RUGBY LEAGUE

Burgess provides boost to Rabbitoh's title hopes

The former Bath forward is back at the club where he won the 2014 championship after a short stint in union in the English Premier League.

Burgess provides boost to Rabbitoh's title hopes

The return of Sam Burgess and the waiving of millions of dollars in loans by their celebrity owners have boosted South Sydney's title chances when the new Australian National Rugby League season kicks off on Thursday.  Englishman Burgess, 27, quit the Rabbitohs after their memorable title win in 2014 to switch codes and play rugby union in Britain, but following England's disastrous World Cup last year he decided to return to Australia.

Burgess was criticised for heading back to the NRL just 12 months into his three-year deal with Bath. The English club's coach Mike Ford claimed Burgess "didn't have the stomach" to stay and fight.

But Burgess, who inspired the Rabbitohs to their first premiership in 43 years after having his cheekbone shattered in the opening tackle of the 2014 decider against the Canterbury Bulldogs, believes his stint in English rugby union has made him a tougher player.

"The politics in the game are far more than you find in this game and you learn that as a player," he said. I learned so many different things -- not so much technical things in terms that the games are so different -- but I spent a lot of time working on my passing game in union, and my kicking game."

The other significant news for Souths came this week with wealthy backers, Hollywood actor Russell Crowe and casino billionaire James Packer, waiving Aus$7 million (US$5 million) in loans to the once financially-embattled club.

The Rabbitohs are now in a healthy financial position heading into the 2016 season at a time when they have more members (29,401) than any other club in the NRL.

Souths, under coach Michael Maguire, are sixth favourites with bookmakers for the NRL title behind new England coach Wayne Bennett's Brisbane Broncos, runners-up behind the North Queensland Cowboys in last year's electric grand final. Test superstar Johnathan Thurston landed a drop goal in golden point extra time to give the Cowboys a nerve-tingling 17-16 win over the Broncos for their first premiership crown.

The New Zealand Warriors have built considerably over the off-season with the recruitment of South Sydney's Kiwi international hooker Issac Luke and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck from the Sydney Roosters to join fit-again Shaun Johnson, the 2014 Golden Boot winner as the world's best player.

The Roosters have been shaken by the off-field shenanigians of their star scrum-half Mitchell Pearce, who lost the club captaincy and faces a suspension after video footage showed him simulating a lewd act with a dog in a drunken state in late January.

Pearce, who has played for New South Wales at Origin level, only returned home this week after a four week-stint in a Thailand rehabilitation centre for alcohol addiction.

Other strong title contenders loom in the shape of the Manly Sea Eagles, Melbourne Storm and Canterbury Bulldogs, while the strengthened Parramatta Eels launch the new season against the Broncos on Thursday.