Cameron Smith together for another campaign, it's safe to say the Storm will be in for another strong premiership challenge. And this year the supporting cast is arguably more recognisable than ever. With the return of club stalwart Ryan Hoffman, redemption will again be a motivation for the club stripped of its premiership titles from 2007 and 2009. NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS Round one Newcastle Knights v St George Illawarra, Thursday March 1, 7.35pm (EDT), Ausgrid Stadium Premiership odds: $8 (Odds supplied by TAB Sportsbet; correct on February 23) Snapshot: The new broom in Newcastle has created huge levels of anticipation in the notorious rugby league fishbowl. Mining magnate Nathan Tinkler has overhauled the entire culture at the Knights, fostering a home-grown environment that puts a Hunter Valley slant on recruitment and retention. The policy has seen the return of Timana Tahu and the signing of boom prop Kade Snowden. But the marquee signing has undoubtedly been Wayne Bennett, and the mix of players at his disposal gives Knights supporters every right to believe their team will be involved deep into September. How that translates on-field will be fascinating to watch. NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS Round one North Queensland Cowboys v Gold Coast Titans, Saturday March 3, 7.30pm (EDT), Dairy Farmers Stadium Premiership odds: $15 (Odds supplied by TAB Sportsbet; correct on February 23) Snapshot: After a strong showing for much of 2011, the Cowboys believe the time is now right for them to make a premiership push this year. And with the best player in the game pulling the strings, it's hard to find a reason why not. Johnathan Thurston has found a maturity and focus missing earlier in his career, but his move to his preferred position of five-eighth will put the onus on one of the Cowboys' promising young halves stepping up to own a key role as the side's halfback. That may turn out to be Tigers discard Robert Lui so it will be vital for him to bury his demons to help his club achieve success. PARRAMATTA EELS Round one Paramatta v Brisbane Broncos, Friday March 2, 7.35pm (EDT), Parramatta Stadium Premiership odds: $21 (Odds supplied by TAB Sportsbet; correct on February 23) Snapshot: After stumping for experienced players in 2011, coach Stephen Kearney has turned to one of the game's most promising young halfbacks, Chris Sandow, to turn around the Eels' fortunes in 2012. Often criticised for his defence, Sandow will be expected to provide a spark in attack - releasing Jarryd Hayne to inject himself in the line when he feels he can hurt the opposition, as opposed to three or four times a set. It will be this dynamic that shapes Parramatta's season, and gives the Eels faithful reason to believe favourite son Nathan Hindmarsh will become a premiership player before he hangs up the boots. PENRITH PANTHERS Round one Penrith v Canterbury-Bankstown, Saturday March 3, 7.30pm (EDT), Centrebet Stadium Premiership odds: $21 (Odds supplied by TAB Sportsbet; correct on February 23) Snapshot: After taking the Warriors to the cusp of premiership success in 2011, coach Ivan Cleary has a whole set of different challenges to keep him occupied at the Panthers. After losing inspirational leader Petero Civoniceva at the end of last season, Cleary looks to have pulled the right rein by anointing Luke Lewis as the man to take Penrith forward. It looks like a tough year ahead for the western Sydney outfit but, with flyer Michael Jennings and damaging fullback Michael Gordon setting himself for a big year, they're still likely to provide some fireworks. SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS Round one South Sydney v Sydney Roosters, Monday March 5, 7pm (EDT), ANZ Stadium Premiership odds: $17 (Odds supplied by TAB Sportsbet; correct on February 23) Snapshot: Could this be the year of the Bunny? It's a question posed almost every year since Russell Crowe got involved with South Sydney, but, with such a talented playing roster on their books, it's a tough question to avoid. With one of the strongest forward packs in the game, they can never be discounted; but much will depend on the performance of rookie halfback Adam Reynolds and brilliant but inconsistent five-eighth John Sutton. Attitude and consistency are attributes new coach Michael Maguire absolutely demands from all of his teams, so look for these essential planks to help the Rabbitohs launch an assault on the top eight this year. ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA DRAGONS Round one Newcastle Knights v St George Illawarra, Thursday March 1, 7.35pm (EDT), Ausgrid Stadium Premiership odds: $17 (Odds supplied by TAB Sportsbet; correct on February 23) Snapshot: After entering every season in recent memory as one of the competition's fancied teams, St George Illawarra are flying under the radar this year. The departure of Wayne Bennett, Mark Gasnier and Darius Boyd have the Dragons as outsiders to make the play-offs this year, but softly spoken new mentor Steve Price is determined to ensure he doesn't oversee a slide. Keeping the Dragons in the contender bracket seems a monumental task, but, with a side choc full of rep players, Price will give everything to bring success to a demanding fanbase. SYDNEY ROOSTERS Round one South Sydney v Sydney Roosters, Monday March 5, 7pm (EDT), ANZ Stadium Premiership odds: $21 (Odds supplied by TAB Sportsbet; correct on February 23) Just two years after the Roosters made a scintilating run to the grand final, it's hard to imagine how they've slipped all the way back to a rebuilding phase; but that's where they find themselves. Bondi was the scene for soap opera after soap opera last year, with Todd Carney the headline act more often than not. With the likes of Carney and Nate Myles leaving the club for one reason or another, the Roosters' list has less distractions; crucially, it also features less talent. With that in mind, it will be up to experienced players such as Braith Anasta and Mitchell Pearce to pilot consistent performances, in the hope that Daniel Mortimer will rediscover his best form at his new home and that the most exciting youngster in the game, Tautau Moga, has an immediate impact. WARRIORS Round one Warriors v Manly, Sunday March 4, Midday (EDT), Eden Park Premiership odds: $9 (Odds supplied by TAB Sportsbet; correct on February 23) The Warriors provided the fairytale story for 2011, and, with a handful of the best young talent in the competition, they will feel they have plenty of improvement left in them. Shaun Johnson is set to rise to the top bracket of NRL players, but there will be some sense of urgency to achieve success in 2012 with his partnership with James Maloney coming to an end at the end of this year. The challenge for the Warriors is to continue their upward trajectory under a new coach. Ivan Cleary was a calming influence over a sometimes erratic group of players. Can Brian McClennan provide the same soothing influence or will his coaching methods derail the club's development? WESTS TIGERS Round one Wests Tigers v Cronulla, Sunday March 4, 2pm (EDT), Leichhardt Oval Premiership odds: $6 (Odds supplied by TAB Sportsbet; correct on February 23) The Tigers are most people's premiership favourites and, with Benji Marshall declaring he's ready to have his best year yet, it's not hard to understand why. While Benji's individual performance will go a long way to deciding the Tigers' fate this year, embedding a consistent partnership with Tim Moltzen will be every bit as vital. With the heat on for the Tigers to capitalise on an incredibly talented list, the big challenge for veteran coach Tim Sheens will be keeping his charges on an even keel and building the confidence of a forward pack that welcomes Adam Blair but is likely to feel the losses of Bryce Gibbs and Andrew Fifita.