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Rising to the challenge

Brian McDermott, Keiron Cunningham, Kevin Sinfield, Clint Greenshields and Ryan O'Hara

By George Riley
BBC Radio 5 Live rugby league expert

I sense a genuine belief in the game that Super League XIV will be the most competitive and exciting competition to date.

The Rugby Football League has again led by example with its groundbreaking initiatives, and the new 14-club licence system - plus eight-club play-offs - should enhance an already blossoming sport.

Matt Diskin
Diskin might find his opportunities more limited this season
Whether any club is yet ready to break the recent stranglehold of Leeds and St Helens, however, is another matter.

There was certainly an ominous air when I popped in for a pre-season chat with Leeds coach Brian McClennan.

The club's minimalist recruitment policy underlines a fervent belief in their squad. Hooker Danny Buderus and Greg Eastwood add real go-forward, although you have to feel pretty sorry for Matt Diskin. 'Disco' will get his chance early on as Buderus gets himself fit, but he will then have to force his way in from the bench.

The loss of Nick Scruton to Bradford may make the dressing room a little quieter, while you wonder how effectively they will fill the void left by Gareth Ellis. There'll be a lot more responsibility placed on the shoulders on Jamie Jones-Buchanan this season.

Look out, too, for youngsters Ben Jones-Bishop and Kallum Watkins to step up. They will undoubtedly get their chance with McClennan telling me that by Easter this year there will be more injured players than ever before because the off-season recovery time has simply been too short.

If the Super League title was awarded on the amount of fun had at training, then St Helens would be almost untouchable. If this is a side psychologically scarred by successive Grand Final failures against Leeds, then I'll be packing down at prop for England later this year.

James Roby calls the prospect of losing to Leeds in three successive finals "his worst nightmare", while Jon Wilkin shrugged off the latest disappointment as only one game. True, but it was a pretty important game.

Not only has coach Daniel Anderson made way for Mick Potter, but on-field leaders Mike Bennett, Paul Sculthorpe and Willie Talau have all gone. "Sometimes that's a good thing," says Paul Wellens. "It breeds enthusiasm. Young guys come in and give us a lift."

Bradford head into what they openly admit is a "new era" for the club. They've not lifted any silverware since beating Leeds in the 2005 Grand Final and have seen Iestyn Harris, Joe Vagana, Shontayne Hape and Lesley Vainikolo leave.

The team has talked a lot about leadership, and Paul Deacon will shoulder most responsibility as captain. "Deacs" is one of the old heads now and says this pre-season has been his best ever.

A fifth-place finish last season came despite an horrendous run of injuries. Coach Steve McNamara says his side had to "fight, bite and scratch" just to make the play-offs, so the return of Sam Burgess is huge, while the acquisition of the most prolific try-scoring forward in the modern game, Steve Menzies, is a big coup.

A pack with Menzies, Burgess and Glenn Morrison is just about as good as it gets. Greg Bird's not a bad signing either and the Bulls should make the top four.

Steve Menzies
Menzies comes to Super League with a tremendous track record

So, too, should Wigan. Their chances will rest a lot on how well they cope with the departure of Trent Barrett, although the way they ended last season bodes well.

Brian Noble tells me he has some way to go to make Wigan great again, but as ever he has recruited well. Amos Roberts is the big-name arrival on the wing, but look out for powerful new hooker Mark "Piggy" Riddell.

Noble says the team who tops Super League this year will be the team who goes on the longest winning run. If that is to be Wigan, they must learn how to beat the lesser teams.

James Lowes says Warrington must be much more ruthless at home if they are to threaten. Lowes won Super League three times as a player and starts his first full season as a top-flight coach. The Wolves made the play-offs last year but disappointed over the course of the season.

Lowes has made two shrewd signings in Mickey Higham and Gareth Carvell. There is real pace on the wings in Chris Riley and Kevin Penny, but whether this team believes it can really compete for silverware is my major concern.

Mick Potter turned the Catalans Dragons from unpredictable new boys into formidable powerhouses in no time at all. How much of that was down to Potter we will find out now Kevin Walters has taken over.

I think the Dragons will struggle to match their third-place finish last season, but should be a top-six side. Stephen Bell and Jason Ryles are top signings, while full-back Clint Greenshields is an outside bet to finish top tryscorer.

While Wigan, Bradford, Warrington and Catalans are fancied as those most likely to threaten Leeds and Saints, the big talking in pre-season has come from the coaches of Harlequins and Hull KR.

Both Quins coach Brian McDermott and Robins boss Justin Morgan say their aim is to win Super League XIV. A terrific aim to have, but it won't happen.

When big Mac told me of his goal, I asked if that was his message to the players. "No," he said. "That's the message they've conveyed to me." I like Mac, and his talk is refreshing. It's clearly a case of aiming for the moon and hoping to land among the stars.

Captain Rob Purdham reckons this is the best squad he's been part of at Quins. I can't wait to see Louis McCarthy-Scarsbrook's development after four months out last year while, with Henry Paul, Scotty Hill and Mark McLinden all going, the return of Luke Dorn is massive.

Although they won't fulfil Mac's goal to win the competition, they should be a play-off certainty.

Chris Thorman
Thorman needs to hit the ground running at Hull FC
Hull KR's seventh-placed finish in just their second season back was an "underachievement" according to the players I've spoken to. Justin Morgan's recruited really well this winter.

Nick Fozzard comes in from Saints, while Liam Colbon's signing from Wigan is shrewd. I was massively impressed by him and more than a little surprised that, after keeping Mark Calderwood out of the side, he was told he had no future at the JJB.

Several Super League coaches have told me the Celtic Crusaders, who have gone from National League Two to Super League in three seasons, will surprise a few people this year. They may do at home, but I fear a little for them on their travels.

The visa delays in Australia mean a couple of their new boys will still be trying to remember their team-mates' names at Headingley on Friday.

Like the Catalans Dragons, the club's hopes are built on a massive front row. Mark Bryant, Adam Peek and Ryan O'Hara are all monsters. I like the signing of former St Helens back Ste Tyrer, too.

If Warrington have points to prove, then both Hull FC and Huddersfield certainly do. Aside from Castleford, Hull were the worst side in Super League last year, a run to the Challenge Cup final their one silver lining.

One of the main reasons for FC's shortcomings last season, according to Shaun Berrigan, was their inability to find a settled half-back pairing, so the arrival from Huddersfield of Chris Thorman is key.

With Mark Calderwood on one wing and Gareth Raynor on the other (once he recovers from surgery), they will have the kind of threat that should turn bottom-of-the-table fodder into play-off pedigree. If Michael Crocker can overturn his visa refusal that will be a massive boost. Watch out, too, for prop Sam Moa, who is an absolute animal.

New Giants coach Nathan Brown, who admits he knows next to nothing about some of his new players, is highly rated and has made Brett Hodgson his new captain. One to watch, the Aussie full-back is a very good organiser and runner.

Michael Korkidas arrives at Huddersfield off the back of probably his worst season so has a massive point to prove, while Simon Finnigan will add tries from the pack. There's some exciting young talent coming through as well. Huddersfield simply have to make the play-offs this year, and I expect they will.

The shock death of Adam Watene still dominates the thoughts of the Wakefield staff. John Kear told me even he has no idea how the players will react in the heat of battle without the gentle giant.

Kear has opted for stability, bringing in James Stosic, a powerful defence-scattering forward, and re-signing Steve Snitch. Dave Halley also arrives on loan. Snitch has thankfully sorted himself out somewhere to live this time. When he joined Wakefield as a youngster, he lived in a portacabin at the ground!

Ray Cashmere
Cashmere is one of a string of new signings for Salford
Hard work has got Wakefield a top-eight finish for two years on the spin. Do that again and they are playing play-off football.

That, in a nutshell, is what Kear has told his players. Injuries to Ryan Atkins and Danny Brough rob them of two key men for the first month or so, although Brough tells me he is a fortnight ahead of schedule.

That leaves Castleford and Salford, who cynics may suggest have been left to the end for good reason. Not so.

Salford have recruited well in signing Willie Talau, Rob Parker, Ray Cashmere, Mark Henry, Jeremy Smith and Luke Swain. I understand Parker quit Warrington because he was sick of playing prop and wanted to play second row, so it will be interesting to see where coach Shaun McRae plays him.

Talau hinted he felt undervalued at St Helens and perhaps didn't get the credit he deserved in a team of superstars. McRae's targeted a play-off place and has already flexed his muscles by stripping Malcolm Alker of the captaincy. I think his top-eight goal is optimistic.

Castleford have been up one season, down the next since 2004, so the new licence system gives them a chance to stabilise.

Their overhaul of playing staff, however, has been the most radical in Super League. Awen Guttenbeil, Andrew Henderson, Luke Dorn, Peter Lupton and Scott Moore are all gone; in come new captain Ryan Hudson, Chris Feather, Stuart Jones, Sione Faumuina, Dean Widders and Rangi Chase, a real rising star from St George.

The Tigers have done very to keep hold of their own risings stars - Joe Westerman and Michael Shenton - both of whom I would have picked for the World Cup. If I was coach Terry Materson, I would be quietly pretty excited about the new season.


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