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RugbyL: Australia's NRL season opens under doping shadow

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

South Sydney and Sydney Roosters kick off Australia's 2013 National Rugby League season Thursday against a backdrop of six clubs under investigation for alleged doping and potential links with organised crime.

NRL officials will be relieved to finally get the season underway after a series of unwanted headlines, further tarnished by the suspension of poster boy Ben Barba by his Canterbury club over behavioural issues.

Last month, the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) published an explosive report after a year-long probe with the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) and six NRL clubs were identified along with other sports.

Those clubs named in the ACC report were Manly, Canberra, Newcastle, North Queensland, Penrith and Cronulla.

A meeting of club chief executives have pledged to work with the new NRL integrity unit in an across-the-board fight against drugs in the sport.

If that wasn't bad enough, Barba, who won the Dally M medal as the player of the 2012 season and was to be a key figure in the promotion of the code leading into this season, was stood down by the Bulldogs.

The Canterbury fullback's career is at the crossroads as medical experts work on a course of action that will get his life back on track amid reports of alcohol, gambling and domestic problems and a loss of interest in the game.

On the field there will be keen interest in the rugby league return of Sonny Bill Williams after a spell in rugby union where he became a World Cup winner with the All Blacks in 2011.

Williams has had plenty on his plate ahead of this season, winning a World Boxing Association (WBA) title fight last month as well as overcoming knee injury concerns and a surgically repaired pectoral muscle to make his debut for the Roosters after playing with the Bulldogs from 2004-08.

He will take his place on the interchange bench in Thursday's season opener against the Russell Crowe co-owned Rabbitohs, who have one of the game's superstars in fullback Greg Inglis.

Apart from the signing of Williams, the Roosters have built up considerably in the off-season with the recruitment of NSW Origin centre Michael Jennings from Penrith and representative forward Luke O'Donnell from the Cowboys.

Newly-crowned World Club champions Melbourne Storm are favourites to defend their NRL title and launch their season against St George Illawarra Dragons at home on Sunday.

The Storm's international triumvirate of skipper Cameron Smith, fullback Billy Slater and scrum-half Cooper Cronk will again be influential this season as Melbourne seek their third official NRL title.

Des Hasler's Canterbury Bulldogs, although missing the mercurial Barba, have one of the biggest forward packs in the competition following the acquisition of explosive backrower Tony Williams from coach Hasler's former club Manly.

Manly, the 2011 champions, Brisbane Broncos, bolstered by the signing of scrum-half Scott Prince, and Wayne Bennett's Newcastle Knights are other clubs expected to be in the running for the title.

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