Andrew Voss gives us his predictions for the 2017 Telstra Premiership season, points out who is under the most pressure heading into kick-off, and gives his views on the World Club Series and the Auckland Nines.

Welcome back!

The NRL is on the way back and in the words of Austin Powers, "Yeah baby!"

In my final column for last season I left with a tip for Melbourne to win the grand final.

What could have been... but for me one of the highlights of an amazing night for the Cronulla Sharks was the speech of the losing captain, Cameron Smith.

Never has a beaten skipper been so gracious and eloquent, nor had the appreciation of the history of the game and the moment.

And despite never having been a Sharks fan, I still haven't tired of hearing "Up Up Cronulla".

We all follow such a great sport, and that was such a special way to finish the 2016 Telstra Premiership season. By the following weekend I was missing rugby league already. We had the Four Nations to occupy a few weeks, but I think this off-season has gone long enough.

This is going to be a mighty year for rugby league with the last game, the World Cup final, not until December 2 in Brisbane.

That's nine months away!!!

Tips time

So, as I finished my column last year with a tip (albeit a losing one), let me hop back on the horse and take a stab at some of the big events in 2017.

Having originally thought the Canberra Raiders might break through and win the premiership, providing us with an eighth different premier in as many years, I've now settled on the North Queensland Cowboys for the big one in 2017.

What's more, it could be the most sensational year in the sensational career of Johnathan Thurston.

I am predicting JT will be on deck when Queensland win the State of Origin series again; a series that may also bring the curtain down on the careers in maroon of some of their greats.

And from what I saw at the Four Nations, Australia will start hot favourites again for the Rugby League World Cup, with Thurston front and centre for the Kangaroos.

Maybe even throw in another Dally M.

Can he handle all that weight of expectation? He has before. That's what champions do.

Don't MISS the Action against the Storm at BELMORE!

Who is under the most pressure?

Well let's be honest, they're all under pressure. Every player, coach and team. The referees, the Bunker… commentators.

But we all start with a clean slate and, in terms of the teams, all level on zero points.

So right from the get go I reckon obviously the new champions Cronulla are going to feel a pressure that they haven't experienced before.

For the stats-minded, of the previous six defending premiers only the Roosters in 2014 opened the new season with a loss.

The Warriors, with a terrific roster, have to be feeling the heat. They haven't played finals football now since 2011, and bad starts have become a disturbing trend.

This is the recent history Stephen Kearney's team is looking to avoid. In 2012 they managed to win only two of their first six. In 2013 it was one of seven. In 2014 it was two of seven. In 2015, the Warriors won three of their first eight. And last year it was two from their first six. It's unflattering stuff.

But number one right now in the pressure stakes - and last Sunday's Charity Shield performance didn't help - is St George Illawarra.

The Dragons' much maligned attack needs to come up with better than what they offered against the Rabbitohs.

They are coming off a season where only the wooden spooners scored less points in averaging just 14 points a game. That number has to improve or there'll be little fire from the Dragons this year.

What did we learn from the World Club Challenge?

Wigan's victory over Cronulla and Warrington's win against Brisbane reinforced how important these matches are to the sport in the UK, but not necessarily to fans here in Australia and New Zealand.

The press coverage in the UK of the dual local wins was priceless. 

So do we have a role to play in the promotion of the sport over there? I say yes, and if that means a five-year roster for clubs scheduling pre-season trips to participate in a World Club Series, then so be it.

It shouldn't be the duty of just a few.

What should we do with the Nines?

I'm a fan of the Auckland Nines as a way of starting each season. I'm also a supporter of the event being staged in Auckland.

However I don't believe we should have the tournament anywhere in 2018 on the back of so many players being involved with World Cup duties at the end of this year.

To play with potentially so many stars absent will diminish the product.

And as someone who has spent plenty of time calling football across the Tasman, I believe a year away would help in reigniting interest in the event in Auckland.

Even annual rugby union sevens tournaments in New Zealand have gone stale after a few years in terms of crowd support.

Just a thought.

Wall-to-wall rugby league

Next Monday night, Fox League will open for business and what a big moment it is for the sport.

A dedicated 24-hour channel that means subscribers can tune into rugby league content every minute of every day, on top of what was achieved last season when Fox Sports screened every match live during the regular season for the first time.

Of all the new shows, I'm particularly taken by what will screen on Sunday nights each week, League Legends with Tim Sheridan.

Sherro is one of the best journalists and storytellers I have ever worked with in my time in the media and will be in the chair opposite some of the true greats and personalities of our game.

Not too many sleeps to go and we're back into it.

Giddy Up!

This article first appeared on NRL.com